06.10.2017 / words: Rich Lee / image: Fiona Digby-Jones
The fiercely talented kitchen and unpretentious yet utterly inviting dining room at the Dysart, Petersham proved an experience we couldn’t resist…
When the heat of summer subsides, and the gentle cool of autumn settles over the land, most people take the change of seasons in their stride. Alas, not me. By the middle of September, I’m so weary of lightweight lunches, svelte salads and prissy puddings, that I’m about ready to swan dive into a bog of sticky toffee goop and be done with it all. You might say I’m in a Fall mood. So when October rolls around, and menus change their colours like the leaves on the trees, heralding the earthy, hearty joys of autumnal cooking, it feels like the happiest of homecomings. Spring and summer dishes can make us soar, but only autumn and winter truly satisfy.
I could, of course, have stepped inside the magnificent timbered shell of the Dysart in Petersham at any time of the year, but the interior’s creamy mushroom tones felt predestined to match my seasonal disposition. The ghost of the pub that used to be the Dysart Arms still lingers in its central bar and columned cubbies, but the restaurant the Taylor family transformed it into back in 2004 is light years away from the local boozer it used to be. Natural stone, stripped back woods and soft pools of amber light bathing dove-grey walls and a grand piano envelop you in the Dysart’s languid, understated elegance.
Perhaps the most profound effect on the Dysart’s evolution from gastropub to gastronomic destination had to be the arrival of Head Chef Kenneth Culhane in 2011. The roux scholarship winner’s travels through the kitchens of New York, Sydney, Dublin and the Loire Valley forged a unique appreciation for ingredients both exotic and local, and as a champion of the slow food movement, we were intrigued to experience what the chef’s progressive, international approach to classical cooking could offer.
A selection of perky canapes woke an ugly hunger, particularly a cube of polenta dabbed with something sharply citrus, an astringent finger snap to get our attention. But any complacency vanished when the charred mullet that arrived next, its skin blistered to a lovely rustly crackling perched above kombu braised daikon and a brothy ginger and champagne sauce that was less sauce and more like the best conversation-killer I’ve ever tasted. We just stopped mid-flow, staring dumbly at each other, forks quivering in the air as we tried to comprehend the kaleidoscope of flavours that wheels around your palate at first taste. There is mineral and spice and acid in perfect balance and a soft, fresh heat, with deep notes of kaffia and fruits and a talented young chef’s adventures in far off lands beneath it all.
Senses firmly awakened and autumn made a glorious appearance: a colourful garden of seasonal veg and foraged herbs, with local Petersham tomatoes, compressed beetroot, baby artichoke, roasted girolle mushroom; all perfectly nice by itself but the aha! moment arrives with the addition of a warming brown butter broth for a great whack of umami. There followed nishiki rice risotto swimming in a pool of roast tomato jus, nutty and rich and laced with delicate chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms and basil pesto. On the strength of what we’d had so far, vegetarians would be well advised to hightail it here on the quick for Culhane’s dedicated vegetarian a la carte and tasting menus. What the man does with vegetables borders on magic.
Stone bass sat in a glossy, verdant sauce that, we were told by the Dysart’s confident and convivial servers, contained over thirty ingredients. Not one of them would have been superfluous judging by the mellow sweetness that bloomed out in soft Asian tones, building in depth and presence and prompting surreptitious finger swipes by the end until the bowl shone empty.
Most cooks have made their point with beef hung for 28 days, but not here. A dish featuring a plinth of exquisitely sweet shoulder and fillet aged 70 days for insane flavour and the most buttery texture threatened to overwhelm me entirely, especially given the shoulder’s mirror-sheen sticky glaze and the most remarkable mustard miso sauce pooled over the fillet. Punchy and bold yet layered with lemon and a butterscotch background, it was astonishing and yet, amazingly, never overpowered the beef. With silky confit heritage carrot and butter-engorged mashed potato, my dreams of the season had come true.
Huntsham Court Farm Longhorn Beef, confit heritage carrots, miso mustard sauce
No less deft were desserts, with burnt apple granita, blackberry sorbet and sesame tuile followed by a Black forest financier, kirsch crème diplomat and cherry sorbet. That this tasting menu was threaded through with some outstanding wines to complement each dish to a tee is standard for the Dysart, a place brimming with quiet confidence and well-oiled expertise and a chef working at the height of his powers.
We could argue about Petersham sitting in either London or Surrey (depends, informally, which side of the river you hail from, so we’re calling it for our county), but there can be no doubt that the Dysart should be an essential destination for diners, wherever they live.
Black forest financier, kirsch crème diplomat, cherry sorbet
Lunch Tasting Menu, Food Total = £70 p.p. Lunchtime set menu available: 2 courses £23.50, 3 courses £27.50