A few metres from Clapham North station, just beside a pub, there’s an anonymous door. You press the buzzer. Someone answers, and the door clicks open.
You go up a narrow staircase with its ivy-twined banister, and emerge into one of London’s latest pop-up restaurants: The Secret Garden. There’s something fascinating about pop-up venues: all that verve to come up with an eye-catching concept, all that rush to get everything in place, and a couple of months later, everything’s packed up and gone for good. These are outlets with short but intense lifespans. Mayfly-restauranteering.
As you would expect, the décor of this restaurant matches its title. There are green summer chairs, lime-green walls, a fake-turf carpet – spot any recurring colour here? – a depiction of a life-size cutesy caravan on one wall, and verdant potted plants that form a serried rank around the edge of the room. In fact, even though I visited the venue on a quintessentially grey-&-rainy English day, white natural sunlight still somehow blazed through the room’s large windows. The whole effect is charming, like a green oasis tucked away amidst London’s concrete and its depressing weather.
Soon after I and my companion (picture Dr Who and his sidekick) had sat down, we were served with water in an elegant glass decanter, and with a complimentary basket of bread. Now, I’m a huge fan of free bread, and any establishment goes up in my estimation as soon as it makes this simple effort, but oh my gosh – this bread was delicious. Gently warmed, fresh, and doughy, with a hard crust that shatters satisfyingly when you bite into it… I can still taste it now.
Delivered alongside this yeast-manna were our drinks. For myself, an ice-cold elderflower cocktail with a bitter taste and a grapefruit aroma. For my companion, a refreshing G&T cocktail infused with a strong flavour of dill. Both were excellent and well worth trying.
Our starters, as became a theme throughout the meal, were beautifully presented. My Crottin Goat’s Cheese, Baby Beetroot, Candied Walnuts & Balsamic Vinegar (£7.00) was adorned with violet petals and garnishing, and lay upon a thin, curving stream of beetroot sauce. (By the way, if you find the term ‘crottin’ confusing – as I would’ve five minutes ago – it’s simply a famous variety of goat’s cheese produced in the Loire Valley in France)
In a similar flourish, my companion’s Heritage Tomato Salad with Ricotta, Basil Clotted Cream, Olive Oil Shortbread and Lemon Dressing (£6.50) was artfully arranged, a mini-mountain of overlapping reds, whites, yellows and greens. Drizzled in balsamic vinegar, the fresh, crisp tomatoes were given a hit of sharpness, which in turn was contrasted by the creaminess of the ricotta, creating a well-balanced mixture of flavours.(By the way, if you find the term ‘tomato’ confusing, well… you need help)
Next, the mains: pour moi, Roasted Wood Pigeon, Butternut Squash, Girolles, Braised Potato, Fat Hen and Blackberry Jus (£18.00). Here we see the restaurant’s summery theme come out in full, with petite crisp mushrooms that taste as if they’ve only just been plucked from a rich forest; thin, square slices of potato, stacked into a crunchy cube; blackberries with their sweetening juice; and variegated wood pigeon, with two pieces rare-cooked and so tender they fall apart effortlessly in your mouth, while the third is harder to cut but much more succulent within.
My partner enjoys Lemon Gnocchi, Girolles, Pea Veloute, Broad Beans, Courgette and Summer Truffle (£14.00). The gnocchi, an often stodgy food, was unusually light. Pleasingly, it hadn’t been drowned in sauce, which is sometimes the case; and that the only drawback, perhaps, was that it was a tad overly salty. Ah well, chef, you can’t win ’em all.
Then came the pièce de résistance: the Dessert Hamper for two (£14.00). My advice? Come to The Secret Garden for this alone. It’s got cute little glasses of cloudy lemonade, smashed pieces of crunchy honeycomb, meringue teardrops with chocolate dusting, marshmallows, warm donuts criss-crossed with chocolate sauce, a homemade version of mint aero, Oreo cheesecake, and Prosecco jelly topped with raspberry. It’s as deliciously indulgent as it sounds, and at £7.00 each, it’s an absolute snip.
Alongside this, we ordered the Plaimont dessert wine. Light and fragrant, it’s sourced in the foothills of the Pyrenees and its sweet, honey flavour is reminiscent of mead – a big thumbs up.
True, for the most part, the food here isn’t cheap. But this is balanced out by its quality, by the unusualness of the ingredients, and by the artfulness of the meals’ presentation. The summer theme is also nicely handled, clearly influencing the menu without making it feel contrived.
If nothing else, swing by, grab the dessert hamper, and turn a drizzly day into a cosy treat, or elevate a sunny one. And if you can’t make it, don’t worry – owner Jimmy Garcia is opening The Lodge, a ski-chalet themed extravaganza, for the winter. If it’s anything like this, it’s sure to be another pop-up success.
The Secret Garden
409 Clapham Road