Thursday, 24 April 2014

River Café, Hammersmith

Some restaurants have regulars. Some restaurants have fans. Some restaurants inspire the kind of loyalty that have customers happily queuing down the street for just the chance to spend money within their hallowed walls.

But surely there's only one joint in London inspires a kind of fervour that's best described as cultish. How do I even begin to write a post about the River Café, probably the closest thing London has to a restaurant sacred cow, whose customers regularly describe the place as "the best restaurant in the world" without fear of being rebuked, and whose staff are so fanatically loyal a stint of 5 or more years is normal in an industry where most people are doing well to last 5 weeks. The merest mention on Twitter I was headed there for dinner prompted a dozen feverish replies whose terrifying subtext - "say something bad, I DARE YOU" - could hardly have been more obvious.

So I approach the following with some tripidation. Let me be clear from the outset (he says changing the locks on his front door and booking a flight to Rio) there was nothing I ate that could be described as disappointing. When you get lovely fresh ingredients, cook them according to years of international top-flight experience and serve them with a smile, well, only a real curmudgeon would feel the need to sit down and pick fault. But if the best Italian food is about cooking great ingredients, simply, surely that rustic approach should be reflected even slightly in the prices? Since when did a meal for two of pasta, grilled fish and dessert cost nearly £300?

Maybe it's just my Hedone Complex flaring up again. I had just heard so many breathless superlatives about the place beforehand that my own experience, when it did arrive, would struggle to match the place I'd invented in my head. I sat there baffled, uncomprehending, despondent. The famous "cevenne onion and pear" tasted like what it was - a boiled onion on a plate, with some pear shaved on top. Scallops were scallops. Chocolate tart was chocolate tart. I was prepared to believe - still am - that I had some part of my brain missing which renders me incapable of distinguishing merely a "very good" ingredient with a "world class" ingredient, but if that's the case, I can't be the only one?

Langoustines at the River Cafe, then. A grand fan of six of the finest Scottish beasties, smoky from the grill, served with a pile of salty agretti (that's saltwort to you and me) and drizzled in (presumably very good) olive oil. They were absolutely perfectly cooked, not too dry or too watery, and each lump of tail meat came away from the shell as a satisfying, bright-white whole. Now there's nothing the River Cafe can do about mother nature, but each animal contained about a teaspoonful of meat, and the plate cost £30.

Asparagus next, and here a more generous portion - eight spears, sat on a pleasant cheese sauce, under grated parmesan. They were nice in the way that asparagus are often quite nice, insofar as they taste of asparagus. If you like asparagus then you'd probably like these. £19.

At some point some artichoke hearts frito arrived, which were very pleasant too. Surface dry as a bone, inside soft and moist. If you like artichoke hearts, then... etc.

OK, so admittedly the pasta courses were more impressive. Crab and chilli spaghetti has a marvellous texture - bouncy and with a good firm bite - and there was lots of crab. Nettle panzotti (sort of folded ravioli) had an equally accomplished touch. Each were lovely, rustic plates of traditional Italian food, technically faultless but still rather... familiar. I mean to say, if you went to a good Italian restaurant you'd expect the pasta to be good, wouldn't you? What you might not expect is for five vegetarian ravioli to be £17...

I'm sorry to keep going on about the numbers. Plenty of you will not mind paying the extra for what many undoubtedly consider the best Italian food in the country, and I honestly wish I felt the same. I am aware we have it easy in London - competition, and the fact that we still have a lot of "selling" to do when persuading British people to eat out, has traditionally kept prices relatively low and forced wily restaurateurs into more inventive ways of making a profit - turning tables in no-reservations places, for example, or using cheaper ingredients in more innovative ways. £30 starters and £60 main courses are something approaching normal in Paris, and even a restaurant where the starters "are around the €140 mark" finds its bookings sheet full.

But this is not a 3* Parisian temple of gastronomy serving lobster and caviar ten ways and with thirty members of staff for each customer. This is a riverside Italian in Hammersmith, serving grilled meats and fish and pasta. And while prices for the first couple of courses were merely uncomfortable, the cost of each one of the secondi at River Cafe could have bought you an entire four-course meal in most other trattoria in the capital. A whole roast pigeon did indeed taste lovely, pink inside and with a great salty, browned skin, wrapped in speck and on top of a slice of bread soaking up the roasting juices. It was, undoubtedly, a very good pigeon dish, the kind of thing you'd happily pay, I don't know, even up to £25 for. This was £37.

Three big, soft scallops, grilled to a perfect browned crust and surrounded by broad beans, chilli and rainbow chard, were also a fantastic eat. And I don't know enough about where to get the best scallops, or what makes a "perfect" broad bean to know exactly how much these raw ingredients cost. All I can tell you is that I know how much a dish of scallops, broad beans and chard cost in most other restaurants I've been to, and that figure has never threatened to approach £36.

