As comeback stories go, the return of Skye Gyngell to the London restaurant scene has enough juicy plot twists for a three-hanky biopic. The troubled teenage years in Australia. The hard-won transition to jobbing chef-about-town in London. The rise to professional triumph at Richmond's bucolic Petersham Nurseries, where her cooking – seasonal, adventurous and instinctive – won her famous fans, a book deal, and eventually, a Michelin star. Then the second-act reversal, when she dramatically resigned from Petersham after eight years, blaming the pressures of trying to please a picky new clientele attracted by the Michelin ascendancy.
Since then, it's been a quiet couple of years for Skye news, broken only by various rumoured projects and false leads. So when it was announced earlier this year that she'd be opening a new restaurant at Somerset House, there was jubilation among the restaurant-going equivalent of the chattering classes, thrilled by the prospect of eating her food without having to trek out to Zone 3.
Spring, Gyngell's extremely smart new restaurant, could hardly be more different from quirky Petersham, with the latter's earth floors and wobbly tables. This palatial set of neo-classical rooms is corniced, pillared and mirrored up the wazoo, like the receiving chambers of a particularly immodest princeling.
Any suggestion of municipal drabness – this wing of Somerset House had been a tax office since the 1850s – has been dispelled by a pure-white colour scheme, some arty globular chandeliers and an orangery-style inner salon. The result is one of the swankiest dining rooms in London; far grander and more elegant than most of the famous hotels. It's a remarkable change of style for this relaxed, low-key chef – as if Kate Bush had turned up for her recent comeback gigs sporting a Roland Mouret dress and a facelift.
The look may be different, but the menu at Spring is recognisably in the Petersham tradition; including the prices which leave you slightly short of breath. The starters are assemblies of beautiful seasonal ingredients, largely unmessed about with, often strewn with herbs and flowers. Mains are rustic Italian in inspiration, by way of the open-minded food culture of Melbourne and Sydney. The menu reads beautifully, and on the strength of the dishes we tried in an opening week lunch, eats even better.
A crisp little rye wafer loaded with white and brown crabmeat delivers a blast of ozone and ocean; a dab of sour cream punctuated by the briny pop of salmon roe complicates without distracting from the crab. Simple, but sensational. The inevitable burrata, creamy and sweet, holds its own among bold flavours – the bitter mouth-flood of radicchio, a crisp slice of pickled pumpkin, a single roasted chestnut, all draped in folds of prosciutto, delicate but mighty flavoured.
Given the number of Twiglet-thighed beauties among the diners it would be easy to dismiss Spring as one for the ladies. Well, forget it; both our mains are huge in every sense of the word. Anchored by a gravy sweetened with something like madeira, meltingly slow-cooked pork shoulder scattered with meaty girolles falls into soft heaps over polenta as smooth as ice-cream. A crisp-skinned hunk of turbot with bone marrow and spinach is marginally undercooked, making it tricky to pull off the bone, but it's blooming gorgeous all the same.
We finish with a shared buttermilk panna cotta with damson sorbet and a buttery sable biscuit; tossed wood sorrel leaves are more than decorative, delivering a burst of grassy sharpness. Coffee comes with little cubes of pistachio nougat, so good that our moans of pleasure attract glances from our neighbours.
We detect a few Australian accents around us, and there seems to be a definite friends-of-Skye contingent, including the actor Richard E Grant lunching expansively with friends, but drinking a soft drink rather than the finest wines available to humanity. There are certainly some of those on a mainly European list – although we are quite happy with our £5 glasses of crisp Sicilian Catarratto.
Spring may charge expense-account prices, but when we visit, our fellow diners – arty, interesting-looking and (necessarily) rich – didn't seem to be an expense-account crowd. The personable waiting staff, too, have got quite a look going on, the chaps jaunty in matelot stripes, the women in nun-like whites, with the less fortunate encased in trapezoid hospital gowns so ugly they surely constitute a case for constructive dismissal.
Those costumes are the only less-than-lovely note in an otherwise lovely setting which perfectly mirrors Skye Gyngell's cooking style. Female-friendly but not fussy, gracious but not formal, Spring is a restaurant for all seasons. Don't you just love a story with a happy ending?
Somerset House, Lancaster Place London WC2 (020-3011 0115). Around £50 a head for three courses before wine and service. Set lunch menu from £25.50