Sitting between the Strand and the River Thames, Somerset House is a spectacular neo-classical building and a centre of excellence for culture and the arts. The complex hosts dozens of events annually, ranging from London Fashion week to photographic exhibitions and outdoor summer cinema. With a grand feel, it is particularly magical on December evenings, when locals warm up with mulled wine in front of the giant Christmas tree and skate on London’s favourite ice-rink. In warmer months you can admire the grove of 55 choreographed fountains or enjoy a cocktail on the terrace with sweeping views of the Thames.
It also happens to be majestic venue for Spring Restaurant.
I meet my friend Cecilia by the dancing fountains and we enter a graceful and feminine drawing room flooded with natural light. A huge arrangement of branches cloaked in spring blossoms stretches toward the soaring ceilings. Understated and elegant and yet so warm and unpretentious, there is an instant sense of well-being and balance. With growing anticipation we are greeted by friendly staff wearing relaxed uniforms designed by the off-beat Egg. I imagine Spring would lift your mood even on the greyest of English days!
Now one of Britain’s most celebrated chefs, Australian Skye Gyngell opened Spring to great acclaim, as much for her delightful food as for the beautifully renovated dining room. Formerly head chef at Petersham Nurseries Café, where she was guided by what she saw growing and blooming around her, Skye is renowned for her instinctive seasonal cooking, creating superb, simple dishes from exceptional produce.
We peruse the Set Lunch Menu and opt for two courses for £27.50. The sun is streaming in through the huge, arched windows and an art instillation of petals (or perhaps they are butterflies) float over the duck egg linen walls like they are caught in the wind. It is difficult to imagine this used to be the Inland Revenue. There’s something poetic about the place. In the evenings the room is candlelit, which makes for a more golden, romantic light. Today, the room is nearly full and it’s an interesting mix of guests here in the middle of academia, with locals who work in the arts and walk-ins from Somerset House.
We start with a dish of simple grilled prawns with spinach and romesco, a lemon cheek with the leaf still on, a glass of fresh 2013 Antonio Sanz Verdejo Rueda. Skye works closely with a farm at Hereford, three hours west on the Welsh border, to ensure the best seasonal produce. We chat to the waiter who tells us that it depends what arrives in the van as to what ends up on the menu. Everything is utilised and treated respectfully – it’s very much roots to tips cooking. There will be nettles in soon and flowers from the farm.
I choose the Tagliata of veal with bitter greens to follow, while Cecilia opts for the Mackerel with beetroots, chard and horseradish. For dessert we decide to share an Almond tart with crème fraîche – at once crispy and crumbly, buttery and nutty. It smells like a batch of homemade ANZAC biscuits pulled straight from the oven. Head pastry chef, Sarah Johnson, trained at Chez Panisse. There is also ice cream made with beautiful fruit from the farm and house-made cordial teas; mulberry leaf tea is available all year round and is very popular.
As an after lunch treat, we visit one of the finest small museums in the world in the north wing of Somerset House. The Courtauld Gallery’s collection of paintings, drawings, sculpture and decorative art spans the Renaissance to the 21st century. The gallery is most renowned for its outstanding collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art and here we admire masterpieces such as Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Degas’ Two Dancers on a Stage, among works by Monet, Van Gogh and Cézanne.
A wonderful finish to a most memorable meal.