Wednesday 21 February 2024

The Garden Museum Café, Lambeth

Beautiful 15th century Lambeth Palace is a strange London landmark - widely recognisable, with a stately position Thames-side and passed by a number of busy bus routes, it is nevertheless very rarely visited, most of the main structures off-limits as the Archbishop of Canterbury's official residence and despite the existence of an interesting little Garden Museum, the garden itself is only open to the general public two or three days a year. This spirit of reclusiveness extends to the Garden Museum Cafe, a lovely glass-box modernist annexe to the Tudor palace which, despite doing a brisk trade during the day, is open for dinner only two days a week. And yet there's something about places with weirdly restrictive opening hours (see also: Sweetings, which I'm definitely going to try one day) that makes me want to visit them even more.

So on a rainy Tuesday night, we turned up at the Garden Cafe for our usual early sitting to find it, somewhat against expectations, completely full. "Are you here for the talk?" asked the front of house; turns out there was a special early sitting for attendees of a talk about gardening happening in the museum a little later, and sure enough by 7pm or so the room had half emptied out.

Nothing seemed to affect the speed or attentiveness of the staff however, and both before and after the great gardening exodus, service was spot-on. House focaccia - chewy and salty and lovely - arrived alongside a bottle of very natural Garnacha which, admittedly, took a bit of getting used to at first but then I like a challenge. I know natural wine has its critics - and I'm sure they'd find plenty to criticise with this bottle, cloudy and funky and every other natural wine cliché - but I always get the feeling I'm doing the world, and myself, a favour by drinking it. Almost certainly rubbish, of course, but there you go.

It's a sign of a good restaurant that it can put together a strictly seasonal menu that's just as tempting in the depths of midwinter as in the middle of summer. Pumpkin minestrone had chickpeas, carrots and kale in a hearty, herby vegetable broth and was extremely enjoyable. Also excellent was a silky smooth whipped cod's roe on toast, which for some reason I forgot to take a picture of but I'm sure you can imagine what cod's roe on toast looks like. A healthy portion too, for your £8.50.

But best of the starters - and I would say that because I ordered it - was a snail and bacon salad, which had plenty of meaty snails and lots of lovely crisp bacon dressed in a nice sharp vinaigrette studded with fried croutons. Like the other dishes it was full of rustic charm, and generous of flavour.

Two pescatarian main courses demonstrated the Garden Café knows how to cook a bit of fish. Monkfish came as a butter-browned chunk of tail sliced into two, dressed with a dense, salty tapenade and on a bed of green sea beet leaves. I seem to remember there was some yellow beetroot in there too.

...and a generous fillet of plaice sat on a very buttery mash (you have failed at mash if it can't be described as "very buttery") and a genuinely lovely leek velouté, like a bonus course of posh soup. On the side, a plate of purple sprouting broccoli (PSB for those in the know) with another knockout sauce - "sauce Maltaise" which (he quickly Googles) is apparently a hollandaise made with blood orange. So now you - and I - know.

All the dessert options sounded like they had something going for them (Munster & Roquefort is a great little combo for a cheese course) but we ended up with a rhubarb craquelin choux bun, a delicate ball of pastry stuffed with cream and topped with some glorious sugary chunks of stewed rhubarb. And despite the generosity of the previous courses, it didn't last long.

It's a fun little place to be, is the Garden Café, and a great place to eat. Service, as I mentioned earlier, was completely spot-on and only added to the general atmosphere of easy conviviality. There are lots of restaurants, up and down the country, attempting to do the kind of thing the Garden Café is doing but it's notable how often "charmingly rustic" slips back to "plain and careless" - it takes real skill to make ostensibly simple and unadorned food work this well. "It costs me a lot of money", as Dolly Parton so famously said, "to look this cheap".

And speaking of cheap, the bill for three people and that bottle of natural wine came to just under £55/head, which is about as good value as you're going to find in London these days. And probably most other parts of the country too, for that matter. Lambeth Palace itself may remain stubbornly restricted, but the Garden Café is more than worthy of your attention, a popular and friendly little operation with a personality all of its own.


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