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10 August 2010

The River Café

Am I a tosser?  I know that's a leading question, especially on a blog where anyone can leave a comment, but I'm interested to know your thoughts.  I ask the question because I think that I went to lunch at the River Café hoping I'd have a bad meal.

That's right, I, someone who enjoys their food, reads obsessively, cooks a lot and eats out on a regular basis, was hoping that my lunch at what is regarded as one of the country's finest restaurants, a restaurant that is still recovering from the loss of one of its linchpins, that was recently burned to the ground, was going to be a bad lunch.  That must make me a tosser.  It must.  I aspired to be a gastronome with impeccable taste who can spot the emperor's new clothes (and who mixes his metaphors).  And thus a smug tosser.

The main reason I thought I'd have a bad meal, was because I did last time I was there in October 2009, when it was pretty awful.  I was with my family and we were sitting in the River Café equivalent of Siberia, the large table by the bar.  The food we got was dull, the portions small.  Particularly worthwhile of mention was a dispiriting and ungenerous plate of bagna cauda, a dish that should be about sharing snappingly fresh vegetables, dipped in buttery fishy goodness. The vegetables were flaccid, the sauce was flat.

This time, both of the people I was eating with love it.  One is a regular who does her best to eat as many meals a day there as possible.  She was devastated to learn of my bad experience.  The other is a super trendy designer who's as partial to a good meal as I am. I wanted to lift the scales from their eyes and prove it just ain't all that.

I wondered if I might have a better meal than expected when I spotted that Angela Hartnett was having lunch two tables away - you can take it neither she nor we, were sitting in Siberia.  This time we were in the middle of the room, close to the oven.

Take-off was confirmed with my starter of antipasti di verdure, comprising roast plum tomatoes, zucchini 'alle scarpece', stuffed pepperoncino peppers and wood-roasted Violetta aubergines. The delicious fruity, juiciness of the veg, was testament to great vegetables and a deft hand at the wood-fired stove.

Fish and grapes work well in sole veronique (a plate of this at Scotts about 20 years ago remains a defining dish for me), but when dealing with a fish as base as sardines and the grapes are now raisins and there's pasta chucked in for good measure, we're not talking about a delicate dish.  But as linguine con le sarde - with sardine fillets, saffron, pine nuts, raisins, parsley and lemon, it was a symphony.  I'm a big fan of sardo in saor, the Venetian dish of pickled (sort of) sardines.  The flavours here were not dissimilar with the sweetness of the raisins and the tartness of the lemon juice.  The fish, saffron and pine nuts ensured there was a depth of flavour.

I chose fish for main course as well, the branzino ai ferri - chargrilled then roasted wild sea bass with fennel branches, lemon & Pinot Bianco with peas sott'olio and spinach.  Again another delicious dish.  At room temperature it was a perfect summer light summer dish, welcome after the surprising heft of the primi.

By dessert, things were getting a bit hazy, but I do know that the Lemon Tart was an exemplar of its type.  I also know that I fail to understand the wonder some people attach to the Chocolate Nemesis.  On a more positive note, the caramel ice cream was perfect and shows this king of desserts is given its due.

So the emperor was wearing his finest robes.  I am duly humbled.  I could if I wanted argue that the waitresses failure to acknowledge that she had sploshed a fair bit of wine across the table as she clumisly poured for us, is a sign of arrogance.  But I won't.  The service was rather cold, but I'll let it pass because I was won over by the food.

I stand by the fact that my previous meal really wasn't good.  I also accept that this meal really was.  I think I need to go back for a best of three.

Google Maps

The River Café, Rainville Road, London, W6 9HA, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7386 4200


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I don't think it makes you a tosser to expect that a restaurant where you once had a bad meal might serve you another - a bad first impression can linger for a long time. I think on the contrary you've been very fair in that you've owned up to being impressed in spite of your having gone there fully expecting not to be!

To hell with the nemisis

I still remember the superb flavour of the caramel ice cream on both of my visits 3 and 8 years ago. Awesome flavour which is true caramel and absolutely identical on both visits.

From what I recall the service was Ok not great not bad... but when you invest this much money I think you should expect them to pour your wine into the glass.

AH! I am somewhat relieved that you liked it, and I am not even sure why. I really enjoyed it last time and I didn't want to have to question going there again.

I've been there twice - lunch, and dinner. Disappointed both times - nothing that you can put your finger on = but that's just it. A really unmemorable experience. Except that David Gilmour was seated at next table and I wondered if he would remember blanking me at a post-gig party about 20 years before. No, thought not.

Hugh, thanks for the reassurance!

Gregory, the ice cream is quite delicious isn't it. On the service point, I want why it's that haughty. Perhaps complacency, perhaps ennui?

Niamh, I'll let you know what the third meal in this series is like and we can judge off that.

Ben, I definitely experienced that same sense of disappointment when I was there in October.

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