Covent Garden has reinvented itself more times than Madonna, had more facelifts than Mickey Rourke, seen more costume changes than Matthew Kelly.
Once a Monk’s vegetable patch, it’s been home to prostitutes and drunks, clowns and mimes, apples and Apple. Before Capital & Counties (Capco) bought the market and the surrounding seven acres in 2006, its stalls were manned by bedraggled tradesmen hawking Union Jack-themed tat to tourists, the scene virtually indistinguishable from nearby Leicester Square.
Capco ruthlessly curated the businesses it leased space to, opting for high-end cosmetics stores and cool designers and a certain retailer of shiny phones. Restaurants were key. It convinced heavy-hitters including The Ivy and Balthazar to set up shop, which in turn convinced hip new ventures like Frenchie and Kricket to brave the sky-high rents and move in nearby.
Now Covent Garden is entering a new phase in its evolution, emerging from the chrysalis of luxury retail to spread its wings as a residential district, although not one for you and I, dear reader, but for the Super Rich, the yacht-owning one per cent of the one per cent. A marketing campaign is already underway, attempting to cement Covent Garden in people’s minds as the kind of place an oligarch might want to call home.
Last week I was invited on a press trip there – to a place 25 minutes from my doorstep – as if it were some obscure Indonesian island waiting to be discovered. And what does every fancy neighbourhood need more than anything else on god’s green earth? A garden centre and somewhere nice to take your mum for lunch, of course! Enter Petersham Nurseries.
Food nerds and west-Londoners will recognise the name. The original Petersham Nurseries Cafe, which opened in 2004, is a bijou celeb-magnet in Richmond, a favourite haunt of Mick Jagger and Hugh Grant, who would hang out there after buying shrubs. The food was overseen by Skye Gyngell, who led it to a Michelin star in 2011 only to quit the following year, calling the accolade a “curse”.
It’s owned by the Boglione family – Petersham House is their family pile – whose vast wealth is derived from sportswear brands including Kappa and Superga. Now they’ve created an interlinking sprawl of businesses on King Street, including a homeware store, florist, delicatessen, wine cellar and two restaurants, La Goccia and The Petersham, all converging on a “floral courtyard”. The main event is The Petersham, which sticks closely to the formula of the original, serving no-nonsense, Italian-style cooking that adheres to the “slow food” philosophy and costs a lot of money. Like, a lot.
Seated indoors with a view out to the courtyard – everything perfectly manicured, of course – I marvelled at how perfectly it captures the ‘ladies who lunch’ vibe. It’s not so much a place to be seen, as a place to casually lurk behind a giant fern and secretly hope someone spots you on their way to the loo. That’s not to say it isn’t perfectly lovely. If I asked my mother to describe her dream restaurant, to sketch out its every microscopic detail, it would look like exactly like this, right down to the bright and breezy art on the walls and the hand-hewn salt ramekins.
At first I assumed the menu was deceptively simple, but it’s a double bluff – it’s actually simple, and, for the most part, very good. Take the melon and ham, a dish that sits in my mind alongside prawn cocktail and fondu as the epitome of naff 1970s cuisine; the twist is there’s no twist. It’s two slices of melon topped with ham, albeit Culatello di Zibello, which is admittedly a fine ham. Veal chop with sage, capers and lemon is a veal chop with sage, capers and lemon and it’s delicious in the way a virtually unadorned veal chop is delicious. Crunchy heritage radishes – an £8 appetiser – arrive on the stalk as if they’ve just been plucked from the soil. Cucumber soup ekes every drop of flavour from its humble progenitor.
The almost outrageously straight-forward manner in which everything is prepared and presented reminds me of Alain Ducasse’s cooking, although this is simpler still. The exception is an involved fish stew, lively and flavoursome, involving squid and lobster and mullet, similar to Bouillabaisse but without all the faffing about serving it in two goes.
Dessert was a highlight; after protracted deliberations, I rejected strawberries with sweet peas and basil, and apricot and almond tart, in favour of a thoroughly excellent chocolate number with olive oil ice cream and honeycomb. My guest got the cheesecake with fresh raspberries, which is shoved on its side and blow-torched to give it the crunchy shell of a creme brulee; good, but lacking the all-important buttery biscuit base.
We played the bill game afterwards. “£100” guessed the guest. “£130” guessed I. “£180” said the bill – and that was without booze. I don’t doubt the provenance of the ingredients, nor the steepness of the rent, but prices like that will put all but the most extravagant of meals in the shade, and The Petersham is willfully un-extravagant.
Presumably this is already factored into the equation. Someone has worked out exactly what the new wave of unfathomably rich Covent Gardeners will drop on a bite to eat after admiring some shrubbery, and this is it. Fair dos. It’s too rich for my blood, but then so is the rest of Covent Garden.