Culinary Wars

“Parochial: having limited or narrow outlook and scope.” Reacting to something another critic says in print seems almost touchingly retro, a shoring up of the collective delusion that anyone any longer actually cares about or is influenced by an opinion aired in a newspaper. A spat between a film critic and a food writer seems of Lilliputian significance, the definition of a shrill parochialism which still insists that someone, anyone might be listening. But the review of Australian chef Skye Gyngell’s new restaurant at Somerset House by Sunday Times writer Camilla Long was so vituperatively foul, and the response of veteran gourmet Matthew Fort so scabbard-flashingly gallant that one couldn’t help peering into the playground to see if anyone got hurt. Ms Long’s views on Spring, Gyngell’s first permanent London offering, were less a restaurant review than a vicious personal attack, while Mr Fort weighed in with the comment that her piece was “a singular mixture of bile, ignorance and stupidity”. Any restaurant which provokes such powerful reactions in two highly talented writers had to be worth eating at.

Trained in Paris and a former Vogue food editor, Skye Gyngell opened a restaurant at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond in 2004 with the express intention of creating the “antithesis” of a West End experience. The West End schlepped out to Surrey in droves, followed by the Michelin inspectors, who awarded Gyngell a star in 2011. Gyngell resigned from Petersham a year later with the bravely controversial remark that the star was a “curse”, a view she has since retracted but which one feels might be privately shared by many chefs who feel the accolade creates unfeasible and distracting aspirations in their customers.

Gyngell is a cook who is passionate about simplicity and flavour, which she claims ought to “whisper rather than roar”, and who was committed to ethical and seasonal sourcing of ingredients long before it became de rigueur. In a sense, her aesthetic might be deemed parochial, in that she strictly limits her dishes to what is timely and constructs her menus accordingly, a point which Ms Long, in sneering at this “ingredients-led” approach, willfully misunderstood. Of course all menus are ingredients-led, but it is the rigour of Gyngell’s approach which made her cooking so successful at Petersham: one thinks of Coco Chanel’s maxim that true elegance is refusal. 

Somerset House as we know it today stands on the site of the old Tudor palace where a young Princess Elizabeth received William Cecil in secret months before her accession. The present design, conceived as an “ornament to the nation” by its architect Sir William Chambers in the 1770s, was determinedly fresh and modern.

Spring retains a touch of 18th-century spirit, that combination of strict classical lines with a whimsical femininity which is unafraid of charm. A small and rather enchanting indoor garden with full-size trees opens into a broad space with walls lined in pale duck-egg blue fabric (which calms what could otherwise be a difficult acoustic, a necessity too often overlooked in big London venues), a strict white marble bar like a huge slab of blue cheese closes one end, and the walls are unadorned save for flurries of white petals like Fragonard butterflies. This is a pretty, fresh room whose design is a lot cleverer than it looks. The hostesses are in slubby linen smocks, the servers in clam-diggers and Breton stripes, a get-up which Ms Long found irritating and humiliating, but if you’re going to have your staff in uniform, why not make it cheerful and holidayish? Better a functional cotton tee than a depressing nylon blouse, and our charming waitress did not appear to feel demeaned by her practical trousers and cool canvas trainers (from Bensimon in Paris). At least, she said her work clothes gave her a “warm fuzzy feeling”. The décor and the clothes did conjour a sort of metropolitan fête champêtre mood, which however archly contrived was at least a refreshing change from the brash luxe or faux urban austerity which have characterised many new openings of late. It was pleasing to see a thoughtful space instead of yet another exposed sodding pipe. I was also glad to note that the kitchen is where it should be, that is, invisible. If you want to see dirty pans and have your hair smell of cooking fat, you can always stay in.

As always, I wanted to try everything, so we wildly ordered three starters: ravioli of potato with porcini and sage, croquettes of salt cod with aioli and rocket, and tagliolini with fresh white truffle. Ms Long’s characterisation of the food as “offensively ordinary” was absolutely off the mark.  The first two dishes allowed the flavour of the potato to sing without being starchy, the pasta combining a slightly acidic hint of lemon achieved with a touch of fresh ricotta with the rich, woody depth of the sage and the croquettes delightfully cloudy, with a soft, tempura puffiness. The tagliolini were the best I have tried outside Piedmont. Squab with girolles and spinach came with encouraging finger-bowls, so that one didn’t feel self-conscious about probing and slurping at the peppery, savoury juice collected beneath the little bird’s bones.

Decent people might have stopped there, but we went on to a tagliata-style sirloin with deep-fried artichokes, radicchio and chimichurri, the bitter leaves contrasting perfectly with the salt blood of the meat and the garlicky depth of the sauce. Gyngell is particularly brilliant at coaxing excitement from vegetables — I never honestly thought I could get enthused about cabbage, but the winter greens with chili, porcini and a hint of tamari were so sherbety and surprising that we practically licked the plate. In fact in a dinner which didn’t strike a single false note, the cabbage provided perhaps the most subtle and elegant layering of flavours, extraordinarily impressive when there are Alba truffles in the building. With two glasses of Saumur-Champigny, a treat at £13 each, the bill came to a steep £187, but without the expensively greedy white truffle starter and with a modest bottle of wine from the thoughtful and very reasonable list one might get away with £150 for two at dinner — certainly expensive, but not excessive by London standards.

Spring is a joy, not least because it is situated on the Strand, in one of those weird no-man’s lands of the capital, between the franchise horrors of the South Bank and Covent Garden. Hopefully it will survive, beyond the yakking and bitching, as it deserves to, to become one of the finest restaurants in the parish.  

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