I didn't mean to review the café at Darsham Nurseries, a newish garden centre just off the A12 on the way to Lowestoft. I didn't even really mean to have lunch there. But there we were, a group of us, in the exquisite little shop, wrestling over the designer secateurs and decorative basketware (baskets are like Viagra to females of a certain age). And we found it. The perfect lunch spot, in the prettiest room I've seen for ages.
Imagine a snug, sun-flooded cabin, beautifully crafted from found materials. Rough timbered walls and partitions, a chunky zinc bar, salvaged mirrors and numbered coat hooks. Everything pale and organic, apart from a swaggering line of tulips, magically blooming from a shelf, and a cheery, checkerboard floor.
It's clearly a room that's been put together by an artist; hardly the sort of place you expect to find in – not to put too fine a point on it – the middle of nowhere.
Likewise, the menu. If basketware gets the ladies-who-lunch excited, this little beauty could send them right over the top. Forget the quiches and carrot cakes normally found in rural nurseries. This is a beguiling, veg-led dance through the finest local produce; the kind of thing you expect to find in the Napa Valley, rather than the Blyth Valley. Labneh with herbs and lavosh; asparagus with whipped feta and dukkah; oil-poached hake with salsa verde and quinoa. One glance and we'd abandoned the trugs and were settling in for a feast at a long refectory table, where back-issues of the New Yorker sat alongside Garden and Gun.
Chef James Dodd and his wife Hayley, who handles front of house, worked at Mark Hix's Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis before moving to Suffolk to start the café. They'd only been open a few days when we visited, but we wouldn't have suspected that from the stream of beautiful dishes which came our way.
We almost didn't order the crudités – who could get excited about crudités? Oh my. The freshest heritage veg – white and black carrots, asparagus and golden beets, shaved to translucent fineness, curling seductively around a vivid wild garlic mayonnaise. Home-cured salmon, smoked in the summerhouse next door, its lushness cut with the asperity of pickled fennel. Puffy furls of deep-fried pork skin rolled in a shimmer of chilli salt. Silky whipped beetroot heaped with roasted beets of all hues jostling with sour-smooth goat's curd.
A pile of perfect, crisp asparagus, scattered with toasted dukkah, to dip into a mound of whipped feta. The crispest onion-seed studded wafers with a petal-strewn heap of labneh, that sharp, fresh cheese made from strained yogurt. Only a slice of hake, poached sous-vide in olive oil, was less than adored; the slow cooking leaving the flesh slightly mealy and denatured, though everyone raved about the chlorophyllic salsa verde, and the crunch of toasted quinoa scattered over purple sprouting broccoli.
We asked Hayley, who knows the DNA of every dish, to recommend desserts, and she nominated the two that sounded least appealing. But she was right; the tonka bean pot, swoony and floral under a sharp rhubarb compote, and a lemonade granita with a fennel-seed sherbet, both demonstrated a sure touch with powerful flavours.
Like the garden taking shape outside, which will eventually provide fruit, veg and herbs for the kitchen, this little gem of a café is still growing. Relationships with the area's food heroes are firming up; bread and cakes are from Southwold's 2 Magpies, fish from local sustainable suppliers Maximus, and pork from nearby Blythburgh. The Nurseries' owners, Californian garden designer David Keleel and his partner Willie Williams, had a vision of creating their own mini-version of Petersham Nurseries. They've found the right collaborators in the Dodds.
The café won't be right for everyone. This is girl-food, essentially. If you're breaking a journey with a brace of ravenous kids, you may struggle to find something they fancy on a list whose most user-friendly item is chorizo fried bread with slow-cooked egg and mushroom ketchup. The breakfast dishes and cakes look great, but I suspect they may need to simplify the lunch offer to pull in a year-round crowd. And they don't open for dinner, though there are plans to hold occasional evening feasts when the kitchen garden is established.
But for what it is – delicate, delicious, and absolutely right for its beautiful surroundings – the Nurseries Café is a delight. As one of my friends said, "I've been to Michelin-starred places that were worse than this". It's been a while since I gave full marks to a restaurant – I think the last time might have been El Bulli. How nice to wander, almost by chance, into somewhere that, in its own way, deserves a similarly perfect score.
Darsham Nurseries café, Main Road, Darsham Saxmundham, Suffolk (01728 667 022). Around £20 a head before wine and service. Prix fix £23.50 for five courses