Ask anyone to name London’s top Italian restaurant and general consensus would suggest either Locanda Locatelli, Zafferano or the River Café. Regular readers should might have already read my reviews of the first two and have probably been waiting some time, as have I, for that inevitable visit to the River Café. Well, after many months – six to be certain – I am able to finally fulfil my gastronomic responsibility and complete my Grand Tour of London’s la Santissima Trinità.
Why the wait? A fatty steak. During dinner service on Saturday, 5 April, when cooking bistecca alla Fiorentina, ‘some flaring vapours got caught in the flue,’ causing the open grill to ‘explode like a jet plane.’ The forced shutting required for repair was viewed a good excuse for a refit and thus the River Café remained closed until a couple of weeks ago when, like a phoenix, it arose from its own ashes. The owners decided to take advantage of the interval and insurance money – used to cover staff salaries – spending the summer in Italy with their chefs, mastering new recipes, and sending people to work with suppliers and other restaurants – some, for example, worked at La Fromagerie, being taught how to look after cheese; others went to Specogna, a family-run winery in Northern Italy; whilst a few were sent to San Daniele near Venice to learn about prosciutto. A series of charitable projects were undertaken too: disabled kids helped build a vegetable garden in the former-dining-room-cum-greenhouse, later cooking with the very legumes of their labours; while a group of female chefs visited a women’s refuge.
The Café’s closure was a big deal. Many see the iconic Italian, first opened in 1987 by New Yorker Ruth Rogers (Lady Rogers of Riverside) and English Rose Gray, as revolutionary to British culinary culture. The two women, both without professional experience and first friends through Richard Rogers, well actually, Richard’s first wife, learnt their love of cucina rustica from Richard’s mother, Dada, who fed Rose when at art college with Richard in Guildford and Ruth, whilst living with her husband in Paris. London, before the advent of these girls, was bereft of such staples as extra virgin olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, bruschetta and polenta and the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients, as rudimentary as it may be now, was radical twenty years ago. Menus that changed with the seasons, let alone twice a day, were unheard of; in Rose’s own words, ‘I know it’s become very fashionable now, but to us, it just made sense.’
The restaurant, which has spawned ten cookbooks and numerous TV shows, is also a breeding ground for some of Britain’s most recognisable chefs: Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – the first and last person to be fired from here (having filled the kitchen with chocolate mess) – Theo Randall, Samantha and Samuel Clark (Moro), Ed Baines (Randall & Aubin) plus April Bloomfield (of NYC’s Spotted Pig). The eatery also earned notoriety as the ‘government canteen’ of the Blair years, with the former PM, Brown and Mandelson all regulars. This deep-rooted relationship even saw Blair courier lunch from the Café to No. 10 on the day of Labour’s 1997 victory and Peter Lilley to complain at the following Tory conference that Britain was ‘now all about Britpop and the River Café.’ A year before, the New Yorker hailed it as the best Italian in Europe, Italy included, and a year later, Michelin awarded it its first star…Times have changed, but the restaurant’s reputation for quality or popularity has not – it still rakes in over £10,000 a day, no doubt helped by the famously premium prices paid for the ironically peasant-style provender at this ironically christened café.
The River Café almost does not want to be found, hidden in a former Duckhams Oil storage facility on an industrial estate off the A219 in Hammersmith – probably part of the attraction for celebs keen to avoid the paparazzi. Though to be fair, location (location, location) was not a key consideration in 1987, as the Café was initially an informal venture, created as a canteen for Lord Roger’s architectural practice, RSH+P, sited on the same estate.
Arriving via the riverside promenade, this piece of Tuscany-on-the-Thames is housed in a brown-brick, what-was-warehouse. A large green terrace – the to-be-seen spot each summer – and small garden separate it from the river; this garden, Rose’s baby, though nowhere near sufficiently fruitful to feed the restaurant, serves to top up supplies when especially busy and as a testing ground for new seeds brought back from the owners’ adventures abroad. Originally, obviously designed by the Lord himself and since updated in conjunction with Stuart Forbes Associates, the interior is understated, unassuming and structured simply: the space is a bright, vast, modern mixture of glass and metal, blue and white. The post-blaze redesign involved only minor modification: the same long room now has a new colourful, yellow reception, whilst the opposite end has had its wall pushed back behind the now open-plan kitchen, whose custom-built wood-fired oven complete with attention-grabbing, flaming maw is its most eye-catching aspect. That old clock is still there, projected upon a baby blue, back-lit plane. The deli-like counter, with its reflective mirror face, also still runs across the restaurant and staff still lay out cakes, tarts, cheeses and breads along its top. New additions, however, include an 18-person private dining room, fully equipped with walk-in cheese cupboard plus conference facilities for the more business-inclined clientele.
