Thursday, 11 September 2014
The Dysart, Petersham
Richmond is a very posh part of London. It is for this reason I was worried about accepting an invitation to eat there, because as you may have noticed, posh parts of the country and good restaurants do not often mix. When was the last time you had a decent meal in Hampstead, for example, or Chelsea? Or further afield in Beaconsfield or Weybridge? Henley or Harpenden? With very few exceptions (there is Bray, I suppose, though that's largely the work of one man), high property prices and good dinners out don't go together, whilst conversely the parts of town that show up blue on the house price heat maps boast some smashing value restaurants - Camberwell, Peckham, etc.
The only other time I'd been tempted on the 65 bus out to Richmond was when Petersham Nurseries (still the most famous restaurant in these parts) took on a new head chef and invited a bunch of bloggers/journalists to try it out. It wasn't bad, if you don't mind eating a lot of artfully arranged vegetables in a greenhouse, but I am never going to be in the target market for a £20 bowl of salad, nor the £4,000 chest of drawers they saw fit to attempt to flog in the same room, and so I never felt the desperate need to return under my own steam.
The Dysart though is a different prospect entirely. The menu contains a great big list of all my favourite things to eat, from veal sweetbreads to duck for two to crème brûlée; alongside the usual wine matching menu they have an option to try matching beers instead, which is pretty forward-looking; and there's an astonishingly reasonable set menu for around £20/head. It even has its own bus stop. I was convinced.
Of course I didn't actually ask for the £20 menu, I mean I'm not travelling an hour out of my comfort zone to do things by halves, so obviously we had the tasting menu, but the point is the £20 menu is an option, should you want it.
A tray of neatly lined-up nibbles kicked things off - from memory a little cheese/tomato biscuit, a deep-fried porky nugget topped with chilli, a surprising mint/lemon/polenta cube (refreshing and smooth) and (celestial fanfare) scallop nigiri topped with freshly shaved summer truffle. No prizes for guessing which my favourite was.
Next, bread (yes bread, that's a photo of some bread, just go with it), and this was really something. A soda bread of sorts, we were told, but I've never had soda bread quite like this, with a dark, biscuit-y crust encasing a moist, cakey inside. We did our best to leave some to accompany the next couple of courses but after barely a few seconds our resolve crumbled and we polished it off.
Charred mackerel with braised daikon, ginger and champagne married a lovely technique (I have never not enjoyed a soft piece of mackerel fillet with a smoky, crispy skin) with some clever Asian flavours. It was very pretty, too - just imagine something approaching the opposite of how my photography makes it look.
Local cep mushrooms were the main ingredient in this risotto of sorts, packing some deep, foresty flavours and bound with a silky sauce that I think might have involved chicken. It was very well presented, and miniature sprigs of "golden" oregano added a remarkably intense herby note, but it was all let down slightly by very underdone rice - not just slightly al dente but pretty crunchy. Still, you can see where they were going with it, and the rich flavours were enough to make up for the technical error.
Wild sea bass, crispy skin, bright white flaky flesh, everything as it should be, came in a very interesting "spiced curry leaf sauce", shocking deep green with a dense, earthy texture. Bok choi and kohlrabi kept the Asian fusion theme going, and it all added up to a hugely enjoyable dish, hard to fault at all.
The next course, beef in miso mustard sauce, was nothing if not experimental. Individually, all the elements were very impressive; a pink fillet of fine aged beef; a sticky, shiny puck of slow-roasted cheaper cut; swirls and curls of colourful heritage carrots. But though I loved the miso mustard sauce in of itself, it was way too powerful for the beef, and completely smothered the delicate meat with a blanket of vinegar and umami. But then having said that, I still enjoyed both the beef and the sauce, just not on the same forkful. Perhaps it would have worked better with a stronger, gamier protein like venison - who knows. Still, you have to admire their imagination.
Local damsons with peaches were full of colour and the joys of summer, even if my photo makes it look like something left over from a surgical procedure. Damsons, like gooseberries or elderberries, can't be intensively farmed, so it's always worth choosing them if you see them on a menu.
Desserts made sure the meal ended on a high - or rather, two highs. Valrhona chocolate and praline bar with miso salted caramel ice cream, well, you can imagine how good that was. The raspberries lined up neatly on top had a brilliant flavour, probably grown locally, and the chocolate "bar" was much lighter than it looked, containing a mousse-like, nutty interior. And pineapple and brown butter financier was hot straight out of the oven, golden crunchy brown on the outside and soft and moist inside. Blobs of cardamom jam added that Asian twist, as the miso did with the chocolate dessert.
As you will have probably concluded by this point, the Dysart is a very good restaurant indeed. Fusion food has the potential to be a muddled disaster in the wrong hands, yet on this menu the odd Japanese touch here and there often only accented and enhanced the modern classical cooking, only occasionally proving a distraction. And then again, even when, as in the beef dish, the Asian seasoning was slightly heavy-handed, it only made an interesting mess, not a complete failure. And while it's easy to pick fault with things like undercooked rice, so many other things went right - and not just right, but stunningly well, that in the end it was impossible not to be utterly charmed with the place. On top of all that, £60 for a tasting menu and £18.50/£22.50 for a set menu is a hugely reasonable sum for cooking at this level. All of a sudden, Zone 4 seems a perfectly reasonable distance to travel for dinner.
I was invited to review the Dysart