The River Café (The Return), London

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.

The River Cafe - Il Menu

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.

The River Cafe - Il Pane The River Cafe - Il Olio d'Oliva

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.

The River Cafe - Puntarelle ‘alla Romana’

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.

The River Cafe - Calamari ai Ferri

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).

The River Cafe - Insalata di Melagrana e Fagiano

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.

The River Cafe - Mazzancolle cotto in bianco

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.

The River Cafe - Fritto Misto

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.

The River Cafe - Spaghetti con Bottarga e Limone

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.

The River Cafe - Cappellacci di Zucca

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.

The River Cafe - Cape Sante ai Ferri

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.

The River Cafe - Branzino al forno

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.

The River Cafe - Rombo al forno

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.

The River Cafe - Maiale al latte

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.

The River Cafe - Coscia d’Agnello ai ferri

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.

Basajo; Robiola delle Langhe; e Puzzone di Moena

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.

Lemon Tart; Pear & Almond Tart; Chocolate Nemesis; Chestnut Sorbet; Toasted Almond Ice Cream; and Crème Fraîche

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.

The River Cafe - Panettone Bread & Butter Pudding The River Cafe - Pannacotta with Grappa & Champagne Rhubarb

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.

 The River Cafe - La Tavola

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

River Cafe on Urbanspoon

18 Responses to “The River Café (The Return), London”

  1. 1 david goodfellow February 3, 2009 at 9:00 am

    I have often considered dining here.Gone to the website,winced at the prices,read a few reviews,and not gone.
    The River Cafe certainly divides opinion.I have just re-read an Andy Hayler interview in the Daily Mail dated 28 December.It echoes my feelings entirely.
    Having not dined here I am imagining that a big part of the experience is the “smiley happy people effect”,the buzz must be infectious.
    I dont want to detract from the cooking or the sourcing of product which clearly is top notch,however,a fair proportion of the dishes are construction jobs.That said this place is a huge success so why change a winning formula.
    One concession to the economy is the introduction of a three course lunch menu until 24 February for the bargain price of £24.
    As usual FS I really enjoy your skilled comment and in a way wished that I had dined with you.But only if you were paying lol.

    • 2 Food Snob February 3, 2009 at 10:41 am

      Haha, thanks David.
      It does look pricey, but the three of us were all pleasantly surprised when the bill arrived.
      Bear in mind, the meat courses were half-portions, as were both pastas and the tart platter.
      I have read Andy’s review too and I like to think that maybe he just went on an off day (lol), howeve I echo his sentiments about the langoustines.
      I appreciate what you are saying. But for me, that oven makes a big difference and is not a common feature.
      There is certainly a good vibe too, although one could argue that that was something worth paying for.
      There are many places that haze sizzle, but lack substance. I don’t feel that applied here.

  2. 3 david goodfellow February 3, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Good shout FS,point taken .Its only a matter of time before I enter those pearly gates to foodie heaven.I am of course referring to River Cafe.
    However,Im planning other food jaunts so it will have to wait.
    I fully agree about a busy,buzzy atmosphere it has to be factored into the whole experience.That said when my snout is well and truly in the trough I dont like distraction,lol.

  3. 4 gen.u.ine.ness February 3, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    As you know, I have made a list of places on my to-go list on Urbanspoon that I have to visit before I graduate (and start working for pennies instead of living on my parents funding). River cafe isn’t one of them on the list, and not because of the pricing. The problem is that when I go out, I want food which I can’t replicate at home. You make a good point about their oven but dishes like the lamb, squid and scallops for example can be done at home quite easily.

    This brings me a full circle back to the pricing – if I had to spend £60 on a meal I want it to be something special. I want Haute cuisine, not rustic stuff.

    • 5 Food Snob February 3, 2009 at 8:58 pm

      I feel that you are over-simplifying the issue.
      If you only judge by considering the chefs that have come out of the River Cafe, you cannot claim that it is just easy-to-make food. There is talent there and the fact that they are good cooks makes it look easy.
      On the other hand, the best dish I have probably eaten here was the Dover sole from my first visit. That was great fish with very little done to it. But it was cooked skilfully and, anyway, great ingredients need little manipulation. I would gladly pay for that dish everyday (c. £35).
      There is a lot of cross-over between haute cuisine and rustic.
      Finally, when we got our bill, as mentioned, we were all surprised at how small the figure was and absolutely agreed that it was great value for money.

  4. 6 Man February 4, 2009 at 8:38 am

    Every time I look at the RC dishes and at their prices I can make no sense of them. I look at the calamari with that bunch of rocket thrown on the side and I think maybe the price is for time travel, a trip back to Italy in the seventies – and who wouldn’t pay to go back to childhood 🙂

    And yet…people I respect and whose judgement I trust such as you keep singing their praises. I think the trick must be a mix of ambience and psychology. I guess the RC epitomises a certain image of Italy and its cusine in the world. It clearly makes people happy. It would probably make me happy. So how could one argue it isn’t a great place, a place that makes people happy?

