Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Spring the restaurant

Spring restaurant

There's a freshly-picked quince on the table. It's there because it's seasonal, its fragrance is exquisite and it is on the menu.  This is my second visit and it's a good start.

The arrival is undeniably grand.  The long stone-flagged corridor in the West Wing of Somerset House, which used to echo to the footfall of scuttling civil servants, now directs diners in their best shoes to the door of Spring.  High ceilings; graceful windows; white cornicing; and a perfect shade of duck egg blue on the walls.  The cool blue and white theme is enhanced by ethereal artworks composed of white porcelain petals.  The space, warmed by caramel-coloured chairs and a little smokey-hued glass here and there.  A single, unfussy but thrilling, seasonal flower vase sits in the perfect place to arrest the eye and stop you scanning the whole vast space of the room in one go.  There's plenty of time.  You don't come here just to grab lunch.

Salad of quince, celeriac, cobnuts with Fern Verrow leaves and tarragon dressing
at Spring restaurant

We're celebrating so, today we put aside the Set Lunch menu.  Agnolotti of buffalo ricotta, spinach and tomato with marjoram butter looks just like what it is, a plate of pasta.  Surely one of the most difficult of foods to arrange on a plate.  But the aromas and flavours of its ingredients are excellent and the pasta is perfectly cooked.  The seasonal quince makes its appearance baked to a caramelised softness in a Salad of quince, celeriac, cobnuts with Fern Verrow leaves and tarragon dressing.  Juicy, crunchy, aromatic, Autumn on a plate.

Wild halibut with spinach, chilli and preserved lemon dressing
at Spring restaurant

That appetite piquing salad was the perfect lead-in to Wild halibut, spinach, chilli and preserved lemon dressing.  At £34 this dish was pushing the boat out, but worth every penny.  A thick tranche of succulent flaky, firm textured expertly cooked fish, vibrant vegetables, and the sweet/sour pep of the lemon dressing.  I only wish my photograph did it justice.  And how could you not be happy when someone puts a meltingly perfect Slow-cooked pork with girolles, datterini tomatoes and polenta in front of you on a blustery October day?

Slow cooked pork with girolles, datterini and polenta
at Spring restaurant

Again my photograph does not fully convey the meltingly tender 2 cuts of meat, the intense jus and the smoky girolles - this is my idea of comfort food. We finished on Buttermilk panna cotta with damson ice cream and wood sorrel. The panna cotta here formed the base of the dish, its richness cut by damsons served as both syrup and ice cream.  A few leaves of the freshest wood sorrel added a lemon note and a buttery biscuit gave texture. Given my own fig leaf ice cream experiments, the lure of Fig and spelt galette with roasted fig leaf ice cream hooked me.  Right at the end of the fig season, the fruit was a little jammy but suited the crunch of the spelt pastry, and the caramel running through the ice cream made for a lovely version.

Buttermilk panna cotta with damson ice cream and wood sorrel
at Spring restaurant

The front of house staff seem to effortlessly pull off a focussed yet relaxed attentiveness which produces just the right level of cosseting.  It's a well drilled team who can engage with diners who want to talk about the dishes.    

Spring is the creation of chef Skye Gyngell.  Her book 'Spring the cookbook' details what a labour of love it was.  I confess I never ate at the Petersham Nurseries Cafe where she made her name.  I know the Michelin star she was awarded there didn't sit comfortably on her shoulders and she has declared she'd rather never have another.  On both my visits here she has been in the kitchen and, judging by the cooking, I'd say she has cause to be very happy with what she is achieving.  The best ingredients, not necessarily the most expensive ingredients, are the foundation of her cooking.  For me the best chefs are those who maintain a link to the land and a feeling for the basics.  Gyngell sources from producers like biodynamic farmers Fern Verrow and shows an enthusiasm for making in-house breads, butters, yoghurt, ricotta, ferments and cordials.

This, I think, is a special occasion restaurant but there is a Set Lunch menu at £27.50 two course; £31.50 for three.  Portions are generous and it's good value for cooking at this level.  We could have chosen from Starters including a Fern Verrow salad, mains of Spatchcock quail or Onglet with a slice of Apple Tart to finish.  On a previous visit in June we ate from it very happily.  Including service, expect to pay around £75 per person a la carte with a couple of glasses of wine or £55 if eating from the set menu.

Fig and spelt galette with roasted fig leaf ice cream
at Spring restaurant

There is also a less formal, adjacent, Salon at Spring serving a simple menu and aimed particularly at those looking for a little something pre- or post-theatre.

For me, having sampled summer and autumn, roll on winter and spring for those set lunches - or maybe I can find another reason to celebrate.  

Somerset House
Lancaster Place
London WC2R 1LA
Tel: 020 3011 0115

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Autumn arrives on Plot 45

Seed saving - Sunflowers

Rays of late summer sun pierced the canopy of the tree.  The shady path curved gently right, its rough surface dancing with light and shade as a spirited wind whipped through the branches.  A handful of what looked like freckled limes littered the way stopping me in my tracks.  Walnuts, their fibrous, leathery casings showing signs of exploration by sharp-toothed or strong-beaked harvesters.  Swiftly I bagged them up.  In truth, my expectations were low - too early, too green, too fibrous perhaps.  On into early autumn, each walk down this path was accompanied by a nonchalant sweep of the ground for bounty.  Each time, taking the path that skirts the warm stone wall of the priory, I passed through the creaking gate into the sanctuary of the allotments.

Walnut harvest

Now we are really into autumn and each plot offers a little treasure as I pass by - a handful of lovage seeds to the right; the dried umbelliferae of fennel to the left; stiff sculptural poppy pods over there; and  decapitated heads of sunflowers atop a compost heap here.  On my own plot there are beans and pumpkin seeds to be saved, and I have my eye on a particularly beautiful nasturtium that has crept across from my neighbour.

Sunflower - Old Rusty

If I've learned anything since taking on this plot 9 years ago, it's that no two growing years are ever the same.  Just because something grew well one year does not mean it will thrive the next and the crop that did badly last year may well surprise you this.  In 2015 the stars have been the legumes and soft fruit, but leaves and beetroots have faired badly.  The herb bed is still looking fantastic, though for some reason parsley didn't thrive at all.  Yes, everything has gone if not yet to seed then certainly to flower, so goodbye to pungency.  And soon we'll be hit by frosts, meaning goodbye to the ritual of gathering bouquets as I leave the plot.  What's certain is however good a gardener you think you are, nature will always put you in your place.

Borlotti beans

So, you may as well take some chances, because you never know how things are going to turn out.  Which is why I've taken on the extra strip nobody seemed to want.  Unloved, uncultivated, dumped on and neglected, this hillocky patch of nettle infested ground is now mine.  Which is why, right now, I'm so often to be found chasing back nettle roots and levelling ground under this glorious autumn sun and praying for the weather to hold.

Herbs and Kabocha

I say it's mine but there are sitting tenants.  The field mice nesting low down in the base of the heaps.  Each time my hand hovers over a soft, furry bundle guilt overcomes me and I move on, leaving it to snuggle back down.  The squirrels treat it as a larder, their stash of walnuts far exceeding anything I managed to accumulate.  I'd like to take them home - the nuts I mean - but that guilt thing kicks-in and I carefully pile them up on one side of the plot like a helpful dinner lady.

Seed Saving - Poppies

But this beautifully prepared bed isn't for fruit or vegetables.  Maybe I'm mad, but I'm planning on roses.  Biodynamic roses.  Maybe, at last, I'll make rose petal jam.


Oh, and those walnuts?  Well worth amassing a stash.