Of London’s many ills, our capital is plagued with an intolerable toll of bad museum and gallery cafés. Almost every gallery or museum in London is joined by a glorified tea room, many of which are also touted as restaurants in their own right, yet most are magnificently awful. Bucking the trend, however, The Garden Museum (Britain’s only museum dedicated to the art, history and design of gardens) reopened during the summer, as did the affixed Garden Café – open daily for lunch (plus an evening service each Friday).
At the foot of Lambeth Bridge, next to Lambeth Palace, The Garden Café occupies a lovely space; bright and simply decorated with light wood furniture, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Thames and a garden crafted by award-winning designers. Through these windows, natural light cascades the room, even on a gloomy December afternoon. As for the atmosphere, lunch feels like a complete escape from the city, with a warm neighbourhood restaurant ambience. The constantly changing food menu, on the other hand, has strong focus on simple, seasonally-inspired dishes, served by chefs Harry Kaufman and George Ryle, having gained experience split between restaurants such as St John Bread & Wine, Lyles, Padella and Primeur.
Here, most dishes have a maximum of three key ingredients, simply presented on round white plates, displaying a clear emphasis on substance over style. To start, five slivers of cured trout are oily, thick-cut and fanned across the plate with a dollop of crème fraiche rife with dill, delicately complementing the fish’s assertive flavour. Rabbit rillettes, on the other hand, is a heap of shredded, slow-cooked rabbit cloaked with plenty of fat, joined by two slices of warm sourdough – a simple, yet delightfully insalubrious introduction.
Favouring a grossly under-appreciated cut of meat, a generous hunk of breast of lamb is cooked slowly then finished with intense heat to caramelise the outer, while retaining a core tenderness. This is joined by marginally sweet chickpeas and leaves of bitter chicory. A main of Mallard duck features an entire breast and drumstick, supplemented with a heap of braised red cabbage and rich, vinous (albeit wishy-washy) sauce. The cooking of the leg meat is remarkable, though the breast is somewhat overcooked, thus dry and tough – as is often typical of wild ducks eaten towards the end of the season. The braised cabbage, however, is gently spiced and a delicious example of seasonally appropriate cooking; it tastes of all the spices synonymous with Christmas.
Although The Garden Café’s opening hours seldom extend into the evening, the restaurant is open in the morning for tea and cake – with pastry seeming a speciality of the kitchen. Here, a rare Paris-Brest is a wheel of exemplary choux pastry, sliced through the middle to sandwich a firm mound of rich chocolate ice cream, showered with flaked hazelnuts. The technique is without flaw, as is the execution.
An urban oasis on the edge of central London, with casual service and unfussy, produce-focussed cooking at it’s core; The Garden Café is one of London’s only museum restaurants of note. Moreover, lunch offers an often essential escape from the chaos of the city, still within Zone One of the tube map.
The Garden Café can be found at Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road, London, SE1 7LB.