  5. 7 Neil Jackson February 4, 2009 at 9:56 am

    I imagine the raw materials bought in by the RC are very expensive – the oil, the veg etc, and if they only use the very best cuts of a fish, that will significantly transfer itself onto the menu price. This is an interesting issue – I know a couple of people whose opinions I respect (and who work in the industry) baulked at the prices Rick Stein was charging in Padstow for this “quality fish, simply prepared” theme of cooking. In fact they couldn’t bring themselves to eat there, because they knew exactly how much it *should* have cost! Personally, I tend to admire a chef who creates something wonderful from ostensibly unpromising ingredients, but at the same time I appreciate Rogers, Gray and co provide wonderfully genuine and authentic Italian dishes. Also, they were highly original at one point and arguably still are.

  6. 8 Patrick February 4, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Another good review FS. I’m going for the first time next month and really looking forward to it.

    Just picking up on the comments in this thread, looking at the menu, most of the dishes I could and have made at home. They were very tasty and looked very similar to the pictures posted here (well apart from the chocolate nemesis and pork cooked in milk which were both disasters) but I’m confident eating a dish at the restaurant is 10 times better then whatever I can make.

    Taking good ingredients and cooking them simply sounds easy but I’m sure it’s harder than it looks. There’s no where to hide with this type of cooking and because of its style of cooking the River Cafe lives or dies by its ingredients – if they served sub par Sole, Scallops and Lamb the dishes would be a failure, hence top quality ingredients, which means higher prices, are needed and justified.

  7. 9 Food Snob February 4, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Hello all, thank you for the comments and the compliments!

    Man: One the two occasions that I have eaten there, the atmosphere was very different each time. The first was a quiet lunch, the second a busy dinner. What was the same were tasty, well-executed dishes, quality ingredients and charming service.
    I do not know what else to say…again we were pleasantly surprised by the size of the bill. You simply have to try it for yourselves… 

    Neil: Precisely. Good ingredients are not cheap.
    I agree that taking humble things and making them into something glorious is a lovely thing. On the other hand though, I also appreciate it when a glorious piece of produce is treated simply like sometimes it ought to be.
    There is always a temptation to play around with food. I mean, again, reflecting on the Dover sole, what more would someone want done to it?
    I feel the same way…the River Café had managed to keep itslef ‘special’ and distinct from London’s other Italians.

    Patrick: Delighted for you. I expect to hear how it goes 😛
    Precisely my point.
    I mean taking ingredients and cooking them expertly is one thing. But most of us would find it difficult to get our hands on such top quality materials.
    One more point, even if we could buy from the same sources that the Rive Café does, surely the fact that they can buy in bulk, probably means they can get it at a discount.
    (I write optimistically) maybe they pass some of this saving onto us? Lol

    Don’t misunderstand me. I would not say the River Café is the greatest restaurant in the world, but it is mighty good at what is does. It is a place where they know how to treat guests. And they are generous – something I always adore (adore most?) in a restaurant.

    For instance, as I have said, I love their oven, their desserts too, but if I want a hearty bowl of pasta, then I would not go here. The pasta is tasty, well made, but it is rather delicate. Instead, I would probably head to Locatelli.

  8. 10 Su-Lin February 7, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    I have never been to the River Cafe mainly as I thought I could never afford it but I had no idea half portions (and large half portions at that!) could be ordered. Thank you!

  9. 11 Food Snob February 7, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    You are very welcome, Su-Lin!

  10. 12 Stu-Pot February 11, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Was it as simple as just asking for half portions? Everytime i’ve been i have wanted to eat at least 10 items on the menu!!

    • 13 Food Snob February 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

      That’s exactly how I have always felt.
      Next time definitely ask. It never hurts…

      • 14 Ben June 15, 2009 at 1:05 pm

        My take on the River Cafe is that it may serve expensive Italian peasant food, but that to get from London to a suitably rustic, excellent and cheap restaurant in Italy costs a lot more.

        Incidentally, if you are ever in New York and are seeking Italian food I can strongly recommend Franny’s in Brooklyn. Convivio in Tudor City, Manhattan, is also very good if much pricier

  11. 15 Food Snob June 15, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    Thanks for the suggestions!
    I cannot say I heard of Franny’s, but Convivio does ring a bell.

  12. 16 Foodie September 14, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    haha love your Blogs! Need to take a trip to the River Cafe have heard many good things about it. Have you heard about the foodie festival at St. Pancras station this week… looks awesome starts on wednesday, lots of famous chefs etc im intrigued….

  13. 18 jared October 31, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    how did 3 of you have 21 items off the menu? even with half portions, that’s a great deal of good food!

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