Petersham Nurseries Café, Petersham, Surrey

When you hear that a chef to the stars has opened a secluded outdoor café serving first-class fare, you'll want to keep it to yourself. So who told everyone?
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I have long given up hope of being asked to Charles Saatchi's place for dinner. Nor am I waiting for the postman to bring invitations to dine with Madonna, Mario Testino, Laura Bailey or Trinny Woodall.

I have long given up hope of being asked to Charles Saatchi's place for dinner. Nor am I waiting for the postman to bring invitations to dine with Madonna, Mario Testino, Laura Bailey or Trinny Woodall.

Not that I care to meet any of these people, I just want to eat what they're eating. According to the latest trashy celebrity reports - something no sensible person would ever doubt - dining in with your very own private chef is much more zeitgeisty than dining out. And the zeitgeistiest private chef is Skye Gyngell, Vogue food editor, former chef at the Dorchester, the Sugar Club and the French House, and - if I am not mistaken - the one embroiled in the cash-for-recipes Nigellagate scandal of 2002. She is also the same Skye Gyngell who is now cooking in a garden shed down a back lane in Petersham, Surrey.

While Ms Gyngell may have become more accessible to us common folk, do not get the idea that she has suddenly plunged her way back into the mainstream. This place isn't a restaurant. Nor is it even a café, really. It's just a rather nice domestic kitchen in a slab-timbered garden shed at the back of a few glasshouses in a working nursery, with some shambly, rickety pre-loved sky-blue metal tables and chairs scattered among the aloe vera and anemones.

For now, the place is open only at weekends and on bank holiday Mondays for brunch, lunch and afternoon tea. You can drive there - no fun at all - or do what I did: take the Tube to Richmond station, walk along the Thames, follow a bridle path across a field of grazing cattle, wander down a country lane, and turn up at the gate of the charming Petersham Nurseries, recently reacquired by the owners of the adjacent Petersham House.

The café's unlicensed, with the raciest thing on offer being old-fashioned lemon cordial. There is a communal table under cover, scattered with weekend papers and bowls of veggies, and a small blackboard menu posted up by the door. All that is missing is a cat curled up on the steps.

The food is fresh and simple with a summery Mediterranean calling, although prices seem high for a garden café. Today, there is a chorizo, sweet pepper and sweet onion frittata with baked fennel and cannellini beans (£11.50), monkfish, saffron and clam chowder (£16.95), a vegetable mezze platter (£9) and brown rice and baked aubergine with basil oil (£9.75). So, no cheese and pickle pre-packed sandwiches, then.

It's the sort of place where you immediately want to grab a table and read the paper in the sunshine, and I find myself doing a very good imitation of a country squire enjoying his private garden, as a series of girls emerge from the shed offering jugs of water, pre-sliced Poilâne bread, and plates piled high with fresh, colourful food for those around me.

I say, who are these other people intruding in my garden? The wife must have declared one of those damned open days without telling me. And there's my private chef, ducking out of the kitchen, to snip a sprig of rosemary from a pot, and darting back in. Must speak to someone about her helping herself like that. Doesn't grow on trees, you know.

The bountiful vegetable mezze platter glows with freshness. A clump of mossy wilted spinach nestles next to a mound of bright, rich tangy beetroot purée and a pool of spicy red pepper purée supercharged with za'atar (dried thyme and sumac). Oven-roasted tomatoes lurk under a scattering of fresh goat cheese, with asparagus, leek and olives on the side. Each component is as good as the next, and feels freshly prepared. Even something as simple as a rocket salad hides chervil, mint and basil among its leaves, so that every bite is a surprise.

The monkfish, too, is beautifully prepared; with good, succulent chunks of firm fishy flesh and lots of palourde clams, all settling into a soupy tomatoey slush tingling with rosemary and thyme and thickened with finely chopped almonds. Flavours are ripe and big-hearted, although it feels almost too restauranty for such a simple café concept.

The four fruit-based puds follow a similar mantra of freshness and simplicity. A bowl of poached vanilla apricots and plums topped with Greek yoghurt and honey (£5) is good enough to give compote a good name, reclaiming it from boarding-house breakfast tables and putting it back in the sunshine where it belongs. The same goes for a bright-yellow custard pond with stepping stones of perfectly ripe raspberries and poached peach slices (£4.95); sweet nursery food in a real nursery.

Petersham Nurseries Café is the complete antithesis of the contemporary city restaurant with its high-pressure, high-speed, aggressively male kitchen and egomaniacal cooking. There is a domestic grace and calm here, along with an uncompromising commitment to flavour and freshness that echoes California's Alice Waters, and England's Sally Clarke. As a café, it's basic, slow, pricey and a bit amateur hour, but the food is lovely, homemade, confident, generous, bright and personal. I wish there were a lot more places like it, because it just doesn't have a commercial bone in its body. But there won't be, because it just doesn't have a commercial bone in its body.

14 Petersham Nurseries Café Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Petersham, Surrey, tel: 020 8940 5230. Brunch, lunch and afternoon tea Fri-Sun plus bank holidays. Around £45 for two

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: More food in gardens

Three Horseshoes High Street, Madingley, Cambridgeshire, tel: 01954 210 221 In a picturesque village, three miles west of Cambridge, this pretty, thatched inn has earnt itself local-hero status thanks to the cooking of chef patron Richard Stokes. In summer, tables spill out of the conservatory and into the garden, and the cooking is adventurous without scaring the horses. Try char-grilled pepper beef with potatoes and wild mushrooms, and roast tranche of turbot with peppers cooked in garlic and red wine.

The Trout Tadpole Bridge, Buckland Marsh, Farringdon, Oxfordshire, tel: 01367 870 382 One of the great attractions of this popular 17th-century Oxfordshire pub is its extensive Thamesside garden, where groups can cluster around trestle tables and make the most of what is left of summer. The wine list is as wide-reaching as the menu, which travels from piquillo peppers with salt cod brandade, to roast rump of Blenheim lamb with dauphinoise potatoes.

Restaurant De Kas Park Frankendael, Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3, Amsterdam, tel: 00 31 20 462 4562 Few restaurants take their gardens as seriously as this Amsterdam designer hotspot, located in a working herb garden and glasshouse. Even the chefs have to work in the garden at least one day a week, so no wonder the food is exquisitely simple and fresh, from a tomato tarte tatin to nasturtium cakes with langoustines.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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