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.