I can boast that when the River Café reopened after its recent renovation back in October, I was one of the earliest through the door (…who wrote about it). It was in fact Fay who first started (softly) singing its praises, but soon the decibel level was decidedly higher and climbing as consecutive visits from many of the Capital’s foodies produced flattering critiques. From AA Gill to Dos Hermanos, all agreed that the food was good, very good.
When Ulterior Epicure enquired which restaurants he ought to try whilst in London, the River Café was always on the shortlist although it was not until almost the last minute that we definitely decided we just had to dine there. However, our dilly dallying nearly worked against us. Thanks partly to all that earlier-referred-to eulogy, the restaurant is always full and reservations can be hard to come by. But tonight, fortune smiled on us.
For dinner, it was Ulterior Epicure, Fashion Nugget and I. It was also Ulterior Epicure’s last night in London, so we had cause for celebration commemoration and therefore chose not to break form and continue with our recently set custom of ordering more food than it is safe for an average adult to consume.
Il Pane: Pagnotta and Ciabatta. Tonight, the bread basket bore pagnotta and ciabatta. The first is a slightly sour peasant loaf and had crisp crust and soft, fluffy centre. The ciabatta had a more open crumb and was a little lighter. With these came the River Café own-grown Capezzana 2006 from Carmignano; fruity and peppery, this is made on a Medieval Tuscan estate that has been producing olive oil since 804 AD.
Antipasto 1: Puntarelle ‘alla Romana’. Puntarelle salad with anchovies, lemon and olive oil is a classic Roman dish and here is mildly modified with red-wine vinaigrette. These greens are a variety of Catalonian chicory found nowhere else in Italy but the capital, so are indeed a source of local pride. As would be expected, they had a hint of bitterness with a refreshing, crispy crunch. Anchovies are their accustomed accompaniment and provided salty perkiness to the shoot’s peppery savour.
Antipasto 2: Calamari ai Ferri. Char-grilled squid with red chilli and rocket. This is a signature dish here. Two whole squids, scored, smothered with red chilli and grilled, sit alongside wild rocket. The squid had good texture and were not at all rubbery; I was pleased to see their heads still attached (my favourite part). The salad supplied some pep, although the mollusc had but mild taste with only a hint of smokiness and spice (even given all that visible chilli).
Antipasto 3: Insalata di Melagrana e Fagiano. Slow roasted slivers of pheasant, thin wafers of prosciutto di Parma, pomegranate and chestnuts mingled colourfully with radicchio Castelfranco (another chicory), rocket and dandelion. The pheasant pieces, cooked in Piedmontese Nebbiolo wine, were juicy and subtle; they were complemented by the fruity, moist crunch of the pomegranate, balsamic vinaigrette and earthy, warm chestnut. The salad had contrary gentle sharpness and fresh crispness.
Antipasto 4: Mazzancolle cotte in bianco. A troika of hot Scottish langoustines, gently poached, were simply dressed with sea salt, marjoram and new season’s extra virgin olive oil. The salt picked up on the slight brininess of the shellfish whilst the mildly citrusy marjoram on their sweetness. The mazzancolle themselves were well-sized and succulent, but without really intense savour (though still tasty enough); these ‘hot’ langoustines were also only warm. The fact that they were served whole pleased as this allowed us the fun of shelling them ourselves and sucking out their skulls and claws.
Antipasto 5: Fritto Misto. Delicately battered fillets of red mullet and anchovy, shards of violetta artichoke and slices of lemon were deep fried with sage leaves. This throw ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ into the fryer technique worked wonderfully and was deftly done; each crispy morsel was clean, startlingly light yet full of flavour. Sweet red mullet, salty anchovy, earthy and nutty violetta, zingy lemon and sharp sage all combined easily and excellently.
Primo 1: Spaghetti con Bottarga e Limone. Golden cords of spaghetti were served sprinkled with botargo and squeezed with lemon juice. The pasta was cooked al dente and was rustically starchy. Grated botargo (dried and cured grey mullet roe) imparted intense, salty essence, similar to that of anchovy and the lemon balanced the concentrated roe rather nicely.
Primo 2: Cappellacci di Zucca. Handmade pasta parcels, packed full with pumpkin, sweet potato, cinnamon and chilli, were subtly showered with sage butter and pecorino Toscano. These were delicate, but well-constructed; the dough daintily dissolved on the tongue to deliver soft sweetness, which was offset by the sharpish pecorino, sage and chilli. This is a traditional Ferrarese dish with the cappellacci crafted to resemble an old nuns’ cap.
Pesce 1: Cape Sante ai Ferri. A brace of scallops, roes still attached, arrived in anchovy and rosemary sauce with borlotti di Lamon and red leaf salad. The shellfish, ai ferri in both appearance and cooking, were plump, sweet and firm; the borlotti, those from Lamon being the biggest and best (and most expensive), were soft and pleasingly mushy. These were contrasted by the crunchy red-leaf chicory and radicchio, which, together with the anchovy and rosemary, formed a textbook River Café recipe (well, a Rogers Gray Italian Country Cook Book one anyway). The woody lemon of the herb was a good match for the char-grilled cape sante.
Pesce 2: Branzino al forno. Shimmering silver fillet of wild sea bass, wood-roasted on thyme branches in Pinot Bianco, was brought with trevise hearts and Castelluccio lentils. The fish was well-cooked with firm, flaky flesh and faint hint of thyme; a necessary niggle would be that the skin was not actually crisp. The white wine, with its light acidity, went well with it. Tender radicchio Rosso di Treviso were mellow whilst the organic, Umbrian lentils, which are harvested by hand (and hence more costly precious) and noted for their delicate taste and tiny size, were a nutty, earthy anchor to the dish.