The floor is carpeted in royal blue, whilst the ceiling is composed of concave, perforated white steel; one wall is laced with large, latticed French windows, the other with overhanging, semi-transparent, turquoise panelling; the rest of the restaurant is clean alabaster. Squared tables are close together, but not disturbingly so. They are bounded with bouncy, meshed chrome chairs and plainly decked with tissue-paper tablecloth whose austerity raised an eyebrow. The tabletops are similarly stark: two, tiny bowls of salt and pepper; a practical glass; Georg Jensen stainless steel cutlery; and paper-printed menu and laminated wine-list. There are nice cloth napkins, at least. The crockery that comes later is Churchill.
The whole place has a nice and comforting vibrancy: there is a pleasing hustle bustle from the restaurant and clitter clatter from the kitchen. The active, young, mostly female staff hover and float gracefully between tables, emanating energy and enthusiasm. The glowing roar from the beehive furnace, steam from the stove and sizzle from the saucepans all add to the atmosphere.
I was warmly welcomed and seated by my ever-smiling, charming cameriera. However, I was unsure what to order – the menu is dynamic yet full – so the manager, Lolo, offered to show me around whilst I thought it over. After a thorough nose about, I enlisted her help, together deciding on an appetising assortment of the Café’s finest fare.
Il Pane: Ciabatta and Sourdough. Il granaio was a rustic offering of only two types, both brought in. Of equally good quality, the ciabatta was open, light with a crisp floury crust and subtle olive oil savour while the sourdough, wholesome, thick and with a tearable exterior. If one is disappointed that the bread is not homemade (a tragedy given that grand oven), they should feel more than compensated by the olive oil, which the River Café does produce itself. This Felsina 2006, made with olives from a single Tuscan estate, had a mild, ripe, peppery flavour.
Antipasto: Carne Crudo. Finely chopped fillet of raw beef was purely presented with parmigiano reggiano shards, mâche leaves and gentle dressing of 12 year old aged balsamic vinegar. The soft manzo melted in the mouth leaving a surprisingly clean, fresh finish: the mild meat had none of the crudeness common to uncooked carne improperly prepared. The tender mâche – lambs’ lettuce – added a crunch and mild nuttiness that matched well with the parmesan, itself adding creamy consistency. Together with a little lemon, the vinegar, slightly syrupy and sweetly sour, cut through the flavours on the plate. In an unpretentious twist to conventional carpaccio, these basic accompaniments served to simply showcase the quality meat.
Primo: Ravioli di Ricotta. Another straightforward serving, this of three thin, handmade pasta parcels packed with ricotta and cima di rape with I Cannonici extra virgin olive oil and aged pecorino stagionato. The ravioli were very well made, dissolving on the tongue to reveal a pleasantly grainy and coarse, moist middle of rich ricotta and barely bitter rape that balanced each other nicely. Decorating the dish were more rape and shavings of pecorino with just a dribble of house, I Cannonici, olive oil, sufficient to grease the dainty packages’ effortless glide down one’s gullet. The whole dish, though unexpectedly light and delicate, I did think needed a little more salt, but I was easily able to remedy this myself with the salt already at the table.
Tartufo: Taglierini alla Piemontese con Tartufi Bianchi. Freshly made taglierini came with 2.5 grand grams of the first of the season’s Tuscan white truffles. The treasured tartufi were the deserving centrepiece, delivering a woody, mildly earthy, garlic aroma and taste, which delightfully dominated the dish. The Piedmontese pasta was the ideal transport for its paesano fungi’s flavour, absorbing the light butter and parmesan sauce until nicely tender. Apparently, this recipe is a speciality of Al Moro, a small restaurant in Tuscany, where regular, Ruth, often finds creative stimulation.
Pesce: Sogliola al Forno. A dazzling dish of Dover Sole, whole, wood-roasted on the bone with rosemary branches was teamed with fresh borlotti beans and large leaf rocket. The brown-grey speckled Sole was superbly cooked and simply dressed in light lemon and olive oil while seasoned with well-matching and strikingly strong infusions of lemony-pine rosemary and deft woodiness from the oven. The buttery sweet, bouncy, firm flesh of the fish fell off the bone in succulent, steaky slivers. Peppery, crunchy rocket – the perfect piscine partner – and warm, creamy borlotti completed the course. A good fillet of fish, rocket, a big squeeze of lemon (and some onion wedges) is enough to have me as happy as Larry, so this was right up my road – and a Wow!
