It’s not uncommon to find a cafe in a garden centre but as the owner of one Norfolk nursery so accurately put it, they’re usually good for little more than “tea and a pee”. I was therefore somewhat surprised at my grandma’s choice to spend her 90th birthday lunch at Newbridge Nurseries near Horsham, and was admittedly a little reluctant to travel down from London for a cold canteen-style lunch in some old conservatory in the middle of nowhere.
Our table was booked for a rainy Saturday afternoon in early October and even the abundance of eager Christmas decorations did little to warm up the scene. However, the old dear seemed perfectly happy pottering about the pot plants and my sister and I quickly earmarked the shelves of Lindt chocolate bunnies as a reliable fall-back for the inevitable let-down of lunch.
It wasn’t until we’d actually stepped into the Narnia-like space of Stooks Cafe and Restaurant that I realised I was not only entirely wrong about this place, but I was actually pretty excited to be here. Warm and inviting with a real buzz and family atmosphere, this converted barn eaterie is a proper hidden treasure with a kitchen that serves up a Middle Eastern inspired menu from local, healthy and organic fresh produce. From pan fried seabass and Middle Eastern spiced guinea fowl to pulled pork stuffed sweet potato, flatbread topped with brie, crispy bacon & fig jam and even Malabar prawn curry served with lime & coconut rice, the menu is expansive as it is inclusive with all the familiar sandwich/quiche/jacket potato options to appease a less adventurous audience, albeit with the more sophisticated additions of prawns and crayfish in lemon and black pepper mayonnaise, caramelised onions, focaccia, sourdough and straight-up gluten free bread. It’s also surprisingly affordable. The larger main meals are all under £10 each and served with a salad of your choice. And I’m not talking leaves. This is chunky wholesome proper-food salads such as summer squash, feta & corn, rainbow edamame bean salad with an asian lime vinaigrette, beetroot, kale & walnut, or sticky roast herbed potatoes, all in colourful display by the counter.
Even our waitress went above and beyond expectation (I actually think the sentence “Isn’t she just lovely” was bandied about at least ten times between my mum and grandma) and couldn’t have been more helpful or apologetic for not being able to offer table service (it was a busy Saturday and we were invited to jump the queue anyway) or for selling out of one of the salads (I got a double portion of two others as replacement). Every dish was cooked to perfection, and there was a fair amount of plate-sharing going on as we all eyed up each others choices. We were too full to order dessert from the patisserie menu but I’m assured by my grandma that they make the best cakes around, and her simple request for vanilla ice cream was given the full birthday-treatment anyway with chocolate sauce writing.
This year Newbridge Nurseries was awarded the title of Most Improved Garden Centre, and it must have Stooks to thank for that. Seriously good food with the service to match, Stooks offers unpretentious quality that doesn’t deserve us pretentious Londoners and our misjudged opinions of garden centre dining. So Stooks, I’m sorry. Grandma had it right. And I can’t wait to come back.