Having had to cancel a trip abroad for the second time this year (hashtag Covid first world problems), I was in need of a gastronomic escape: somewhere within easy reach of London to minimise travel but equally somewhere that didn’t feel like London. But where? Throwing a dart at the map vaguely in the direction of bucolic Surrey, it landed on Petersham: a happy confluence of events as it’s near the Thames, has plentiful parkland and an unusually high concentration of very good restaurants.
Chief among them is The Dysart – also known at various times as The Dysart Petersham and The Dysart Arms – and since 2019 the holder of a Michelin star. Restaurants, it seems, can share the same penchant for varying their own name as bands: for some reason The Dysart’s multiple monikers reminded me of when Verve became The Verve, or when Prince temporarily turned into a Wingdings symbol before reverting to Prince, or 80s Liverpudlian band Wah!, which re-named itself more times than any other band in pop music history (known also as Wah! Heat, Shambeko! Say Wah!, JF Wah!, The Mighty Wah! and Wah! The Mongrel). Well, you get the idea.
Incidentally, music is a bit of thing at The Dysart, and pride of place on the ground floor is a Bechstein grand piano. Pre-Covid they hosted recitals each weekend (if you look at the website you can see the calibre of soirées they had). Alas, though understandably, the live music programme is on hiatus at the moment. I felt tempted to tickle the ivories myself but sanitised piano keys and sanitised hands take all the spontaneity and joy out of a bit of impromptu boogie woogie. The restaurant was a little quiet anyway – probably at around 40% capacity, with social distancing of course. Perhaps, being August, it was busier earlier in the week with punters making the most of Eat Out to Help Out – a phenomenon that a few restaurateurs have reported.
But did the ambience suffer? Not one jot. Like The Sportsman in Seasalter, The Dysart retains the essence of its former gastropub days but now through a Scandi lens. The piano, the lamps, the rosewood and the flickering candlelight all contribute to that warm, snug, hygge feeling I’ve experienced in such wonderful off-the-beaten-track restaurants as Den Rode Cottage in Denmark. As the nights draw in and autumn beckons, trust me, this is a place you want to linger in. And you’d have no idea you’re just outside of London.
The service under manager (and classically trained musician) Barny Taylor was both very attentive and very friendly. Despite having to wear his mask, Barny was a delight to chat with and came up with some wonderful wine pairings. He also comped us a double measure of the Californian Sangiovese on the Coravin list (the 2013 Seghesio from Alexander Valley): this was apparently to compensate for a minor delay with the starter, a gesture which wasn’t necessary but was very much appreciated.
Irish chef and Roux scholar Kenneth Culhane’s cuisine celebrates local and English ingredients in dishes which are anchored in classic French technique but free from pretension, micro-herbs and flowery accoutrements. A relief, quite frankly. Who wants their duck decorated in buttercups and forget-me-nots anyway?
After Champagne (because Covid), my companion started with an Oxford potato soup with cured cod which fought off some of the autumnal chill, whilst my cauliflower tortellone with a vin jaune butter sauce and shavings of Périgordian black truffle was heady, rich, luxurious and exciting.
In another celebration of English produce, Wiltshire lamb with baby artichokes, confit fennel and a rosemary jus was another delight, and equally executed with aplomb.
But, it seems, there’s a small issue with portion size. My Creedy Carver duck with a leg ragout and Petersham tomatoes, whilst delicious and elegantly presented, came as three slithers about the width of anchovy fillets. I admired the work that had gone into the jus and the ragout, all packed full of duck flavour, but for just shy of £27 and an eagerly up-sold (but necessary) side of mash potato at an extra £4.25, it seemed a little steep. Similarly, a raspberry crème brûlée the diameter of a Digestive biscuit and accompanied by shortbread discs the size of 10 pence pieces makes you feel a little short-changed. Interestingly though, unlike most restaurants, there’s no extra mark up on the British cheese selection which comes in at a fairly sensible £9.25.
Of course value is relative, and the cooking here is superlative, though one other point to bear in mind is that service isn’t included in the bill. The initial bill can give you a false impression that it’s less than you think. But don’t get me wrong: at least on this visit, a generous tip was more than warranted.
Perhaps when consumer confidence truly recovers there will be more buzz about the place but none of that is to take away from what was a truly delightful meal served by dedicated staff in lovely surroundings.
135 Petersham Road
Richmond Upon Thames
by J A Smith