This venerable Michelin-star institution has been on my London hit-list for over 7 years. Something has always stopped me booking: the prohibitive expense, the location (we rarely venture West, unless coerced) perhaps. The sniff of a bargain, though, is hard to ignore. Fiona Beckett's recent tweet, telling her followers about The River Café's Winter Set Lunch deal, made me bite the bullet.
The car-park approach doesn't quite ooze the glamour I associate with The River Café's lauded reputation. Riverfront access is closed until early summer 2010 due to ongoing flood reinforcement work, so gone is the view, and the salubrious approach. The warehouse-style building shares its site with the architect firm run by Richard Rogers (husband of Ruth, co-founder of the restaurant), though hardly resembles its original incarnation as a staff canteen. Flooded with light, overlooking a landscaped Thames-side courtyard, the long dining room is minimalist-smart, separated from the open kitchen by an enormous wood-fired oven, installed in a 2008 post-fire refit.
Our visit coincided with the sad passing of Rose Gray, one half of the formidable culinary pair that opened the café in the '80's and have been educating us ever since, spawning talented young chefs (the ubiquitous Jamie O and Hugh FW being two) and encouraging home cooks to connect flavour with provenance, and have a go at recreating simple Italian food in their own kitchens.
And that it is. Simple, peasant-style Italian raised to Michelin-star level by the supreme quality of ingredients (all flown in specially from Italy, so don't ask them about food miles), and kitchen mastery.
The calm, serene space was filled with a moneyed crowd: no one on 1-hour lunch breaks around here, just ladies who lunch, and the last remnants of London's expense-account brigade. So, it was left to us to balk at the a la carte prices (around £14 for antipasti/primi, and £30 for secondi). At a far more reasonable £24 for three courses (2 courses £18, 3 + dolci £32), the Winter Set Lunch menu offered generous choice, inspiration, and a clutch of classics.
Three crostini of smashed cannellini beans, chicken livers and cavolo nero were delightful, I thought, though Jon made a fair point: only the chicken livers managed to stand up to the strong charred flavour of the oven-toasted bread, the beans and cavolo nero being more delicate and thus a touch overwhelmed.
My Orrichiette with Romanesco, anchovy, chilli, cream and pecorino (I was desperate to try the homemade pasta) was moreish, buttery, and soft. A perfect rendition of deceptively simple pasta - I fooled myself into thinking I could whip it up at home, but on reflection think I'll leave it to the experts!
Being predictable souls, we both chose the same secondi - Faraona al forno: wood-roasted, spatchcocked guinea fowl stuffed with thyme, lemon zest, Prosciutto and mascarpone with Castelluccio lentils and red leaves. This is where the wood-fired oven comes into its own, crisping the skin, and enhancing the herb aromatics with a light smoky edge. The deep earthiness was lent a piquant note by a thrilling, zesty gremolata.
Not yet sated, we finished with Prune and almond tart, and Blood orange sorbet. The tart was the best almond tart I have ever eaten: light and crunchy macaroon-y top, and a delicate filling studded with juicy whole prunes.
The vivid blood orange sorbet, made with fruit flown in from Sicily, was a stunner. Just the right balance of sweet/tart, rounding off a memorable meal.
The service? Lovely. I'll steal AA Gill's words, as he puts it so much better than I ever would: "The River Caff has the most pulchritudinous and elegantly friendly waiters in London. It’s not unusual for middle-aged customers of either sex to fancy the staff of either sex; but the River Café is the only place where every time I come here, I’m convinced that all the staff really fancy me."
This sexed-up rustic Italian food is insanely expensive for what are ultimately simple dishes, but simple can also be special (Petersham Nurseries springs to mind), so it's no wonder people happily pay for consistently fabulous food. I'll go back and pay full whack next time, without a grumble.