Australian chef Greg Malouf's modern take on Middle Eastern cooking is transforming the restaurant at the Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, Surrey. Kerstin Kühn went to visit
The Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond has to be one of the most idyllic places to go for lunch, giving city-dwelling Londoners the chance to get a taste of the country. The walk from Richmond station that leads along the banks of the Thames and through a lush green field, may be best enjoyed on a sunny day, but the garden centre, with its dirt floor, mismatched chairs and rickety tables, is charming no matter what the weather.
Owners Gael and Francesco Boglione took over the centre in 2004 and started a café in one of the old greenhouses, putting Australian chef Skye Gyngell in charge. Her Mediterranean-inspired cooking put the Petersham firmly on the foodie map and in 2011 the restaurant, which serves lunch five days a week, gained a Michelin star.
But the French guide's mark of approval apparently pulled in the wrong kind of crowd, in search of white tablecloths and unable to bear the rustic greenhouse setting. The accolade quickly turned into a curse for Gyngell and in March this year she decided it was all too much and left.
Her successor, fellow Aussie Greg Malouf, joined in April, having previously been a guest chef at the Petersham. Famous for his modern take on Middle Eastern cuisine, the chef and cookery book author was born to Lebanese parents and after serving his formal apprenticeship in Melbourne went on to work in France, Italy, Austria and Hong Kong before setting up O'Connell's in Melbourne in 1991. In 2001, he joined the city's MoMo as executive chef, which he continued to run until earlier this year.
So how's he found the move to London? "Apart from the weather it's been wonderful," he says. "The Petersham is such a lovely environment to work in. We grow herbs, edible flowers and have a vegetable garden and at the moment we've even got wild strawberries and raspberries, which are beautiful."
Malouf describes his cooking style as ‘Middle Eastern food seen through my eyes' and he's slowly starting to introduce the region's flavours and techniques at the restaurant.
"It's all about a balance between what I do and what the Petersham stands for," he explains. This means old staples remain on the weekly-changing menu, including a starter of burrata (£14.50) in which the gorgeous creamy cheese is served on toasted bread with Sicilian tomatoes, offering a summery taste of southern Europe.
Starters which better reflect the chef's Middle Eastern heritage include grilled langoustines, ras el hanout, lenticchie, datterini and samphire (£16.50); and salad-e Shiraz with edible flowers (£10.50). "Shiraz is a town in Iran where a lot of flowers are grown," he explains. "It's a herb salad with baby vegetables like turnip, carrot and cucumber and edible flowers from the nursery, served with a mint dressing."
The main course of duck bistayeea (£27.50) is a signature dish and a constant on the menu. It's a sweet and spicy Moroccan pie made with warka pastry and dusted with cinnamon icing sugar. Inside the tender duck meat is blended with an egg custard with almond, coriander and parsley. An accompanying white cabbage salad offsets the richness of the pie.
Onto desserts and Malouf's favourite is the organic rose petal panna cotta with Comice pears (£8). "When panna cotta is made perfectly it's a belly dance on the plate," he enthuses. "It's so simple but so beautiful to eat."
The chef says it's been a fairly smooth transition for him. "It didn't take me long to find what I needed. There are lots of pockets of the Middle East here and spices, aromatics and pulses and grains are readily available," he says.
Malouf may still be making his mark on the restaurant but his arrival and modern Middle Eastern food are a welcome addition not just to the Petersham but the London restaurant scene too.
Church Lane, Off Petersham Lane, Richmond, Surrey TW10 7AG
020 8940 5230
Sample dishes from the menu
Pressed chicken liver terrine with Egyptian spices, prosciutto & bruschetta £11.50 Scottish lobster salad with white taramasalata, roasted onion & orzo pasta £19.50 Kibbeh Nayee - Lebanese beef fillet tartare with burghul, mint, labneh & pickled chillies £12
Lamb loin on the bone with Persian aubergine & organic chickpeas £29.50 Roasted halibut with borlotti beans, datterini, peas & grains £28 White asparagus, braised garlic, lemon, coriander dressing & a soft cooked egg £19
Rich cinnamon chocolate mousse, creme fraiche & honey wafer £8 New season Kent strawberry granita & arabesque wafer £8 Teddington cheese - Cremit - English goats' milk washed rind cheese £9
Photo credit: David Loftus