The River Café is back and busy as ever after the fire that closed it for six months in April 2008. The main difference is that more of the kitchen has been brought to the fore, with for example a large wood burning oven now prominently positioned towards one end of the room. The room still has a bright airy feel, with blue carpet and simple chairs with grey upholstery and (an odd touch given the prices) paper tablecloths. The clientele at this lunch were fashionable and well dressed, and given the location I am guessing that many worked in media, advertising and the like. The menu still concentrates on simple Italian food at eye-watering prices. Starters were £11.50 - £22, primi dishes £11 - £13, main courses £27- £34, desserts mostly £7. The same menu operates at lunch as at dinner (no cheap lunches here), and yet the place was heaving (admittedly this was December).
The enjoyable I Sistri Chardonnay 2005 was £38.50 for a wine that costs about £15 retail, while Tignanello 2005 was listed at £115 for a wine that costs around £46 in the shops; Isole E Olena 1999 was £110 for a wine you can buy for about £38 or so. A little garlic toast appeared, which was a nice touch other than the slices being distinctly charred round the edges, which was careless (a later, bonus slice was fine).
Bread is made on the premises and was enjoyable, crusty bread (6/10), offered with good olive oil. A clutch of “hot poached” Scottish langoustines with sea salt were served in their shells and were of good quality, correctly cooked though “hot” was a little optimistic. Pleasant ingredients, simple presented, cooked properly and seasoned, but to be honest this is something you could easily make at home (5/10).
Papardelle was made fresh and had good texture, served with wild duck ragout with a red wine sauce, flavoured with a little tomato, bay leaf and cinnamon (the latter was fortunately very subdued). The duck tasted good and the dish was well seasoned (6/10). Wild sea bass was roasted in the wood-fired oven over thyme branches with trevise hearts and green Castelluccio lentils than for me were a little soft in texture; the fish had good taste and was carefully cooked, but the lentils let the dish down a little (4/10).
Lemon tart was featured a well-made pastry base, though the lemon filling could have been more tart (4/10). Coffee was good. Service was friendly and fairly efficient from the young team of front of house staff, several of whom appeared to be that rarest of things these days in a london restaurant: English. For an area where the local cinema sometimes has films dubbed into Polish this is unusual.
Overall this was a very enjoyable meal in a bright and airy setting, but the bill? With two bottles of cheap wine between two, no dessert wine and no pre-dinner drinks £127 a head is an awful lot of money, and this is my recurring issue with the River Café. The produce is excellent, the cooking capable, the setting enjoyable, but the bill seems to me out of line with what is delivered. However I am clearly in a minority here, as the place was packed out even for lunch.
What follows are brief notes from June 2006.
The dining room is long and narrow, with a bar as you enter at the front and a large display of a clock ticking on one wall. Tables are tightly packed and are on the small side, which could not be said of the prices. Risotto with champagne and black truffle as a starter was clearly not cooked the old fashioned way but nonetheless featured high quality chicken stock and rice of excellent consistency, topped with a little parmesan (6/10 pushing 7/10). Squid, though, was definitely of the chewy variety, and rather bland to boot (2/10). My main course of pan-fried scallops with braised radiccio had four nicely cooked scallops (perhaps cooked a few seconds longer than they might have been, but this is being picky) and tender borlotti beans with anchovy and rosemary sauce. I found the other tastes, e.g. anchovy, were slightly too strong for the delicate scallops (6/10).
Lemon tart had excellent pastry and a good filling, though one that could have been a little more tart for my taste, but still this was very good (6/10). Coffee was fine, while the Italian bread was fine. 5/10 overall given the one poor starter. Service was fine and we were not rushed out after our two hour slot was up. Still, with main courses at £25 and up one would hope not.