THE RIVER CAFÉ: A NEW BEGINNING AT THE END OF THE LINE
As we trundled along on The Hammersmith & City line towards The River Café, my expectations for our lunch were not as high as I was sure the final bill was going to be. It was years since I had last set foot in the place and my memory of that meal, of its tired cooking and ingredients that failed to support the much declared search for the finest available, still left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I had railed against it ever since and only persuaded HP to go on this occasion because we were to write about it for someone else, just as we were for St John a few weeks earlier.
Like St. John, The River Café is one of London’s great iconic restaurants and, like St John it too was emerging from a recent refurbishment although for altogether less positive reasons. Also, like St John, I was expecting our meal at The River Café to confirm what I already suspected, that this was a restaurant resting on its expensive, carefully sourced laurels while young upstarts elsewhere took what Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray had started to new levels. It was an expectation reinforced when we arrived bang on time for our reservation, don’t you dare be late here, to be shown to a tiny table, close enough to our neighbours that we could share body warmth in a chilly dining room as we were given the menu with its legendarily scaring pricing structure.
However, once a bowl of bread was placed on our table and we had torn off chunks to dip in a superb olive oil, we took time to actually read the menu. While the prices still lead to a bill higher than the GDP of some emerging nations, they no longer stand alone in that regard in London and, in fact, some of the dishes looked positive value for money, particularly if they turned out to be as good as they sounded.
And, there is the rub with The River Café. If your schtick is predicated on phenomenal ingredients not screwed around with, you have nowhere to hide. On my last visit slack execution made the whole experience a dispiriting one, but HP’s first bite of his signature starter, char grilled squid with chilli flakes and rocket had him glancing at me with that look which can only mean “we might have some fun here” It was good, better than I recall, with the soft, almost buttery squid taking on the heat of the chilli and the pepper of the rocket to perfect effect.
I was less convinced with my Puntarelle “a la Romana” unless that is “a la Romana” means that the small shoots of cicoria should be sloshed too liberally with red wine vinegar. Although I polished it off, at £13 so would you, each bite made my mouth pucker like a reticent sphincter in a gay bathhouse.
A shared pasta dish brought my opinions back into line with HP. Perfect sheets of pappardelle stood up to a bite, as they should and came with just enough coating of a sauce of hare cooked slowly in Chianti for both to express themselves through a strong seasoning of bay and a covering of parmesan. While the small balls of shot that had seen off our little scampering main ingredient almost cracked a tooth, they did at least give evidence to its wild provenance.
The sight of Ruth Rogers in the kitchen reassured us that someone would be looking at the plates before they came to our table and that same look from HP as he took his first slice from a huge tranche of meaty turbot roasted with marjoram and lemons, confirmed that, even at £32 a pop, this was a megastar dish. Better even than my own choice of Fegato, which came to the table perfectly cooked to medium rare and in a messy, ugly but entirely delicious sauce of balsamic and crème fraiche. Serious dishes from a kitchen at the very top of its game.
Famously, The River Café cookbook contains a recipe for Chocolate Nemesis, a recipe that few, if any, have been able to replicate. So, while HP persuaded one of our incredibly friendly and efficient servers to bring him scoops of ice cream that went with all the other dishes, I plumped for that. The ice cream was, of course, superb and HP wiped the bowl clean. The nemesis, well, it was a chocolate cake and how good can a chocolate cake get? Actually, in this case, very good indeed, moist and rich.
With such focus on its pricing, you would expect the wine list to bring sobs from all but the uber-rich. However, it is surprisingly sensible and although they were out of our first two choices, a bottle of Farone and another of Nero D’avola served the meal well and did not bite the wallet too hard. By the time we came to coffee and post dessert grappa, we were glad of the paper tablecloths as our server scribbled the names of our boozy drinks it to help us remember and then slipped us our bill once we had sipped enough clear spirit to numb the oncoming pain.
Of course, it’s not cheap and our bill approached £200, but remove the grappa and one bottle of wine and pro rata their VAT and service and our meal here, with its outstanding moments, was not much above our poor meal at St. John. It convinced us that, while the latter was on the wane, the layoff here at The River Cafe has only served to reinvigorate this once weary veteran to a point where we could see it being around for at least another twenty years.