Tina Lofthouse checks out the menu from new head chef Jean-Didier Gouges

While The Petersham Hotel is set in a grand Victorian building, its location at the top of a hill and up a sweeping driveway means you need to know of its existence as it’s unlikely to be a place you’ll stumble across by chance. It is therefore a testament to the reputation of the hotel that, on a cold Tuesday evening, its restaurant was happily buzzing. And, given that one of its big draws is its glorious view of the Thames that is not in evidence when night falls, there must be something special happening in the restaurant itself.

It is an elegant contemporary space with mirrors lining the walls and has a sense of occasion, yet a warm welcome makes you feel instantly at home. Our visit was to find out more about the restaurant’s new head chef, Jean-Didier Gouges, who says his food is inspired by art, culture, and travel, as well as his native home of Mauritius, where he trained in classical French techniques. In London he has worked as head chef in a number of high-end venues, including Rhubarb’s flagship fine-dining restaurant in the Royal Albert Hall.

His enthusiasm was infectious and so we left the choosing of our meal to him, with no brief other than to bring us whatever he wanted us to eat. Our starters included beef tartare, elevated to new heights with caviar and a Japanese dressing – the best tartare we have ever tasted. Burnt goat curd cheese was a delightful plate of silky discs that looked like mini crème brûlées, and was cut through with apple. A dish of crab with quinoa was a little too busy for me, with a host of ingredients including poached yam with squid ink. Everything else we tried was a perfectly judged blend of playfulness and restraint. Beef fillet with black truffle was stunningly cooked and a visual feast with cute saffron potatoes cut into the shape of mushrooms. Lamb cutlet came with crispy peas, the latter a nod to the food of Mauritius. It is food that makes you smile, most definitely, but it is no gimmick – the flavours absolutely at the heart of the dish. His approach extends to dessert – a mandarin cheesecake was ensconced in an orange sphere so that it took on the appearance of the citrus fruit. It felt harsh to destroy it with our spoons but when we did, the edible exterior cracked away beautifully, revealing the sweet cheese mix within.

Jean-Didier described to us with passion some of the cooking techniques he uses – there are pearls of citrus, powders of black olive, chosen with care to enhance each dish. Each dish he presented with a grin, a chef clearly happy in his work. All in all, a refreshing experience that shows that fine dining can be fun as well as fine.

Nightingale Lane, Richmond, Surrey, TW10 6UZ
020 8940 7471
www.petershamhotel.co.uk