Friday, March 16, 2012

5 reasons why the River Cafe is still one of London's best restaurants

I had lunch at The River Café this week. I wouldn't normally say that because I find it hard to justify spending that amount of money on a meal but this month (and during late January and February for future reference) they have a winter set lunch offer where you can get 2 courses for £25 and £35 for four. Normally a main course alone will set you back £32-£36

Admittedly it was helped by the fact that it was the most stunning spring day but in every other respect the meal was faultless in ways that explain just why this iconic restaurant still pulls in the crowds.

* First it's a beautiful, beautiful space with a whole wall of glass that pours in the light. The wood-fired oven is clearly visible at one end, the gleaming stainless steel counter, topped with ingredients runs the whole length of the room on the other side. It's a big restaurant that feels like a small one. And one that looks as cutting edge in 2012 as it did when it opened in 1987.

* The service is great. Friendly, attentive, informed. The waiters have to do stints in the kitchen prepping ingredients so they really understand the food

* The ingredients are top notch. You won't get better anywhere in London. And always reflect the seasons

* The cooking makes no attempt to disguise them. No cheffy egos here. No teetering towers of ingredients, no drizzles, no foams.

* The all-Italian wine list is amazing with treats at every price level. Not super-cheap, obviously but you can buy a bottle for £24-26

So what did we eat and drink? Well, apart from the superb piece of grilled bread and olive oil that arrived just after we sat down my daugher and I had:

Mozzarella di bufala with smashed chickpeas, wood-roasted artichokes and erbette (lightly cooked greens) (daughter)

Spaghetti with red mullet, tomato, olives, capers, parsley and lemon zest - a light summery dish that suited the unseasonally warm weather perfectly (me)

Capesante e vongole - a heavenly dish of clams and scallops with soft polenta, chilli lemon and parsley (me, thank goodness. I'd have been thoroughly fed up if it had been hers)

Controfilleto di manzo - chargrilled beef sirloin with borlotti beens and fresh horseradish (which my daughter found a little fiery) Not a great pic of this so I'll skip it.

A prettily presented plate of San Andrea cheese and flatbreads (me)

A decadently rich 'pressed' chocolate cake and ice cream (for the chocoholic daughter who was even defeated by it)

My daughter doesn't drink but I had a glass of Frascati out of curiosity - a deliciously fruity Castel de Paolis 2010 (£7.50) and a glass of bright, vibrant Luigi Maffini Refosco from Friuli (£8.50). 175ml glasses, not a fortune.

So what can you do if you have a River Cafe habit without a budget to match? Have an antipasto and a pasta or risotto. Granted, that will set you back around £35 and that's still not cheap but it's affordable. And you know, when I think about it, the top Michelin-starred restaurants think nothing of charging a hundred quid for a meal. Why shouldn't the River Café when their food is as good and probably more expensively sourced? Go.

Oh, and just in case you wondered after such an unrestrained eulogy, we paid our own bill. Which came to £92.56