London: A River Cafe Believer Is Born

Chefs Ruth Rogers (left) and Rose Gray. i i

Celebrity chefs Ruth Rogers (left) and Rose Gray still play a very hands-on role at the River Cafe, the critically acclaimed restaurant they founded 20 years ago. David Loftus hide caption

itoggle caption David Loftus
Chefs Ruth Rogers (left) and Rose Gray.

Celebrity chefs Ruth Rogers (left) and Rose Gray still play a very hands-on role at the River Cafe, the critically acclaimed restaurant they founded 20 years ago.

David Loftus
Dining room i i

The indoor dining room at the River Cafe is bright, airy and modern. Ian Heide hide caption

itoggle caption Ian Heide
Dining room

The indoor dining room at the River Cafe is bright, airy and modern.

Ian Heide
Terrace i i

In warm weather, diners flock to the cafe's terrace, which overlooks the River Thames. Courtesy River Cafe hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy River Cafe
Terrace

In warm weather, diners flock to the cafe's terrace, which overlooks the River Thames.

Courtesy River Cafe
Grilled calamari i i

Grilled squid with chili and rocket. Courtesy River Cafe hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy River Cafe
Grilled calamari

Grilled squid with chili and rocket.

Courtesy River Cafe

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers' small but perfectly formed River Cafe, right on the River Thames at Hammersmith, has a lot to live up to.

The word "cafe" in its name is somewhat misleading. For this chic, modern, glass-and-metal restaurant has, over two decades, come to symbolize the resurgence of simple but luxurious Italian-style food in Britain. It is frequently hyped as the best restaurant in London, and has prices to match. I must confess to a slightly cynical tone in booking a table, with the lurking suspicion that the food might not be as good as the publicity.

First impressions are good, though. The decor is wonderfully simple: bright blue carpet, clean white walls and crisp white tablecloths. You can linger at the sleek metallic bar on the way in, or head straight to your table. (In summer, you can even sit outside, right on the Thames.)

While plenty of the other divinities in London's culinary pantheon seem too busy with their latest TV series to get their hands dirty in their own restaurants, it was refreshing to see owner Rose Gray cooking away in the open-plan kitchen, apparently more concerned about supervising the starters than about schmoozing with the well-heeled diners.

Gray and her co-owner, Ruth Rogers (wife of uber-architect Lord Richard Rogers), have, of course, made a name for themselves on both sides of the Atlantic as authors of The River Cafe Cook Book series and the more recent River Cafe Pocket Books, but they are both to be seen regularly in the kitchen.

The fuss, if there is any, all comes from the food writers, for the food itself is confident and refreshingly unfussy. The selection is diverse: plenty of seafood, plenty of game.

Starters include carpaccio di manza (thin slices of raw cured beef with parmesan cheese) and mozzarella di bufala (mozzarella made from buffalo milk). As an entree, you can try whole grouse stuffed with sage and thyme or Limousin veal shin. The menu isn't terribly daring, but it proves that you don't need to be too experimental to serve up a cracking good meal.

My wife chose the Scottish langoustines as a starter ("so fresh, it was as though they had just swum in the door.") I plumped for the chargrilled squid with fresh red chili. Both were supreme. We decided against the primi piatti ($25 for hand-made agnoli ? maybe not), and then cut straight to the main course.

Again, conversation was interrupted for long stretches as a whole Dover sole, wood-roasted with lemon and capers, was consumed with relish on the other side of the table. I considered the Scottish scallops, but opted in the end for the chargrilled marinated leg of lamb, which was also delicious (as it certainly should be for $50). There's not much on the wine list for under $50 either, but whatever you choose will be unlikely to disappoint.

Dessert, if you can manage it, is again more Milano than London — pannacotta, mascarpone or a wide selection of tarts — or opt for the restaurant's closer-to-home signature dessert, the Nemesis Cake (as wicked a slice of chocolate as ever graced a porcelain plate.)

The River Cafe is very expensive, but it is very, very good. As we staggered for the door, looking out onto a twinkling night-time River Thames, it felt good to have proved my suspicions wrong.

River Cafe — Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, London W6 9HA. Telephone: +44 (0) 207-7386-4200. Web site: http://www.rivercafe.co.uk/. E-mail: info@rivercafe.co.uk. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday through Sunday, from 12:30 p.m. until 5 p.m. and from 7 p.m. until 11 p.m.

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