The River Cafe

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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.
 
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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.
 
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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.
 
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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.
 
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Ravioli
 
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.
 

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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.

 

 

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Dover sole
 
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.
 
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Chocolate Nemesis
 
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.
 
Essentials
Details: Thames Wharf, Rainville road, Hammersmith W6 9HA (Ph 020 7386 4200) Tube: Hammersmith
Damage: Budget breaking
9/10

 

Links
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.

River Cafe on Urbanspoon

 

22 comments

  1. Having (relatively) recently visited Fifteen and thinking they’re resting on their laurels, I’m glad to hear The River Cafe is still going strong. Sounds like I’ll have to get myself over to Hammersmith!

  2. I went to Fifteen a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was total crap. I expected so much more from them. Everything was so bland. Seriously, I could get way better Italian food at Carluccios, and that’s sad.
    I’d love to visit the River Cafe one day, that lamb looked amazing.
    *kisses* HH

  3. aaahhhh….

    The River Cafe is a favourite. I had the best birthday lunch there some 10 years ago. Not just because of the moment but but it really proved itself when it was able to replicate the experience 6 years later when I finally got the courage to return.

    Bizarely I am a bit of a wuss when I have a “really great” restauraunt experience as I hesitate on returning because I don’t want to tarnish the fine memory.

    Anyway the caramel ice cream is to die for ! Silverbrow also agrees.
    http://www.silverbrowonfood.com/silverbrow_on_food/2010/08/the-river-cafe.html

    On the Chocolate Nemesis, there is a strong rumour the “printed” recipe is flawed or misprinted….. so I pose the question… intentional flaw or not.

  4. Fabulous article, Gourmet Chick! I shall have to admire from afar…sigh

    Best wishes,
    Madame Bonbon

  5. It’s a favourite of mine too… that lamb looks phenomenal, reminds me I haven’t been back for a while, though the pricing is still as hefty as it ever was I note, so may need to wait til I get that new mortgage!

    Rich

  6. I still haven’t made it to the River Cafe, though after reading this review I’m pushing it up the to do list again.

    As for the comments re Fifteen, I don’t think it has ever deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the River Cafe food-wise. Fifteen was just pretty average comfort food with a side of indifferent service when I was there in 2007. Needless to say I haven’t been back.

  7. Lovely post, I just went last Sunday and really liked it too (haven’t written it up yet). I found the mains rather overpriced though, but as they seem to get away with it…

  8. Fabulous post! So well written, yet evocative and informative. Thank you!

  9. River Cafe has always appealed to me, but sheesh – it’s bloody expensive! £30+ mains?!!! Maybe I’ll make it there one day.

  10. I went to The River Cafe several years ago. Absolutely loved it.

  11. Despite making my way to that address many times, providing some services to the Rogers architectural practice next door, I never once made it to the RC, though I kept meaning to.
    MUST RECTIFY!

  12. I cannot believe I still haven’t been to The River Cafe, and your post has made me want to rectify this asap. Will save this for an special occasion though as I find some of their pricing ridiculously high (£32 for a leg of lamb??). Still, it’s gotta be done.

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

  13. American in London – We were impressed -very simple but very well done as well

    Heavenly Housewife – Yes River Cafe was a treat

    Gregory – I agree it is so hard for a restaurant to live up to high expectations and memories – glad to hear it did on this occasion

    Madame Bon Bon – Thanks very much

    Grumbling Gourmet – the prices are hefty especially for what appears to be such simple food but the produce is top notch

    Kevin D – It had been on my to do list for ages as well

    Ute – look forward to reading your review

    Sarah – Thanks very much

    Dan – Yes it is super expensive – not a place you could really go as a regular occurrence!

    George – Good to hear that it has maintained the same standards for all that time.

    Luiz – Yes the pricing is extreme but hey it is a London institution!

    Kavey – Yes you must

  14. I’m still kicking myself that I never got to the River Cafe. Everything looks amazing – I want it all!

  15. It all looks delicious, but seriously – THIRTY THREE quid for a main? I can’t get my head round those prices; even squid, which is cheap and plentiful comes in at a whopping £14. Ach, no thanks.

  16. Don’t ask me why but I’ve never been to The River Café. I do have one of their cookery books. Must go there soon. After reading your post I can’t put it off any longer.

  17. Helen – it was amazing and is such a London institution

    Lizzie – yes prices were very steep but I have to say I have eaten at restaurants that are even more expensive and River Cafe was better than them, so I guess you do get what you pay for. I think the thing that bothers people about the prices at the River Cafe is that the food is so seemingly simple.

    Elizabeth- Are the cookbooks good? I am tempted now that I have been.

  18. I always meant to eat here when I lived in West London and never got around to it. It’s a bit of a pain to get to from Walthamstow so I’ll have to console myself with the books. Looks like a fabulous meal!

  19. GC

    Went there on Saturday with my brother and sister plus BF’s and GF’s to celebrate my move to Brisbane this week. And it was great. I had the choclate nemesis specifically after you mentioned it. It was fantastic but i did go into a suger overload coma about 30 seconds after finishing it.

    I had the rissotto to start which was good, at first i was a bit disappointed because i didn’t feel it was that substantial but it was the right amount as a first course.

    I had the whole roast partridge with field mushrooms and ciabatta/toast which was the definate winner at the table for the second course. The taste and texture of the mushrooms really made the dish with the meat.

    My brother had the raviolli for the first course and he won that round. my sister and my gf had the mozerella and veg which was a bit disappointing compared to the rissotto and the ravoli.

    anyways keep up the great reviews, i always enjoy reading them and everyonce in a while getting to try out the same places

  20. Sarah – I don’t think it is that conveniently located to anywhere – but worth the trip in my view

    Dex – Thanks for your detailed and helpful comments – funny to hear that you had a sugar overload coma as well from the chocolate nemesis!

  21. I absolutely love this place. Yes the prices are exorbitantly high, but then the food is incredible and service impeccable. Maybe you can get great quality for lower prices, but for a special occasion, The River Cafe gets a big thumbs up. Just posted my thoughts here http://bit.ly/l2ghv6

  22. […] recognise it as a nod to the area near Soho where chef Paul Jewson used to live.  Jewson is an ex River Cafe alumni which shows in Fitzrovia’s ethos of top quality produce served simply and […]

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