If you read this blog to learn about the latest restaurant openings, or for recommendations of restaurants you haven’t previously heard of, look away now.
Because though last week’s slightly tepid review was of a new, well intentioned but probably not totally successful Italian trattoria, this post focuses on the long established Grandmother of relaxed but quality Italian dining in the UK: the iconic River Café.
If you haven’t been, you probably feel like you know it already. In fact, even if you haven’t heard of it, you still probably know about it and the food it serves, such has its influence been on UK restaurants and, more significantly, cookbooks, TV shows and therefore home kitchens in the last 15 years. Watch and read Jamie or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall? Have the Moro cookbooks? Then you know the River Café, its food and its principles.
I certainly felt that I knew what to expect before I visited for the first time with my parents a couple of weeks ago.
And I wasn’t surprised or disappointed: beautiful food, much of it simple, some of it deceptively so, all of it impeccably sourced and served in the perfect restaurant atmosphere … and not cheap.
We went on a glorious January weekday lunchtime. Crisp with blue skies and no wind, our brief walk along the Thames path on the way to the restaurant put me in exactly the right mood for some cucina rustica.
The large room was full and already buzzing at 12:30, tens of young staff in bright, block colours flitted around the room, carrying plates, pouring drinks and otherwise just flitting. A similar sized army of similarly young chefs were quietly going about their business in the large open plan kitchen. And, at an island ‘pass’ at the juncture between the kitchen and the seating (which was also happily where we were sat), Lady Ruth Rogers presided, checking plates, drizzling oil and calmly commandeering.
We were taking advantage of the winter weekday lunch offer: 2 courses for £25, 2 courses plus dessert for £31 or the full Italian 3 courses plus dessert for £39. Not the cheapest set lunch in London by any means, but given main courses on the a la carte menu are pretty much all upwards of £30, this is a great way to eat at the River Café.
For no particular reason we went for the £31 option and each skipped the antipasti to have pasta and a main course. I regretted this decision for about 30 minutes until (having eaten our pastas) we asked to share one of the beautiful antipasti plates of mozzarella, Swiss chard and cured meats that kept being whisked past. Having done this, I can confirm that the 2 course plus dessert and one third of an antipasti is the perfect amount of food, though arguably not in the order we chose to have it.
Our pastas were simple but faultless: my fusilli with a cream reduction sauce, firm borlotti beans and two pieces of parma ham draped over the top was excellent, Mum’s mushroom (I think – I’ve lost the menu and haven’t called to check) linguine was fresh and spot on, and Dad had four bright green herb gnocchi that were light as a feather (and appreciated all the more by me having spent the previous day making gnocchi that were infantile by comparison).
Main courses were similarly unspectacular, but equally fresh, comforting and without flaw. Mum had charred sea bass served with lovely herby white beans, I had slow cooked lamb on cheesy polenta and Dad a huge nicely crusted but still tender calves liver with roasted fennel. We followed mains with classic and (you guessed it) on the money lemon tarts, the River Café’s signature chocolate nemesis and (having finished our lovely bottle of Riesling) a couple of coffees and a fresh mint tea. There’s minimal fuss or obvious showy alchemy here. But look close and you see wafer thin but crisp pastry, intense and smooth chocolate. The genius is in the simplicity and the confidence of delivery.
I suspect some of the food will always feel like there hasn’t been enough done with it to justify the prices on the full a la carte menu. For me, though, the pricing reflects the impeccable ingredients and delivery, not to mention the huge teams in the kitchen and on the floor. Go, if you can, on a weekday and take advantage of the lunch menu offer. The perfection to which the food is sourced, cooked and compiled is not actually that simple to achieve, not least because the lunch and a la carte menus change daily. Moreover, there’s a tremendous warmth in the room. We thought it was great.
At about 12:45, Lord Rogers (of architecture fame) walked in, dressed in a bright pink shirt and matching watch as if he was one of the front of house staff, with about 20 of his employees on their way to lunch in a room just off the main area. This was a nice reminder of the fact that his wife and her friend had started the restaurant as a kind of work canteen 20 odd years ago. After a while he joined his wife at the pass, picking at a plate of mozzarella and ham and joking with his block colour compatriots.
Sitting watching them, they appeared the embodiment of professional content. There was an air of satisfaction emanating from the pair of them; obvious pride and enjoyment in what they do and what they have achieved. Surely neither needed to be there. Their presence and demeanor was as inspiring as it was admirable.
The River Café in 3 words
Iconic. Deceptively simple.
Even on a lunch deal you’ll probably end up paying £45 a head with wine, service and maybe coffee. Add more if you’re going a la carte and you’re having the works.
rivercafe.com – Thames Wharf Rainville Rd, W6 9HA – 020 7386 4200