The "chocolate nemesis" cake is apparently famous. I tried a bit of it - tasted alright to me but then I'd never normally order chocolate cake in a restaurant. I preferred my lemon tart, with its grilled top and lovely smooth fresh lemon filling. This was a half portion for £4.5, and though maths was never my strongest subject at school a quick calculation estimates the price of that full pie to be about £60.

Oh I do remember one of the cheeses being particularly impressive - a Robiola goat's milk cheese from Piemonte, all pungent and gooey. And the bill lists three scoops of ice cream which I don't remember at all, but that doesn't necessarily mean it didn't happen.

But maybe I'd better stop there. It is not that the River Café is a bad restaurant - it clearly is not, and the staff should be rightly proud of everything they've achieved over the years (except perhaps Jamie Oliver, but I won't get into that now). But all these achievements in service and sourcing and wine - oh yes, the wine; the lovely Emily O'Hare, who I first met at a charity dinner a year or two ago, presides over a fantastic list and her enthusiasm when talking about it is infectious - is overshadowed by a pricing structure that goes all the way up to the bumper of "we saw you coming" then accelerates past it screeching with laughter and flicking you the Vs into its rear-view mirror. It's a shame, but as I say, this may just be me, as I was in Hedone, blank-faced and uncomprehending as everyone else around enjoyed the time of their lives. Well, good luck to 'em. I'll be in Donna Margherita.


River Cafe on Urbanspoon


Alicia Foodycat said...

I thought the chocolate nemesis was mostly famous because when they first published their recipe it didn't work for anybody.

The food sounds absolutely gorgeous but I am not going to pay more than £10 for asparagus on polenta unless Tom Hiddleston is feeding it to me.

Louise said...

I used to work just down the road from there at HarperCollins and though I loved it, I only loved it for its 2-course lunch menu (which, then, was a steal at about £15). Much as I adored the lunch I thought the main course prices were laughable and as far as I could tell only the expense accounts (the big cheeses from my place, the BBC, Alan Yentob) seemed likely to pay them.

William Leigh said...

Didn't even pod your broad beans.

Kate said...

Completely agree with you, I went for the first time last week and while the cooking is pretty faultless and the ingredients are fresh and seasonal etc. etc. etc. but I was bloody relieved I wasn't the one paying.

Graphic Foodie said...

Italy laughs in the face of a plate of five ravioli that costs £17. As for £36 for a scallop dish, pazzo.

Fergus Miller said...

Hi Chris, I know exactly what you mean.
I have been lucky enough to eat here about four times over the last 15 years.
In the beginning it was awesome and the prices were right.
We have a lot to thank Rose Gray & Ruth Rogers for over the years. I love their books.
I have had the same experience at Bras just recently. My 1st visit to Bras was in 2001! M Bras was certainly before his time. No blogs or cool food mags then!

Amahagger said...

The prices are ridiculous, I have paid less than that for dinner for two at the Ledbury.

Kate said...

Am so glad to read this. I live in Dublin and visit London quite a bit so often look up blogs for recommendations. I had seen this spoken about and meant to look it up but the prices seem crazy, even from someone who gets ripped off daily in Dublin! :-)

Food Urchin said...

£19 for asparagus? Now that really does take the strangely scented piss

Unknown said...

More West London reviews please!

I know the pickings are slim. but would be great for this Shepherds Bush lad to get some recommnedations aside from Esarn Kheaw!

Love the Blog

Anonymous said...

Looks better than Trishna you gave 10 out of 10 for that. Again I can read the price list. I would like less emphasis put on this. More on the quality of the food.
Amahagger- The Ledbury makes a good mark up don't you worry about that.

Hollow Legs said...

I love anon's comment. Can we have more user-led writing please? Next review I would like you to talk extensively about the bogs.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear, totally agree - actually think you're being kind with the 7/10 - when I forked out a small semi for three courses, they overcooked the shit out of a £40 or £50 steak. Lovely atmosphere (well, location...all the Bufton-Tufton fanboys on the other hand...) and excellent pasta but the mind boggles at the prices. These days it's one for the overly moneyed, unadventurous nostalgics

Unknown said...

Agree entirely with your review, Chris. Having been a massive fan of their books for about 10 years, books that have probably influenced my home cooking more than any others, I finally booked to go there for my 30th a few years ago. I was very excited.

I think we were only one course in when I began to get a strange sinking feeling, something akin to embarrassment. Yes, the food was good (although not exclusively so), the wine was fantastic, and the service relaxed but attentive, but the prices could never justify food which, let's face it, is served up all over Italy for a fraction of the price. It's good food, yes, but not great, and not especially memorable.

