Five years ago horticulturalist and garden designer David Keleel took on the not insignificant task of transforming a derelict nursery on an unexceptional bit of the A12 into the garden centre of his dreams. Originally from California, he harbours a lifelong fascination with British blooms, a fact made evident by the intoxicating smell of traditional roses that envelops you on the path to the main building. New this year at the nurseries is a shop with beautiful ceramics and seeds, garden tools and how-to tomes. And adjacent to the shop, in the sprawling converted barn, is a small, sun-soaked dining room with white wood walls and a colourful checkerboard floor. This is the Darsham Nurseries Café, and the space is an oasis of calm for the mind, though a rather more stimulating proposition for the palate. Head chef James Dodd and his wife Hayley, who manages front of house, arrived to this stretch of Suffolk via Mark Hix’s Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis, and this is their first outing at the helm. Two months in and already the offering feels confident and cohesive; with a menu that makes the most of local producers, the salmon smokery in the summerhouse next door and the kitchen garden out back.
The heirloom tomatoes that grow in abundance at Darsham Nurseries find their way to the table with a splash of white balsamic vinegar and capers on toast, the assemblage brought together by a delicate garlic infusion. This set the tone for a series of elegant and delicious vegetable-led dishes, but there were some strong meaty moments as well. The treacle-glazed short rib slider is the best we’ve had since the mini-burger trend descended. Slow-cooked with patience and care, the ‘soused’ onions held their own against the flavoursome meat, and the mustard leaf mayonnaise brought it all home. Homemade mayonnaise was in fact a minor theme running throughout the meal. Wild garlic mayo added creaminess to paper-thin, gently salted crudités, while the perfectly cooked quail eggs popped with the deep flavours of wild garlic salt and smoked mayonnaise.
Though David insists he has resisted enforcing any of his own culinary wishlist on the kitchen, it seems that, perhaps by osmosis, dishes which would be de rigeur in California or even inspired by David’s Lebanese heritage have made their way onto the menu. One of the best examples is the fluffy labneh with dill, parsley and flowers served with excellent grilled sourdough from Two Magpies bakery; or the grilled asparagus with oregano, Beldi lemon oil and za’atar. There’s also the American-tinged breakfast menu, boasting olive oil and pecan granola with yoghurt, and banana bread with honey. The desserts however are a more British affair. The cucumber, lime and elderflower ice is as delicate as it sounds, and the new-season strawberries with whipped elderflower custard was as beautiful to look at as to taste.
As an on-going project David says there’s more to come at Darsham this summer and next, including outdoor and evening dining and an expanded kitchen garden. Meanwhile, the café offers the perfect vantage point from which to watch the developments unfold, on and off the menu.
Also this summer, west London’s famous Petersham Nurseries celebrate their ten-year anniversary. Get there early for weekly talks from experts such as the informative and entertaining horticulturalist and florist Thomas Broom. Stay for lunch at the stunning outdoor dining room under an extensive pergola that's fit for a secret-garden tea party and faery wedding reception combined. Fill your table with dishes that draw from the abundance around you: bresaola with Merinda tomatoes, Petersham rocket, lemon and zisola, the pleasingly bitter insalata di giardino, or the borage fritto with lemon drizzle. The sourdough alone might be worth the trip to Surrey.
What we loved about Darsham Nurseries: the tasteful yet cheery dining room; the fresh and fulsome vegetables; the short-rib slider.