Carne: Gallo Cedrone al Forno. An autumnal special of Yorkshire grouse stuffed with sage and thyme, wood-roasted in Cortegiaga Amarone, and roasted Violini pumpkin and fennel (Speck della Val d’Aosta is also normally included) was next. Initial surprise at being served an entire gallo was soon replaced by greedy delight. That fierce furnace had once again been put to good effect: crispy skin wrapped moist and juicy flesh. The bird was buzzing with flavour and flushed with deep purple amarone. This wine, spicy, fruity, but noted especially for its bitterness – Italians call it ‘the big bitter’ – imparted an intense, almighty alcoholic wallop that enhanced the gaminess already inherent. Pungent, robust sage and thyme complemented the soused grouse whilst the seductively caramelised vegetables almost stole the show themselves; their subtle sweetness helping balance the dish.
Dolci e Gelati: Pear & Almond Tart; Polenta Cake with Lemon Sorbet; Lemon Tart; Chocolate Nemeis; and Caramel Ice Cream. So far, Lolo’s suggestions had proved spot-on, so for dessert, I left it to her. She did not disappoint. A selezione of four cakes/tarts, a sorbet and ice cream, which would have made any over-nosy, fellow diner green with envy, arrived. I took my time, slowly savouring a bite of each, trying to decide on a favourite. Once more I was surprised: I had been sure I wouldn’t, couldn’t like each, that a dud was surely there. I was wrong. All were great. Melt-in-the-mouth almond and pear was sweet, soft and covered in a delightful macaron crust. The polenta cake, an authentic Sicilian delicacy, was dense, moist and super-crumbly with a lemony-nut finish, accentuated by the intense lemon sorbet, dotted with lime zest. A well-judged, cleansing lemon tart had thick, sour, creamy crème and crunchy biscuit base. The chocolate nemesis, a River Café classic, lived up to its reputation: made, for the record, with eight different cocoa beans and no flour, this treat had the softness of a soufflé, but full, gorgeous hit of cocoa – Yum. Caramel ice cream was toffee-rich and almost bitter with slightly burnt sugar flavour. Ribadisco, dolci erano deliziosi!
I must admit, the first few dishes, though well-prepared and pleasant enough, did not wow me, but with the arrival of the Dover Sole, the meal tore straight through first into fifth gear and never slowed down. I left thinking the cooking a master-class in ‘how to leave things alone’, keep plates simple and uncluttered and flavours clean. In classic Mediterranean tradition, ingredients are the focus and the chef’s role is to help emphasise these, not to complicate them – foams, pastes, rich sauces, emulsions are not in the kitchen’s repertoire. This takes skill, but it is a job made easier by having the best raw materials to work with – something the Café properly prides itself on: ‘sourcing, sourcing, sourcing’ is Ruth and Rose’s motto. Head Chef, Joseph, who very kindly took the time to have a few words with me, on his day off no less, summed their supplier strategy succinctly: ‘where ever it’s fresh, where ever it’s best, that’s where we get it.’ So expect to find, this time of year, Yorkshire grouse, Welsh lamb, Italian tomatoes (sicuramente), Tuscan olive oil, French fennel, herbs from, umm, the garden outside, and more. Indeed, the menu is so responsive to the market, it is amended twice a day – something unmatched by any other Michelin starred restaurant in London.
Service is very lovely too; this was my first visit to the River Café, but I felt right at home. My waitress took diligent care of me, refilling my glass with chilled tap water, replenishing my bread, replying to my many questions with a constant patience and smile. She was great, but mademoiselle-manager, Lolo was la star; her menu choices were spot on; dessert selection pressed all the right buttons; she showed off the new interior; took me on a guided tour of the exterior; and even organised a one-to-one between Chef Joseph and myself. I repeat, elle était l’étoile. Such considerable care seems only natural and so it should given that everyone looks like they are enjoying their work; are clearly taken care of by Ruth and Rose; and the restaurant is essentially a family operation – Rose’s daughter is a chef, her husband, Charles Pullan, the manager (and a winning one, well almost, according to Michael Winner), Lucy’s daughter waitresses and Rose’s son, Ossian, runs the finances. Actually, I even noticed on my way out a couple of the staff lunching at one of the tables: something extraordinary considering that even McDonald’s employees must enjoy their meals out at the back, out of sight.
A final note on those spine-stiffening tissue-paper tablecloths is warranted. It was only after tiffin that their use and necessity were appreciated: puddles of olive oil, bloody bits of grouse carcass, drips of the red stuff, fish bones and breadcrumbs were all evidence of my embarrassingly messy eating (or of me thoroughly enjoying my meal maybe?).
‘It’s Mecca, basically. I really think the River Café laid the foundation for sexy, simple, cool food in this country,’ lisps Café old boy Jamie Oliver. He has a point, the quality of produce and preparation makes the food here easy to eat: dishes like Dover Sole can be devoured thoughtlessly; grouse, relished; and chocolate nemesis, indolently indulged in. The cooking cheers. The River Café comforts.
Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, W6 9HA
tel: 020 7386 4200
nearest tube: Hammersmith