I have always considered the River Cafe a Mecca. I was trained by Jamie Oliver, who got his big break while working at the River Cafe many years ago. He was spotted by a tv crew who were filming a programme about the restaurant. They interviewed him, and they liked his skill, enthusiam, cheeky charm and quite importantly being able to talk while prepping and cooking dishes! They asked him to do a pilot for “The Naked Chef” and the rest is history. His teachings to me really shaped my attitude and approach to food and cooking today. My style of food and the ethos of seasonality, respecting the produce and the importance of where it is sourced from. I was always going to be excited about going to the River Cafe because this is where my teacher learnt the values that he passed on to me.
The River Cafe is an iconic London institution which created a new wave of simple, seasonal cooking with a focus on incredibly good quality ingredients. In the late eighties, Richard Rogers had just set up his office at Thames Wharf, in Hammersmith, and he was keen for the development to be not just offices but a community, this meant having somewhere for everyone to eat. Through their love of food and their regular trips to Italy, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray took on the challenge of running the cafe.
The result was The River Cafe, which opened in 1987. Rose and Ruth sourced ingredients, cultivated relationships with wine-makers in Italy, and worked all hours of the day. To begin with there were just Rose, Ruth, one waiter and one kitchen porter. Rose said “Italian food in London was spaghetti Bolognese and tiramisu” and she wanted to change that. She wanted to cook the kind of food she had eaten and prepared while living in Italy – grilled meats, bread soups and pasta.
In 1998 the River Cafe earned a Michelin star, which it has kept ever since. There was a fire in 2008 and the restaurant had to close for six months, but this in a way was a good chance to modernise and re-furbish the place. Also, sadly Rose Gray died in February of 2010, but you can still see Ruth (I’m told) most days in the restaurant checking standards are up to scratch.
When you walk in to the restaurant, it’s very open and bright. The open kitchen still looks brand new and modern, and the wood fired oven is a thing of beauty (I wish I had it in my back garden!). The olive oil that is served with the bread is of fantastic quality, dark green with a grassy and peppery taste. For the starter I had the Taglierini (like tagliatelle but thinner) con Ortiche, which is pasta with nettles. This may sound strange to some, but it was fantastic. First of all, I would recommend having a pasta dish here, because it will probably be some of the finest, freshest pasta you can get in the country. The nettles made the pasta bright green, and it tasted like a mixture of spinach and watercress, with a hum of nutmeg. This really woke up my taste buds and was a great way to start the meal. The birthday girl who I was with, had the wood-fire oven roasted Langoustines, which I managed to steal a nibble, and they were incredibly fresh and the juicy flesh were very flavoursome.
For the main, I had the Ligurian Fish stew, with Dorset Blue Lobster, clams, scallops, monkfish, red mullet, chilli and tomato. I can’t say too much about this, apart from it was phenomenal. All the fresh fish cooked to perfection, and the flavour and aroma of the tomato sauce was deep and just made me feel like I was on holiday in Italy. The only point I’d change is to have added a touch more chilli, but that is just personal preference.
For dessert I had the famous Chocolate Nemesis. This seems like an incredibly simple chocolate cake, almost mousse. But it is notoriuosly hard to cook, because you have to get the texture just right while cooking in a bain marie or it will be dry. This was truly glorious, richly flavoured, smooth and surprisingly light. It uses just four ingredients (eggs, sugar, dark chocolate and butter), which sums up everything I know about the restaurant. We should all try and recreate this! Recipe link here
The service was friendly throughout and very informative. What I like about the staff and the River cafe ethos is that the waiters help the kitchen pick the herbs and handle the produce, and also sit down in the restaurant near the end of a service while customers are still there and eat as a team. This not only builds a good team morale but also makes them know every little item on the menu and makes them care about it.
One of, if not the best authentic Italian restaurant in London. It is very expensive, around £80+ per head, but if you can afford it or for a special occasion, it is definitely worth going to. This is all about taking incredible ingredients and cooking them in an incredibly simple old school Italian way and letting the food speak for itself. Give me this kind of food over a “typical” michelin restaurant any day, where there is usually more thought about the presentation and re-shaping of ingredients, than the actual overall flavour of the dish. The freshly made pasta as I have mentioned earlier is some of the finest in the country. Go, when you next have a special occasion or your friend who has an expense account is hungry.
The River Café
London, W6 9HA
Tel: 0207 386 4200
Meal per head including a bottle of wine and service: £80