Joanne and I have often wondered what exactly causes people to fork out $100 for a bottle of wine or twenty times that for a Ferragamo or Prada handbag. Is it the assurance of high quality that we frequently accept as going hand-in-hand with a high price tag? Are these products actually better?
With that in mind we booked a table at THE RIVER CAFÉ for our last night out in London, back in October, 2021. Now, any review of The River Café is going to mention price. Jay Rayner of the Guardian described the restaurant as “peasant food at plutocrat prices.” A.A. Gill of the London Times was a bit kinder. He said, “The River Cafe is all about simple food…seasonal ingredients cooked without complication.”
Reservations are hard to come by…..and the restaurant is hard to get to – a 40-minute taxi ride from central London. But we persevered (anything for you, dear reader), and were rewarded with a coveted window table on a nippy October night. Snagging that real estate was no small feat – just a pointless one. Instead of looking out to the Thames, all I saw in the darkness of the evening was my reflection in the window. Good thing I’m such a looker.
While reviews of The River Café point out that it boasts a Michelin star, a few critics complain that the lack of FRENCH fancy frills is at odds with the high cost of your meal. And indeed, prices are high, but not stratospherically so. Antipasti run $20-25, primi (pastas) are $20-30. Secondi (main courses) are priced at about $30-40, and desserts cost about $10-12. You’d pay two or three times those prices at various Alain Ducasse or Helène Darroze properties.
I attribute the negative reviews to critics’ lack of basic understanding of the fundamentals of Italian food.
When my partner, Pete, and I were in cooking school in Italy under the tutelage of the legendary Italian cooking writer, Marcella Hazan, she drilled into us daily the difference between Italian and French haute cuisine. By no means did she disparage French food (although she did crack that the French “can’t get pasta right.”). She accurately described it as high quality, rich food that relies on butter and cream, complex sauces, and human endeavor in the studied composition of pastries, terrines and elaborate presentations.
Italian food represents an utterly different philosophy. Regardless of which part of Italy it comes from – whether from the affluent north or impoverished south – it should follow the “KISS Method” – “Keep it simple, Signora!” Flawlessly simple, with incredibly fresh, seasonal ingredients, lovingly cooked, perfectly seasoned, served in generous portions with all flavors singing in harmony.
- – “Bring out the flavor that’s INSIDE the ingredients.” When chefs add a little of this and a little of that…that’s “ADD-ON cooking.”
- – “I’m a little afraid when chefs mix Italian with some other cuisine, they end up with food that wears the Italian uniform but is NOT Italian.”
- – “PARMIGIANO REGGIANO cheese should always be cut fresh, directly from the wheel.”
A note on Marcella: She passed on in 2013 at the age of 89. I will always treasure the opportunity to have studied under her. She had a gruff voice and blunt speech – not the type of person you argue with. But underneath it all, she was the sweetest teacher you could ever imagine.
All of which, brings us back to The River Café and its faithful adherence to real Italian cooking with simple ingredients prepared and presented simply. Under the command of founder/owner/chef Ruth Rogers: What sourcing!! What ingredients!!
April Bloomfield, the world-acclaimed chef and River Café alum, described the food as “earthy…clean…and vibrant.” Well said, April!
The menu is hand written and changes daily depending on the availability of ingredients, including fresh seafood from Scotland and the southwest coast of Cornwall. The tabletops are paper. The napkins are linen.
Joanne and I started our evening with Char-Grilled Squid with red chili and rocket salad, Fritto Misto, served with a wedge of Amalfi lemon (Yep, sourced all the way from the Italian coast), deep-fried “accuge” (sardines from the Mediterranean).
True to the restaurant’s philosophy, salads are simple – but can be exotic, with the bitter, wonderful and rare pastel-colored lettuces of Castelfranco, grown in Treviso, Italy. Ever seen pink radicchio? I hadn’t. The River Café flies it in overnight from the Milan food market.
Ribolitta in the fall and winter. It’s the classic Tuscan white bean soup, punched up with root vegetables and hearty day-old bread and a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
When Americans make Risotto, we usually use Arborio rice. Not good enough for The River Café. Only Carnaroli from Verona will do. And of course, San Danieli Prosciutto.
Buratta-filled Ravioli was on offer and – in a nod to the season – the menu featured a spunky Wild Rabbit Ragu with pappardelle pasta, perfect for a cozy evening. BTW, they do half portions of pasta.
Among the pastas, you may be surprised to find the simplest of simple dishes. You may also be surprised by the price – about $30 for Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil. But you will be ASTOUNDED by the flavor, which was love at first bite!! I don’t know the secret, but I’ll bet it all starts with San Marzano tomatoes from the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius near Naples, peeled and seeded, and slow, slow cooked. I detected the taste of garlic, chili and basil, but they were nowhere to be seen in the dish. My guess is that they’re heated in olive oil and then strained so that only the infused oil is added to the tomatoes. The result: Subtlety…depth…complexity…and utter deliciousness!
Wonderfully looking simple renditions of grilled baby lamb chops as well as wood roasted lamb with a grilled artichoke appeared at the table next to us. And a waiter was kind enough to stop by our table just to show us the sliced Italian Chianina sirloin steak with Borlotti beans. He was very proud. Oh, that we could eat here more often.
But we couldn’t have been more pleased with or our secondi, or main course. Joanne ordered char-grilled Langoustines from Scotland and I a Costoletta di Vitello (veal chop), wood roasted with rosemary and lemon…..yes, from Amalfi.
And rounding out our evening: the luxurious Chocolate Nemesis – 70% bittersweet chocolate and 100% decadent– and a Polenta, Almond and Lemon Cake, a darn good-looking and honest cake bursting with intense lemon. Just good Italian flavors.
So carry on, River Café. You’ve got good Italian bones!
Or, as dinner guest Paul McCartney might say (or sing) to owner Ruth Rogers……”Will you still need me ? WILL YOU STILL FEED ME ? When I’m 64 ?