Enjoying lunch in a museum café – what’s more, on a weekday – feels like a double treat post-lockdown. As the last year has shown, what seem like standard activities for a London staycation should no longer be taken for granted. The Garden Museum – a somewhat under-the-radar yet iconic spot in Lambeth – feels like a relaxed and quiet spot to rekindle these basic joys. And an appreciation for both museums and their cafés/restaurants – or at least this one – it will certainly spark.
When first created in 1977, the Garden Museum was the first of garden history in the world and is still the only one in this country. Devoted to the history of gardens and people, it’s doing a great job at preserving the best in garden art and design, presenting eloquent ephemera in the most beautiful of settings, with a range of talks and workshops also scheduled. The museum re-opened in 2017 after an extensive makeover by Dow Jones Architects within the deconsecrated church it occupies, St-Mary-at-Lambeth, and the external churchyard.
Though located just opposite the south side of Lambeth Bridge, the end result is an oasis that feels a million miles from London. Occupying a sparkling new glass and beaten-copper pavilion, its Café is proof that museum dining should not be overlooked. Added to the museum as part of a £7.5m renovation that opened in May 2017, the design is very smart. It feels modern and London museum-like: think polished concrete floor and stripped-wood Scandi modernist furniture, whilst also preserving the churchyard’s original gravestones set within the floor. One end of the dining room offers a view over a terrace space for outdoor eating on the Thames side. To the side is a beautifully green courtyard, with more mausoleums and a modern planting of ferns by various star gardeners. In this way, the space creates an inviting sense of being completely immersed in nature.
The chefs behind the Garden Café come from a strong pedigree: Harry Kaufman has worked at St John Bread and Wine and Lyle’s; George Ryle has spent time at Padella and Primeur. If there’s a style of cooking that can be defined as London – and increasingly I think there may be – it lies in the sum of these various parts. A la Rochelle Canteen , it’s all about robust flavours, an ingredient count that rarely goes beyond three and a restrained approach to the global larder. Thoughtful sourcing of the best local, seasonal produce is key to this approach. Fresh salad leaves, for example, are sourced from the organic certified Keats Community urban farm in South London, while breads come from Bermondsey-based bakery The Snapery.
Having arrived for my reservation a little early, I got talking to the chef in the open kitchen as he assembled what seemed to be a continuous order of the starter Greek Salad. As demonstrated by the plating, this is a kitchen that takes pride in their olive oil, using the finest of EVOO (from Brindisa) to finish the salad, resulting in a pool of oil coating the plate and demanding a slice of sourdough / focaccia for mopping.
Like Rochelle Canteen, the daily-changing menu offers contemporary, seasonal dishes using simple ingredients to create understated dishes that are both thoughtful and very memorable. Having eyed up its produce and preparation on arrival, I couldn’t resist the Greek Salad (£9) (minus the feta) to start. This was probably the best take on this classic, simple salad I’ve ever tried, largely thanks to the top quality produce – that very generous drizzle (more like pour) of the Brindisa EVOO. Seasoned with shallots, oregano and some salt and pepper, the quality of its ingredients meant this salad needed little else to form something spectacular. Deep oil pools on the plate remained and demanded a moment’s bread dredging. Thoughtfully, and very generously, our kind waitress brought us a plate of their house sourdough to mop up that residual oil.
For mains, we both went for Stuffed Courgettes & Swiss Chard (£15.50). Stuffed with creamy spelt and topped with a pangratto breadcrumb, as soon as you cut into these individual round courgettes – one yellow and the other green – a risotto like texture oozed out. Creamy, yet with a good bite, this spelt take on the Italian classic was cooked to perfection and a thoughtful way to celebrate the best of summer courgettes.
The Garden Café is a beautiful space serving beautiful food. Sunlight suffuses the room and there’s the gentle chatter of people who have somehow managed to not be anywhere else but here on a weekday lunchtime. Though also open for dinner, this is an ideal spot for a long, summer lunch. And make no mistake, this is also a Café that is well worth a stop for a morning / afternoon tea / coffee and cake, with coffee from AllPress Espresso and teas from Good and Proper Tea.
Garden Museum Café, 5 Lambeth Palace Rd, London SE1 7LB