I still love their books, but would never eat there again. It's a rare experience to leave a restaurant feeling like you've been taken for a sucker (for me, at least). I remember the road outside being rammed with supercars when I visited, which perhaps is a good reflection of their typical clientele.

Food - 7/10. Value for money - 1/10.

DvineCookbook said...

Cards on the table, I have been 3 times between 2000 - 2008, and not once did I have a duff course or wine despite a 4 year gap between visits. Sure it doesn't pretend to be anything but expensive but I cannot recall too many other venues in London that consistently deliver quality over such a long period.

Am I glad ot have been, YES, will I be going back NO. My mortgage is more dewserving of these funds.

siepert said...

Here's a slightly different view: You run a hugely successful restaurant. Now that's nice, but you're also in a bit of a dilemma if your entrepreneurial mind eggs you on to scale up. Obviously you could grow your business by increasing cover numbers, but that tends not to work well in terms of food & service quality and atmosphere, at least for the vast majority of places.

Or you could start opening branches, again, huge risks, very few restaurateurs get it right.

River Cafe has clearly chosen a third path: Maximise revenue from loyal customers who enjoy the current experience so much that they will pay inflated prices for it not to change.

As long as they're fully booked that's hard to fault as a business strategy. And as long as you know of better value alternatives that you enjoy equally or more, this is where you should go. The only problem: It'll take you one overpriced meal to find out which group you belong to.

Alex C said...

I've never been - though my parents and their friends all have and rave about it (or at least used to, you don't hear it talked of so much these days).

I think it's all about the history in the River Cafe. The rollcall of great chefs who have passed through there is phenomenal. They were one of very few people doing what they did in the beginning, and were so reliable and friendly etc that their fanbase is as you describe. A house in Central London isn't intrinsically worth more than one in the suburbs, but lots of people want to live there, so you get priced out. It's basically the same thing here.

Also Chabrot, Bisto des Amis, once charged me £30 for 3 langoustines, so there.

A pity they charge so much - the food does sound fantastic - but I suppose they've earned the right over the years. they won't be getting my money but then they don't need it.

Ines said...

What a rip off I just came back from my easter holidays in Italy, Amalfi coast, which is an expensive place but these prices.... They are offensive. Now...the Jamie Oliver thing.... Please don't tell me you don't like him?!?! I know, as chef, forget it but...he's a nice bloke!

Richard Elliot said...

Having had lunch there today I couldn't agree more with your review. Good, but not exceptional food, horrendously over priced.

Anonymous said...

Anon: I am sure they do, but as a diner I would rather pay that money for highly sophisticated cooking and unusual dishes rather than for pasta and chocolate cake.

univers said...

"when I forked out a small semi"

Keep it clean m8!

Virtuousbread said...

Hi there, I live across the river from the River Cafe and have not darkened its doors in over 20 years. I cannot bear the place and agree with everything you said. Yes the food is good but no it is not good value in fact it is hilariously, laughably bad value and the wine list is completely outrageous, starting, as it does at about 70 pounds. When we went all those years ago they added insult to injury by providing terrible service. Mick Jagger and David Bowie came in and sat next to us and we did not get a look in from that moment on! When I politely removed the service charge from the bill the outraged waiter went to get the owner who apologised and offered us a coffee "on the house" (we declined) and said she hoped we would come back (with no other incentive than her fervent hope (we have not). You wrote an excellent piece- thoughtful, fair, and diplomatic. Well done.

Ginandcrumpets said...

I ate there a few years ago and it remains one of my favourite afternoons of eating. We sat outside in the sunshine and spent four hours very slowly making our way through our meal. We were a group, so some judicious ordering and plate sharing meant we managed to keep the bill to below £100 each.

But the prices were the big talking point of the lunch. Particulay the bowl of cherries on the dessert menu that were priced at £9. Literally just a bowl of cherries. And a small one at that.

A woman at the table next to us ordered them, ate two and then they paid and left. We spent a good amount of time wondering if we could go over there and nick the remaining cherries just so we could find out what £9 cherries taste like. We weren't brave enough, but I expect they tasted like cherries.

Paul G said...

Love this blog - we went for the second time last night - had a great time, lovely food, great service. But yes, the prices are crazy. We had the previously mentioned bowl of cherries (now £10) wondering how they came - how silly was that - came as listed - a Bowl of Cherries - and yes, they tasted of cherries!

MovingFoodieBlog said...

You could have gone to Italy for dinner on that budget.

Niamh Lawson said...

Some useful and great information. bakery hammersmith I would like to see more from you. Thanks for sharing some good post.

Niamh Lawson said...

Some useful and great information. bakery hammersmith I would like to see more from you. Thanks for sharing some good post.