The BSG and I managed to sneak our way into the perennially popular River Café on the first sunny day of spring, thanks to an amazing winter lunch offer (on ‘til 22nd March, if you’re asking). We’d mused over a visit for some time, but couldn’t quite swallow the prices. However, this deal and the fact that it was my birthday seemed the perfect opportunity to sample for ourselves the much-vaunted seasonal ingredients, painstakingly sourced and treated with simplicity and respect. Not bad for a place that started out as a staff canteen for Richard Rogers’ firm of architects next door. Lucky them.
Its list of cheffy alumni that have worked under co-founders and superwomen Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray has clout to equal that Cambridge-footlight dream class of Thompson, Fry and Laurie: Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Stevie Parle, April Bloomfield, Theo Randall, Sam and Samantha Clark (and many others), so we both conducted a mental audit of the cast working smoothly and diligently behind the very visible pass. If this was a school it’d be out of the league tables – no doubt many of the current crop will go on to be stars as well.
Cooking in full view – YIKES.. I’d certainly have dropped something. If nerves ever jangled or tempers rose, they didn’t show. In fact, you could almost smell the quiet authority that extended to each plate smoothly winging its way out to the tables. Everyone was busy doing their own thing on this tight ship – the BSG and I supposed that someone was in charge of pasta, another veg, fish and so on. The friendly waiting staff pepetrated this feeling of zen, were relaxed and efficient and ever so slightly über-cool…though of course they all made that look effortless too.
The day was utterly perfect, especially considering it was a Monday; the warmth of spring sunshine on our backs a foil to the chilly breeze that blew off the river. Once we got inside, lemony light spilled through the large windows across our table; cue Prosecco with fresh blood orange to wet our whistles. What followed a basket of bread and gorgeous, grassy olive oil was a series of perfectly simple dishes; including fennel salami and chicken-liver crostini, a plethora of exciting leaves we’d never heard of, fresh sardines, gum-bubble thin filled ravioli (the best pasta I have EVER eaten), sweet scallops with Castelluccio lentils , slow-cooked fennel and monkfish with salsa verde. A lot, you may think – and you’re probably right – but for some reason it felt light and healthy due to the freshness of the flavours (until we got to the lemon tart and polenta cake, that is). It was beautifully simple: there were no ground-breaking cooking techniques to distract from the food, so it was just as well that the headliner ingredients were on form.
This restaurant is a classic, an institution, a favourite – exactly what a dream canteen at work would be like (albeit work would have to be a merchant bank). Like the Rolling Stones live in concert – rather than a 2-hour late, squeaky Justin Bieber surrounded by gyrating backing dancers and tedious smoke effects – it continues to stand the test of time, taste and wallet. In short, it could prove ruinous come April and we don’t give a damn if it’s AT ALL trendy, but the BSG may well make The River Cafe a habit. Once a year. If we save.
Spring has sprung. Yippeee.