Pesce 3: Rombo al forno. A titanic tranche of turbot, wood-roasted with lemon, capers and marjoram, lay alongside Swiss chard stalks, their leaves and Florence fennel. The turbot was big. It was also tasty with its delicious fat having thoroughly melted through the meat; the caper, lemon, marjoram mix offered citrus piquancy. Fennel, always good with fish, was caramelised and anise-sweet, conflicting chard was a little bitter. This rombo had been on my mind since Dos Hermanos ordered it a couple of weeks ago… and it was worth the wait – not only was it like the aforesaid ship in size, but it went down just as fast.
Carne 1: Maiale al latte. Slow cooked Middle White pork shoulder, slow cooked in milk with lemon zest and sage, was served with erbette saltate, cicoria, cima di rape, Savoy cabbage and rocket. Middle White was first recognised as a breed in 1852 and is the only British pig bred just for its meat. Fans of it include Heston Blumenthal, the two Sams from Moro (and formerly the River Café), Bruce Poole (Chez Bruce), Fergus Henderson and, of course, Rose and Ruth. However, it is still pork, so I still could not eat it – but it must have been at least decent as nugget, claiming she was too full, had it doggy bagged. For the record, erbette saltate are sautéed spinach beet; cicoria, Italian dandelion; cima di rape, a slightly bitter cooking green popular in Italy; whilst the rest, I reckon, are common enough.
Carne 2: Coscia d’Agnello ai ferri. Marinated carvings of char-grilled lamb, layered with salsa d’erbe, were presented with violetta artichokes ‘alla Romana‘ and large leaf rocket. Regretfully, this was another dish I did not try (I think I was too busy with that turbot). The herb salsa, a grainy, coarse purée, was composed of parsley, rocket, mint and marjoram, whilst the Roman violetta artichokes or carciofi alla Romana, a typical antipasto or street food, consisted of the vegetable itself filled with mint, parsley, garlic and olive oil.
I Formaggi: Basajo; Robiola delle Langhe; e Puzzone di Moena. From the cheese menu, we selected this trio, which were teamed with homemade grissini, more pagnotta, quince paste and fresh walnuts. The basajo was a strong sheep’s milk blue cheese from Veneto that had been matured in red grapes. Robiola della Lange from Piedmont was a creamy, mild mix of cow, goat and sheep’s milk. Cow’s milk Puzzone di Moena from Trentino Alto Adige was the strongest of the three; it is a protected Slow Food made from raw milk and not as odious as its name suggests. The quince jam was a delightful condiment, as were the good grissini.
Dolci e Gelati: Lemon Tart; Pear & Almond Tart; Chocolate Nemesis; Chestnut Sorbet; Toasted Almond Ice Cream; and Crème Fraîche. Although I had tried this triad of tarts already, they had been so lovely that I could not complain when we ordered them again. Lemon tart had sour crème and crunchy biscuit base (though was maybe more lemony last time); pear and almond was moist and sweet with nutty, sticky surface; whilst the nemesis was so sinfully chocolaty, but so heavenly light that it surprised my fellow diners. The sorbet and ice cream, not on the dinner menu but found after a little extra rooting around by our cameriere, were worth his effort; the toasted almond was quite agreeable, however the chestnut had us oohing out loud. I had never had this nut as a sorbet before, but was pleased to find it rich, thick and wholemealy. The crème fraîche I thought superfluous.
Dolci 2: Panettone Bread & Butter Pudding; and Pannacotta with Grappa & Champagne Rhubarb. Hot panettone had fine fruitiness from embedded, moist raisins and citric zest; its warm bath of custard was bursting with vanilla. The pannacotta had pleasingly moussey consistency whilst the beautifully bright rhubarb batons, naturally sharp, were infused with fruity, faintly tart champagne and stronger grappa. The balance of flavours was well-judged.
Service was excellent. Our principal cameriera, Veronica, could really not have been more helpful whilst the supporting staff of Melanie, whom I recognised from my last lunch here, and Baz, to whom we shall forever be grateful for finding that chestnut sorbet ‘in the back of the fridge’, were just as good. We were made to feel very much at home and very comfortable. All were attentive, sociable and obliging; even when the restaurant was full, it really did not tell. We also especially appreciated the fact that they allowed us to order almost any item as a half-portion thus enabling us to try so many dishes.
The food too was excellent. We had twenty-one items off the menu (wow, that many?! pride and shame are awfully hard to tell apart) and, not only was the execution on each and every one faultless, but we enjoyed eating them all. The antipasti were full of flavour; the pasta, delicate and tasty; the mains, hearty; and the formaggi, dolci e gelati, all yummy. For me, the fritto misto, spaghetti, cape sante, rombo and chestnut sorbet were highlights.
At the River Café, I always know what to expect – the freshest, choicest ingredients that have been cooked simply and taste great – and it has never failed to deliver. In the middle of December, our plates were awash with colour and filled with flavour. Seasonality and quality are at the centre of the restaurant’s cooking and it shows. The River Café refuses to use any produce that is not of the highest standard, it also refuses to serve anything but the best bits of those items that have managed to even make it into the kitchen – for example, only the thicker, more succulent centre fillets of fish are used, the rest disregarded. Such practices explain the higher prices, but the result is patent on one’s plate. Quality costs, and personally, I am glad to pay for it.
The River Café is also very much a fun place to eat. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and it was clear that at other tables, other diners were having a good time too. The atmosphere and staff certainly help; the dining room is colourful, modern and stylish whilst the waiters and waitresses young, amusing and friendly (or in our case, charmingly cheeky). This is possibly the most informal of London’s Michelin-starred restaurants, but this is simply in keeping with the style and ethos of the place and works wonderfully.
The cooking comforts. The River Café cheers.
Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, W6 9HA
tel: 020 7386 4200
nearest tube: Hammersmith