Posted on Friday, 6th March 2009
Up until a few days ago, I had never been to the River Café. I have lived in London for eight years, and while I have always wanted to go, I have also simultaneously not wanted to go either, a dichotomy I equated to being engulfed in a flirtatious but non-committal affair. The part of me that wanted to go, wanted to do so because I wanted to find out what all the fuss over the River Café is about. The fuss being that it has a Michelin-star; that much has been made in the British press about how influential Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, the founders of the River Café, have been in the British restaurant scene during the last 20 years; that these two ladies are responsible for churning out the likes of celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, etc. As for the part of me that didn’t want to go, well that was because I couldn’t rationalise how such seemingly simple Italian food could warrant the expense of mains that come close to £30, no matter how fresh and seasonal the produce is.
But their current lunch special of £24 for three courses (available until 9 April 2009) was simply a pickup line too good to pass up. And so, I set aside all doubts and uncertainties and finally took the plunge, to make my way to the River Café. No more sitting on the fence – it was decision time to see whether my mild infatuation would turn into a full blown love affair.
The moment I laid eyes on the restaurant I realised that it was not going to be love at first sight. The restaurant looks basic; in fact it feels bare, not much smarter than a posh office canteen. Its dress sense is bland, a combination of blue and white. The tables are small and the room felt tight, the tightness accentuated all the more by the number of people in the fully occupied restaurant. My friend proposed the use of the word ‘cosy’ until I put it to him that if I were to move an inch backwards in my chair, I would end up on top of the lady sitting behind me. The tables were covered with white linen tablecloths and overlaid with disposable paper ones, a practice I found unusual at a one-star-Michelin restaurant. My friend suggested that the décor did not matter, but I felt cheated. I had wanted the object of my desire to be well dressed. The food, my first love, was therefore the restaurant’s only remaining seduction ploy.
But unfortunately, seduce it did not. The food was good, but not good enough and at the end of my session of romance I was left not quite satisfied. A starter of spaghetti con cozze della Marche (mussels, chilli, tomato, il Bacco Verdicchio (white wine) and wild oregano) was lovely, flavoursome and rich, with a fresh sea flavour from the mussels, but did not tantalise.
Anoli con coniglio, a dish of handmade pasta was stuffed with a lovely, tender rabbit slow-roasted with juniper, pancetta, thyme and white wine. Finished with an aromatic sage butter, it would have made for a handsome dish, if not for the fact that the handmade pasta had been overcooked, rendering it slightly soggy and leaving it with a texture of a wonton rather than the al dente pasta that one would expect from a Michelin restaurant. However at the table next to us, the same dish looked pert, alive and far more appetising, which suggested consistency and quality control issues in the kitchen. There appeared to be no sign of Rose Gray hovering and checking over each dish before it was sent out as alluded to in Marina O’Loughlin’s review in November 2008. After a disastrous fire in April 2008, the River Café closed for six months to re-open again late last year after a £2m refit. Perhaps as the grand re-opening has now passed, the time to try and impress the restaurant critics has passed too.
A main dish of red mullet (triglia al forna) was enchantingly delectable. Wood-roasted with a perfectly balanced mix of olives, capers, marjoram and lemon, it left an ecstatic sensation on my tongue. However, a beef braised in Alberto Longo ‘Capopost’ (red wine) with Vecchia Romana (brandy), bay, rosemary and cinnamon did not hit the high notes. While it was richly robust with flavour and reasonably tender, it was not as tender as it could have been. Furthermore, it was slightly dry. A pear and almond tart was light and tasty and helped to round off the meal.
The wine list has an Italian focus and offers up some reasonably priced options. Service was efficient and unassuming, and all said and done, the special lunchtime menu at £24 was a very reasonable price for the three courses and the high quality of the produce we received. The combinations of ingredients were well put together with some lovely flavours. But my main disappointment stemmed from the fact that the cooking was far from perfect. Furthermore, there were no dishes that induced the gasps of awe that I had hoped for. So while the special lunchtime menu makes for a decent business lunch, given some of the errors, I simply couldn’t reconcile the meal I had to being Michelin worthy.
My friend asked if I would go again for dinner and I could only respond with uncertainty. But perhaps it would be unfair to taint my perception of what dinner at the River Café would be like from just one lunch sitting, and so the only way to find out would be to go once more.
River Café at:
London W6 9HA
Tel: +44 (0)20 7386 4200