Plenty to grouse about
Oh drat and double drat! I knew this situation would sneak up on me at some point, that dreaded moment when dinner at one of my favourite restaurants would go pear shaped. The River Café (yup, the one with the famous cookbooks) has, over many many years not just been a favourite, but consistently right up there on my list of top three London restaurants. This restaurant, where Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, April Bloomfield (Spotted Pig, New York) and Sam Clark (Moro) learnt their trade, along with other master chefs all over the world, has never, not once, disappointed me in over two decades. It’s smart, it’s chic, it’s stylish, and it’s casual, comfortable and welcoming all at the same time. Hidden away in a little side street in unsalubrious Hammersmith, the Café which is really a restaurant, started life as the staff canteen of mega architect Richard Roger’s practice. It was run, as it still is, by his wife Ruth Rogers and her friend, the late Rose Gray. I could wax lyrical about Richard Rogers’ fabulous modernist work, but suffice it to say that his practice was chosen to rebuild Tower 3 of the Worlds Trade Centre in New York after it’s destruction in the 9/11 attacks. You get the picture, the guy builds nice buildings.
The restaurant, a cleverly modified old oil storage facility, has a huge glass frontage onto a garden bordering the river and a busy open kitchen along one wall, a large wood burning oven giving warmth to the generous clean cut dining area. The food is Italian inspired and so good, that it was awarded a Michelin star in 1997. Just over the bridge from where we live, this is our go to place when we want a really special evening out, a culinary treat within a buzzy understated environment with some fascinating people watching thrown in for good measure.
Heads certainly turned as our two quite stunningly beautiful friends sashayed elegantly to our table, their respective charming beaus in tow. I, on the other hand, rather lumbered along in their wake, desperately sucking in my stomach, trying not to let the hole in my stocking, which was sharply strangling two of my toes in my sky high heels, impede my progress. I have always had a coolness problem but luckily, the lovely husband was right there to steady me before I could throw myself into someone else’s soup. The menu, as usual, looked enticing. As in fact, did the waitresses, who seemed to have jumped straight out of a model agency’s book.
The lovely husband and I shared a Carpaccio di Manzo, a beef carpaccio with parmesan and a chestnut and honey dressing. It tasted great, though I’d have preferred the more conventional rocket and mustardy dressing. Others chose a mildly uneventful looking Puntarelle a la Romana salad and an Acqua Pazza, a quite substantial dish of baby red mullets and clams cooked with tomato and chilli with soft polenta, the little fish in their skins and with their glazed eyes dully blinking up at us being a tad too graphic for my liking, but which went down very well with its recipients. After a decent digestive interval, our eagerly awaited main courses arrived. The lovely husband’s Rombo al Forno, a turbot tranche wood roasted with parsley and lemon, with trompette mushrooms and spinach was stupendously good, the fish firm and succulent and, in combination with the other ingredients, an absolute feast for the taste buds. One of our gentleman very much enjoyed his Capesante ai Ferri, chargrilled Scottish scallops with squash in an anchovy and rosemary sauce. Another success was the Artichoke and Prosciutto salad. Now, I, quite boringly, always have pasta at The River Café because it is always so fantastic, so this time too, I chose fresh Pappardelle with cavolo nero and pine nuts. It arrived looking and tasting like something green and slimy scraped from the side of a damp seafacing rock. The bitterness of the cavolo nero cabbage completely overpowered the pasta and provoked a resounding yuk effect from my palate. And, not just from mine either. As I passed a forkful to each of our friends to try, every one of them pulled that reflexive face we all perfected in toddlerhood. Frankly, it wasn’t just not very nice, it was astoundingly awful. Two of our friends had ordered the Yorkshire grouse roasted in red wine with porcini mushrooms and lentils . Unfortunately, those too were largely left on the plate because, basically, the poultry tasted like soggy cardboard, and that’s being kind about the lame old birds. Half our table were deeply disappointed with their supper, an all new and shocking experience at The River Café! The Chocolate Nemesis, the Lemon Tart and the ice cream for pudding went some way towards mollification but a bitter taste, literally, remained.
In the restaurant’s defence, and typical of the simply superb service we received throughout the meal, it must be said, that our complaints were dealt with very well. One grouse and the offending pappardelle were knocked off the bill, which is just as well, as The River Café is not exactly known for its budget friendliness.
Even so, at just under £100 per head, it was seriously hefty for an overall order of six starters, three remaining main courses, three desserts, two bottles of wine, three glasses of champagne and various coffees and waters plus ‘optional gratuity’.
I’m wildly hoping that this one occasion of poxy pasta and gross grouse is just a one-off mishap. Perhaps the head chef was feeling unwell or the sous chef had argued with her husband, who knows. At the moment, The River Café is still up there on my list of London top three but it is teetering slightly. Let’s just hope that a steadying hand steers it right back on to the winner’s podium.