On paper, River Cafe comes across as one of those nose bleedingly expensive places in London. One that instils you with doubt before you even had a second to give it a chance. One where you start wondering where the magic is going to come from to justify the notes you will inevitable have to drop. In my years in London, I always thought of it as somewhere that would be nice if someone decided to take me (be it a client or long lost rich aunt) but with no such miracle forthcoming, it remained on my "when I happen to win the lottery" list.
So I was naturally a little hesitant when the River Cafe was suggested for a birthday meal but the promise of enjoyable company balanced the impending overdraft. Thankfully, when the day arrived, the sun bore down on the Thames riviera and we were granted a seat in the rather large outside seating area alongside the rest of the restaurant.
I'm not sure I can quite describe the feeling of walking into the beautiful and light interior, and then escorted to our table outside, shaded by umbrellas and surrounded by the vegetables they grow to cook in the restaurant. Having felt slightly melancholic over the weekend, my mood immediately lifted, a marvellous feat in itself.
The menu is straight forward Italian, aided by the massive wood fired oven sitting in the middle of it's kitchen, a somewhat iconic figure of River Cafe. The whole white behemoth is quite a thing of beauty, and much conversation revolved around how we would fit one of those in our homes (the answer was "with great difficulty").
As there were 5 of us, we supped our aperitivo of prosecco and pressed strawberries (which tasted like the most amazing bubbly strawberry smoothie), reviewed the menu and formulated a strategy. In the end, we opted for two antipasti, three primo (all pasto) and our own secondi (all different of course). Ordering wine, all the hard work was done so we lay back and enjoyed the small window proffered to us Londoners to dine al fresco.
Fritto Misto con Zucchine, Fiore e Melanzane (£14) - An incredibly light assortment of zucchini, zucchini flowers and aubergine, coated in batter and deep fried. I love fried stuff at the best of time, and each bite showcased the clean flavours of the vegetables. The batter was perfectly balanced, crunchy with little grease. What a plate of veg.
Calamari ai ferri (£15) - Two pieces of squid for £15 is a lot of anybody's money, but I challenge you to get better squid anywhere else in London. Beautifully scored and charred, with the individual pieces bouncy and cooked through. But take a knife to each piece and it glides through like butter. Squid is one of the hardest animals to cook perfectly, and River Cafe nailed it. Drizzled with a little lemon and scraps of chilli just to lift it, this was simplicity at its very best.
Tagliatelle con Vitello (£15) - So the antipasti aside, we started on our primi, a selection of all the pastas on offer. The first up was the veal tagliatelle, and sadly, it didn't quite live up to the hype. The meaty tagliatelle is normally my favourite, and it did taste good, but it just felt like something was lacking. Something sweet to balance all the savoury perhaps?
Rotolo ai Funghi (£15) - These seemed pretty interesting on the menu, and a variation of pasta I hadn't ever had before. A combination between a canneloni and a spinach and ricotta tortelloni, this sadly ended up a little on the bland side. Even with the addition of ceps wrapped up in the middle, I found the whole thing a little boring. I appeared to be out voted by the rest of the table, so I left them to it.
Penne con Pomodoro (£12) - Now one thing I learnt in Italy is that the tomatoes there are infinitely better than the stuff we get over here. They are sweet, they are tart and they aren't overly "wet". In fact, it was the wetness of the British tomatoes that made me hate them for so long (it took me a good 20 years to figure that out). We decided to order this as it seemed so simple and a dish that we all cook at home, a real benchmark as to how good River Cafe actually was. What we got was a perfect bowl of pasta, of perfectly firm (but not chalky) pasta tubes, of a wondrously unctuous sauce, packed with tomatoey goodness. This was as good a plate of pasta as you will ever get.
Piccione ai ferri (£33) - As we slowly recovered from our self inflicted carbicide, we supped wine and talked about all sorts of inappropriate things, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. One thing to note is that I don't think anyone felt like they were in a hurry, us nor the staff. It was perfectly fine for us (and our 4 hour lunch), but I guess if you are in a hurry, I would let them know. For us, it was exactly what we needed, and even if I didn't know it, my main was also exactly what I needed.
The whole roasted, spatchcocked pigeon was the best piece of pigeon I have ever eaten. The slight smoky char, the perfectly cooked pink gamy meat, all finished off with exemplary seasoning, bringing all the flavours out. Personally, I thought the green and yellow bean "parmigiani" was slightly over done and surplus to requirements, but it was probably because once I had tasted the pigeon, I had no need for anything else.
Whilst I was "aah-ing" at my dish, I noticed that the rest of the table had also gone quiet, all I could hear was the sound of chewing and other "aaahs...". We all shared our dishes out of politeness, and out of the worlds largest serving of turbot, a zesty red mullet, succulent pieces of pork, it was the leg of lamb which whetted my appetite the most. I was, however, not disappointed. In the game of choosing dishes, I had clearly won.
Summer Pudding - At this stage, we had all pretty much reached saturation point, but we had already come so far, we had to tackle the selection of desserts. After careful consideration, most could only tackle ice cream, but with the famous chocolate nemesis already "bagsied" by somebody else, I opted for the Summer Pudding. Sadly, I was a little disappointed. The individual components were all very palatable, but it was far too tart, bordering on sour, for my tastebuds. The strange addition of creme fraiche instead of whipped cream, or even a nice vanilla ice cream, did not help matters. Once again, most of the table thought it was excellent, but I really didn't rate it. The other desserts were much nicer (and sweeter), and when it comes to "that" chocolate nemesis, I don't think you will ever find a finer chocolate tart.
This has probably one of the longest posts that I have ever written, but I rarely invest my time unless it was worth it. In the sun, I genuinely cannot think of a finer place to while away a Sunday afternoon with friends. Even in the Winter, I am sure the cosy interior would be a great way to spend any meal. The service was friendly and never overbearing, the food was mostly superb, and with a couple of glasses of wine and good company, even at £85 a head, I think it smacks of value. Some people may think the River Cafe is expensive, and it is, nose bleedingly expensive. But my one piece of advice is to save up, and then ignore the prices when you come to River Cafe. Eat and enjoy, and on the whole, you won't regret it.
The River Cafe - Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, London W6 9HA