London has a number of places that defy normal logic as an environment to eat. I’m sure that it won’t be too long before London Zoo has a fine dining restaurant – ‘no animals from the menagerie, madam’ – and that the more recherché art galleries have some sort of canapés that would make the keenest of critics describe them as ‘a touch Rothko, or maybe a soupcon Jackson Pollock, wouldn’t you say?’ However, it is the Garden Museum in Lambeth that is arguably the capital’s most unexpected place to find a top-end place to dine. The Garden Café, situated literally a stone’s throw away from Lambeth Palace, feels like a contemplative and exceptionally relaxing place to enjoy a meal. That it has an unexpectedly diverse and unusual wine list is the icing on the cake.
It helps that this restaurant is in one of the best settings anywhere in town. The museum had a long period of refurbishment, courtesy of Dow Jones architects, and has now partially taken over the nearby (deconsecrated) churchyard, where none other than Captain Bligh, of Bounty fame (or infamy) is buried. The views, on a pleasant early spring evening, are splendid; it’s the sort of place that word quickly gets out about, albeit in a whispered and genteel fashion rather than being shouted from the rooftops. If your idea of a good evening is queueing in freezing temperatures to sample some bastardised concoction of two cultures’ food, you might be disappointed. This is something rather classier.
The Garden Café lives up to its name if you’re only in the mood for a cup of tea and something sweet, but it comes into its own if you’re dining properly. Open every day for lunch, and on Tuesday and Friday evenings, it has an unexpectedly modern feel to the menu, thanks to the chefs Harry Kaufman and George Ryle. The Ryle-Kaufman pedigree, as it shall henceforth never be referred to again, stems from the likes of Lyle’s, St John Bread and Wine and Padella, so you’ll know what to expect; simple, gutsy dishes with hearty flavours served with panache but without fuss.
Starters of chicken livers with hops and courgettes with salted ricotta are simple but delicious, and excellent value; the evening set menu, at £18 for two courses and £22 for three, is something of a steal, especially when you consider that the main courses of braised beef and cuttlefish with black rice could easily command that on the a la carte menu.
I’d been tipped off that there was an unusual and rather daring selection of wines, which – to my joy – are available by the small glass, the 500ml carafe and the bottle. And the tip off was accurate. A very unusual blend of white, the Purlio Blanco, had a citrus quality that made drinking it feel almost like having a heavier cider or lighter Calvados, and an organic Syrah/Gamay blend was suitably pungent and spicy.
We even braved a glass of the white Pedro Ximenez with dessert, which is nothing like the sweet sherry variety, but was a fittingly unusual end to a meal that, in all regards, surprised and challenged our expectations. So, when you’re next invited to dine in a garden museum, think outside the jokes about green fingers, and prepare to be have your expectations confounded.
The Garden Cafe, Garden Museum, 5 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB. For more information, visit www.gardenmuseum.org.uk.