Viva la Diva
The Lovely Husband and I are, so to speak, each other’s sloppy seconds. Both of us have been married before. The Lovely Husband can, at least, look back on several decades of harmonious marriage and the raising of three delightful children, before he and his first wife went their separate ways in a most civilized fashion. I, on the other hand, embarked on a short lived enthusiastic and youthful experiment with a charming man who, to this day, has remained a friend, and which left me with two much adored children and a fateful introduction to Barnes.
Back in the day, I was a Knightsbridge girl through and through and would rather have contemplated living in a cardboard box under a bridge in central London than a life of luxury in the ‘burbs. Then, all I knew about Barnes was that it was somewhere at the end of the No.9 (now 209) bus route, which also stopped outside my apartment by Hyde Park. Returning to London after a two year stint in Sydney and then a further two years in deepest, darkest Wiltshire (Oh horror, dear reader! Mud, muck and animal smells! Wellington boots instead of strappy Choos!), meanwhile with two infants in tow, we decided that a garden was required for our little ones to gambol about in. When Barnes was suggested to me, I disdainfully wrinkled my nose and harrumphed. No way, Jose, not me! Until, that is, I was ‘coincidentally’ driven through the area and fell head over heels in love with it. The boats on the river! The duck pond! The little streets and small independent shops, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker! The huge park with its deer! The pretty houses! And only 20 minutes from the centre! I was smitten! To cut a long story short, Barnes has now been my home for many years and I have never regretted moving here. It’s simply my kind of place.
One of the great highlights of this area is Riva. It has the reputation for being the ‘the chefs’ favourite restaurant’ because it is the eaterie of choice for many of the greats such as Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and others of culinary clout. The critics love it too, always with high praise from Fay Mashler, A.A. Gill and Tom Parker Bowles, to name just a few. It’s been there forever, this little unassuming place on the corner of Castelnau and Church Road, run as a tight ship by owner Andrea Riva, proprietor and chef, who mainly serves up specialities from the Lombardy region of Northern Italy but also dishes food from other regions.
On first impressions you wonder what all the fuss is about. It’s neat, tidy and clean but otherwise not much of a looker. The brown artex ceiling, tobacco brown coloured walls graced by architectural prints, and dark green paint below the dado rail are a far cry from contemporary chic. Tablecloths in the small S shaped dining room are paper on white linen, and furniture is dark, simple and has seen better days. Nonetheless, it exudes a homey cosiness, somewhere where you might drop in for a decent home cooked meal after a long day at work. Well, perhaps not quite….Not only is it so discreetly popular, that booking is absolutely essential, but the prices are also not what you might expect from your average neighbourhood Italian. In fact, you may just have to take out a second mortgage to eat here on a regular basis.
It’s not surprising then that the clientele, mostly couples or family groups, is clearly well-to-do in a smart low-key way. Like the restaurant itself, there is no flashiness, no fanfare, no ostentation, just quiet down to earth appreciation.
Seated at our small table for two, we order a shared starter of one of the specials not listed on the menu, a soft white cow’s cheese from the Alps with chicory, a couple of beef tomato segments and a crispy cracker. It’s not bad, if a little boring. The cheese is nice and curdy, and yes, sort of freshly alpine tasting, the sort of thing Heidi and her granddad might eat of an evening, but for my liking, there’s not enough balsamico to give the dish guts, especially as the tomatoes and the crisp bread are virtually tasteless. I’d like it more if it were served with stewed figs perhaps, or something that would give the soft creamy cheese a counterbalance and sharper contrast.
As a main course, the Lovely Husband choses calves liver with onion rings, mashed potatoes and a side order of broccoli. It arrives looking and smelling completely delicious. He pronounces the two slices of liver to be superbly tender and of tip top quality, the gravy sensationally tasty, the broccoli cooked to perfection and the whole lot perfectly complemented by the onion rings and mash. He rolls his eyes in ecstasy with every forkful he eats. This, clearly, is a major success!
I have been a touch extravagant in my choice of Linguine all’astice, a perfectly sized portion of beautifully cooked linguine with the succulent, almost sweet meat of half a small lobster, chunks of which are conveniently already loosened out of the shell on the side of the plate, and sitting atop the pasta. On my request, some chopped red chilli had been added, catapulting the whole divine dish into the realms of seventh heaven. It’s just gorgeous and worth every penny of the £25 it’s priced at.
Our shared panacotta with berries is equally enjoyable and very moreish, its milky sweetness set off by the tart fruit. Yum yum!
Riva succeeds in coupling complete unpretentiousness with solidly good food preparation and very attentive, knowledgable service. There may be no major surprises here, no fancy presentation or unusual taste sensations, in fact, it’s all rather charmingly old fashioned and conservatively staid, so much so, that it doesn’t even have its own website, but it certainly merits its remarkable reputation and makes a trip to Barnes well worthwhile. It’s no wonder that it is so beloved by those who know about food excellence.
Our bill, including a bottle of Pinot Grigio, an Americano coffee and service charge came to £109.
What I wore
Linen khaki square necked Armani Jeans dress, linen Mango jacket, leopard print Manolo Blahnik slingbacks, cream vintage Gucci handbag with bamboo handle.
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