Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Restaurant review: The River Café, Hammersmith
I had wanted to visit The River Café for years. As a child, before I had any idea of what The River Café looked like or even really what it was, I was familiar with the iconic blue and yellow books, with the block-print fronts and frustrating lack of food photos inside. Growing up in the midlands, the thought of even beginning to look for coppa or trompettes de mort was preposterous. Why you would ever want to boil meat in milk was beyond me. But as I started to cook for myself and learn about ingredients it all started to make sense. The first recipes to gain the accolade of splashed pages and thumb-prints were the mushroom risotto and the lemon tart. Even now, as a reasonably competent cook and some 20 years after publication, they remain one of my first stops for inspiration.
When I moved to London 5 years ago I looked into making a visit. By then my own cooking had taken a more Italian direction, and I had just met the woman who would become my wife. Her and her father had a long working history with King’s Wharf and Richard Rogers architects, and throughout the nineties The River Café was their canteen. “Oh we must all go” they would say. Even as a plucky twenty-something looking to impress my date, I shat-myself when I saw the prices. I resigned myself that it was out of reach, and instead set about discovering the excellent Italian restaurants emerging a little closer to home. Five years on, and suddenly the now wife receives a tax rebate. “Let’s just book it and go!” she said. That’s my girl.
Booking made, the excitement of the visit, still a couple of months in advance, started to turn into fear. What if it all didn’t turn out as good as imagined in my head. Googling the see what others thought was a bad idea. “Shockingly overpriced” and “not what it used to be” were common. Was it worth risking spending enough money to pay for a holiday on a few hours of choking disappointment? But I had to go. This place had turned into my cooking mecca, and I just had to see for myself.
Hype is a brilliant thing for a restaurant. In the modern era, social media means that real buzz can be created in an avalanche of recommendations and filtered photographs, instantly turning the venue into a ‘must go’ location. But this also leads to make-believe expectations, and it is unfair to expect a restaurant to live up to this. From reading some previous reviews of The River Café, it seemed like people imagined that they would be hand-greeted by Lady Rogers, before being sat at gilded chairs, with a personal waiter who was able to pull themaway away at the merest thought about going to the loo. And those who visited expecting technical food full of squiggles and foams were truly missing the point.
Despite this negative feedback that had stirred my own apprehensions, I am relieved to say that I could not have wanted more from the whole experience. The simplicity of the room itself was a marvellous thing, peppered with those little architectural details that lifted everything else; that big red wood oven filled with iron pans holding grouse, veal and bass, the looming, projected clock, serving kitchen and diners alike, and those ‘hand written’ iconic menus. And I loved the references to it still being a working canteen at heart. The paper tablecloths may have looked a little out of place at first, but then Katie told me stories of how her father would have meetings there, and upon leaving the paper grids would be covered with scribbled building plans and notes. Brilliant. The room was a heaving bustle, full of smiling and laughter, yet right in the throngs of it, our table still had enough personal space that allowed us to engage without competing.
But it was ultimately the food that I was most worried about. Could such unashamedly simple food be somehow taken to another level? Well in short, yes. Every plate was a brilliant reminder that amazing ingredients, treated with respect and served simply, can be incredible. I love technical cooking and fancy presentation, but this was a total eye-opener, proving that sometimes the fancy frills aren’t necessary. My antipasti of raw veal with truffle was a prime example of this. I’d be surprised if there were more than five ingredients on the plate, yet that was absolutely all that was needed.
The dishes that followed carried the same hallmarks; wonderfully crafted pasta with soft, rich ragu, and perfectly cooked chunks of turbot and lamb that left us swooning. Contrary to what I had read previously, portions were mostly massive, and I was fit to bursting by the end of the main course. But I couldn’t come all of that way in freezing November without squeezing in that lemon tart, and I’m so glad that I did. Having made the recipe successfully many times, I assumed that this would just be a pleasant formality, a familiar ending to an outstanding meal. Wrong again. I now fully understand why that tart is the benchmark that all others follow. Quite how they achieve such a light, flavourful texture inside such delicate pastry is beyond me. I thought that I could recreate that recipe well, but this made my attempts purely amateur.
Time for the bill. I had noted earlier that Lord Rodgers had cleverly not included windows in the toilets, for petrified customers to make a dash out of. There’s no getting around the fact that the meal was hugely expensive. But with that I can in no way complain. It was no surprise; the restaurant made their prices clear and I chose to visit with that knowledge. Was it worth it? Absolutely. It was quite frankly the best Italian food I have ever eaten, with polite, unstuffy service in a lovely room. I would certainly return again given the chance, perhaps for a long, carefree lunch sat outside by the river on a hot summer’s day. In the meantime, I’ll have to go and dust off those blue and yellow cookbooks all over again…