I am in the midst of a grand tour of Italian restaurants in London. A couple of weeks ago I went to Trullo and jolly nice it was too. Next up was the grand daddy of the Italian food scene in London, the one where it all began. River Cafe continues to be an institution despite opening its doors for the first time in 1987. I’d read and heard a lot about River Cafe, some people swear by it and say it’s their favourite restaurant in London, others say that it’s over priced and you’re better off at the new, cheaper versions such as Trullo, Zucca et al.
We booked ourselves in for a Sunday lunch which the weather man had promised would be bathed in sun. This turned out to be a bit of an over promise but we still braved it outside despite the autumnal winds and overcast clouds. Despite the fact that we sat down at 2:30 the restaurant was still bustling. There’s a lovely family atmosphere to River, a nice mixture of old and young, even a few dogs running around; perfect for a Sunday lunch.
The menu is broken up into the standard antipasti, primi, secondi and is certainly pretty pricey. Starters and pasta you’re looking at the £15 mark with some a little more and the mains are all around £30. We decided that to avoid racking up an eye watering bill we would share a range of stuff, including mains. The plus side to this is that you get to try everything but the downside is if you love something you’re going to have to share it.
So is the food worthy of these prices? I would say yes, probably. The food that is put in front of you is simple but quite delicious and easily some of the best of its type that I’ve had in London. For antipasti we had a sort of beef carpacio where the beef was finely chopped up and mixed with lemon, pepper and parmesan. This was earthy, citrusy and is a perfect example of the River Café ethos; good ingredients, simple recipes and amazing flavour. The calamari with chilli and rocket was fresh, meaty and punchy, while the Cornish crab with bruschetta and aioli was out of this world. If I’d had chose one of the starters to have to myself this would be it. I have a love/hate relationship with crab; I love the taste but often find it too much work. This plate was piled high with gorgeous white meat which, with a dollop of aioli was just brilliant. All three starters set the bar very high; it was food you knew but not as you know it.
Many people say you should judge any Italian restaurant worth it’s salt on the pasta and here I would say it that while the pappardelle with rabbit was of the highest standard imaginable, the orechiette with ricotta, tomato and basil was only ok. The flavours were good but it didn’t blow me away. This is an area where Trullo stands out, the beef shin ragu I had there still stands head a shoulders above everything else, it is a dish I dream about at night.
On to the mains, this is where the prices really shoot up. What should you expect from a main that costs north of £30? I haven’t been to a lot of restaurants that are in this price range but you hope to be blown away, to savour every bite like it’s your last. Well the mains here were good, they were really good actually but I remain unconvinced about the prices. The turbot was with capers and zucchini was oily and meaty, and the scallops were enormous and coated in a delicious chilli and mint dressing with perfectly formed fritto misto that was exemplary. The star of the show was the chargrilled marinated lamb with salsa verde and red and yellow peppers. This dish was certainly worth the entry price, succulent meat and oily vegetables, I’d come back for this one alone.
While we finished off the meal with one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever had in my life (honestly no exaggeration), we discussed the meal we’d just had. We’d drunk 3 bottles of very decent wine, including a particularly good red called Carema, worked our way through 4 courses of very good food outside on a lazy Sunday afternoon and had a wonderful time doing it. When the bill came it worked out to about £90 a head ,which seemed eminently reasonable given the prices on the menu.
River Café is expensive but if you’re prepared to share your food and hold back a little it is no more expensive than any other top restaurant in London, and I would certainly say that this is one of the top, top restaurants in London. It already has a special place in my heart and when spring comes around again I can’t think of a better place to wile away the hours.