The River Cafe is one of the must go restaurants in London. An institution which created a new wave of simple, seasonal cooking it was also the restaurant that launched the careers of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Theo Randall and Sam and Sam Clark amongst others. Despite a fire in 2008 ago that forced the restaurant to close for six months and the death of co-owner Rose Gray in Feburary this year the River Cafe is still going strong.
The River Cafe is on the bank of the Thames in Hammersmith
The restaurant started as the canteen for the architectural practice of Ruth Roger’s husband, Lord Rogers which explains its tucked away location down a residential street in Hammersmith backing onto the Thames. The location is so discreet that one poor staff members sole job appeared to be to stand on the street and direct diners towards the restaurant. Once inside the restaurant it is all brightness and light. The place still has a utilitarian feel which is reminiscent of its canteen days with unfussy wire chairs, paper topped tables and a huge bar that runs down the entire side of the room leading to the open kitchen where the chefs beaver away in full view. Right next to the large white-washed wood fired oven Ruth Rogers still mans the pass carefully inspecting every plate of food as it left the kitchen on my visit. It’s a reminder that open kitchens may be par for the course these days but when The River Cafe first opened the concept was revolutionary.
Char grilled squid
The seasonal menu that changes twice a day was also ground breaking when The River Cafe first opened, on my Saturday lunch time visit with MTV boyfriend it had a distinctly summery feel to it with lots of seafood and lighter options. Chargrilled squid (£14) was bouncy and wriggly, complete with tentacles and had a fabulous smoky taste from the grill. It sat on a simple rocket salad with a fresh red chilli jam to add some kick.
Inside the River Cafe with the wood fired oven at one end of the room
In true Italian style it was the “primi” or pasta course that stole our hearts. The honesty of The River Cafe’s style of cooking was at its best in the tagiatelle con pomodori crudi (£13), a simple dish of pasta tossed in sweet, juicy raw tomatoes, a few judicious basil leaves and a splash of red wine vinegar. The mix of ingredients achieved a magical equilibrium where the finished dish was greater than the sum of its parts. The ravioli (£15) was similarly under-played featuring a a couple of fat discs of pasta stuffed with fresh girolles and buffalo ricotta and drizzled with a little sage butter. The al dente pasta was just right and if food could actually sing each of the ingredients would have been in total harmony.
The wood fired oven was put to good use to cook the whole Dover sole (£33) which was roasted over rosemary branches and then teamed with some swiss chard and roasted beetroot. The fish had a subtle lemon flavour and virtually popped with freshness. Leg of lamb (£32) had been char-grilled to a state of rosy pinkness and was pepped up with a vibrant salse verde and a sprinkling of girolles. Once again this was simple stuff but the top notch ingredients made it a dish of rustic beauty.
Leg of lamb
To finish the restaurant’s chocolate nemesis cake (£8.50) is almost obligatory. The recipe for the cake in The River Cafe’s cook book is famously impossible to replicate successfully but I could see why people have kept on trying after I took a bite of the cake. It was light while at the same time being incredibly moist and straddled the line between chocolate mousse and chocolate cake. The cake was a much better choice than the cheese plate (£13). Despite the revamped restaurant having its own cheese affineur room the selection of three Italian cheeses served were sweaty and warm. The suggested pairing of a glass of lageder riesling (£8) was also a miss as the wine lacked the sweetness I expected to compliment the cheese.
We would have been better off sticking with the wine we drank over the course of our meal, the Carmigano (£51) which was a blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon. It was recommended by the sommelier who guided us through the entirely Italian wine list. He was relatively helpful in pointing out a variety of wines at different prices that he thought paired well with our food but not so helpful at actually discussing the wine with us. This was the only part of the service that was in any way lacking, our waitress was very helpful and attentive while maintaining a laid back attitude that fitted in well with the casual informality of the restaurant itself.
The food at The River Cafe serves as a complete explanation for why Italian food is as its best when it is at its most simple. High quality ingredients, punchy flavours and a relaxed atmosphere mean it is no surprise that the restaurant has become such an institution.
Details: Thames Wharf, Rainville road, Hammersmith W6 9HA (Ph 020 7386 4200) Tube: Hammersmith
Damage: Budget breaking
If you liked reading this you might be interested in my reviews of some alumni of The River Cafe – Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage.