Mazzancolle Cotto in Bianco
The River Cafe
I was staring down unwanted reservations at Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley when I, with the help of Food Snob, secured last minute seats at The River Café. Sorry Chef Wareing, do try to get a better buzz going the next time I swing by.
She slipped on a Balenciaga and, within the hour, joined Food Snob and me on the Hammersmith & City line heading out to the Thames Wharf near Putney Bridge.
I won’t bother running down the history of this place. I’m sure Rose Gray, Ruth Rogers, and Co. are sick of analogies to Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, so I won’t add another. (I think I just did.)
Nor will I linger on The River Café’s roster of successful alumni, which includes Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver, Theo Randall, and April Bloomfield. This, I’m sure, is a well-known factoid that’s amply covered by the internet as well.
But I will talk just a bit about the restaurant’s new design by Mr. (Richard) Rogers and Stuart Forbes Associates (hello, where do I apply?).
The restaurant was badly damaged in a fire in early 2008 and reopened in October of that year, just two months before my visit. Descriptions of the renovated space have included references to a wood-fire oven “dominating the dining room and kitchen.”
That’s absurd. Thankfully, the wood-fire oven does no such thing.
The only thing dominating this dining room is the dining room itself. Its warehouse past is not lost, as the dining room is allowed to sprawl, seemingly endlessly through the main expanse. Even the bright, open kitchen is relegated to side-show status.
I would be tempted to say that the restaurant is plagued by its length, except the designers have used the stretch well. Capitalizing on its bright and airy qualities and injecting splashes of neon color – coordinated with staff apparel – they’ve created a jazzy feel.
It’s anchored at one end by an analog clock projected on the far wall and, yes, that now-famous modern wood-burning oven, which looks like a creature from a chic Jackson Hole outfit.
A chrome counter runs the length of the room along the right, ostensibly the pass, where food is retrieved by servers. To the left is a wall of windows looking out onto a terrace overlooking the wharf and River Thames.
If Hogwarts were to go back to the future, this is what its mess hall would look like. All it needs now is a giant juke box.
Go in threes and order for eight. That’s what we did.
Here is what we ordered (as always, CLICK HERE to see the entire photo set or the hyperlinked dishes below to see the individual photos):
Deep-fried violetta artichokes, red mullet, lemon, anchovy & sage.
Calamari ai Ferri
Chargrilled squid with red chilli and rocket.
Mazzancolle Cotto in Bianco
Hot-poached Scottish langoustines with sea salt, marjoram.
Insalate di Melagrana e Fagiano
Pheasant slow-roasted in Nebbiolo with bitter winter leaves,
pomegranate, chestnuts and Prosciutto di Parma
Cappellacci di Zucca*
Handmade pasta parcels stuffed with pumpkin, sweet potato,
cinnamon & chilli with sage butter and Pecorino Toscano.
Cape Sante ai Ferri*
Chargrilled Scottish scallops with anchovy & rosemary sauce,
borlotti di Lamon and red leaf salad.
Rombo al Forno
Turbot tranche wood-roasted with lemon, capers & marjoram
with Swiss chard, their stalks, and wood-roasted Florence fennel.
Branzino al Forno*
Fillet of wild sea bass wood-roasted over thyme branches
with Pinot Bianco trevise hearts and Castelluccio lentils.
Coscia d’Agnello ai Ferri*
Chargrilled marinated leg of lamb with salsa d’erbe,
violetta artichokes ‘alla romana’ & large leaf rocket
Maiale al Latte*
Middlewhite pork shoulder slow-cooked in milk with
lemon peel & sage with erbette saltate of spinach,
cicoria, cima di rape, savoy cabbage and rocket.
I know what you must be thinking: it’s time to ship u.e. and his friends off to the fat farm.
Before you get too far down that storyline, let me just tell you that most of these dishes (the ones with *) were half portions. So, we really only ordered for six.
The River Café is one of very few restaurants I’ve encountered that receives universal praise and respect. I don’t think I’ve met one negative remark about the place. The most critical quip I’ve heard is that it’s pricey. And that’s not even true.
It’s certainly no drop in the bucket. But the quality of the ingredients alone, not to mention the portion sizes and expert execution, is worth far more than what you pay.
Take, for instance, the “Coscia d’Agnello ai Ferri.” At regular price, it’s 28£. Our half-portion, which seemed quite generous even to my American eyes, was plenty for one as a main course. The slices of marinated and grilled leg of lamb blushed with juice and were topped with a fragrant, thick “salsa d’erbe,” more paste than sauce. The slices were inter-leafed with thick sheets of rocket, which had developed a nice bitter salinity in its maturity.
This dish reminded me how tireless and versatile the lemon is. A fat wedge of lemon comes on nearly every plate. Though the lamb didn’t need anything to distract from its natural flavor, a judicious spritz of citrus only helped enliven the flavors.
The tender baby violetta artichokes served with the lamb prompt me to pause on the topic of seasonality.
While the restaurant seems fairly conscious about seasonality – indeed, most of what we had was in season – I got the sense that the restaurant delights in, rather than handcuffs itself to, the cause.
So, those same artichoke hearts also appeared, without apology, in the “Fritto Misto,” along with slices of red mullet, lemon, and whole filets of anchovy (13£). (I’m sure that violetta artichokes are in season somewhere, but certainly, not anywhere near London.) Everything was dusted and fried, resulting in a tissue-thin shell that was both crispy and well-seasoned. As good as everything was (the mullet was particularly enjoyable – more so for its freshness than anything else), the fried slices of lemon were truly star on this plate for me, especially paired with the fried sage leaves that were scattered about.
As mentioned above, The River Café isn’t a strict locavore either. If you haven’t noticed already, its food is decidedly Italian. Many things, like their private label olive oils served with the bread, are imported from Italy.
So are the Castelluccio lentils, which served as a bed for a flaky filet of wild sea bass “Branzino al Forno” (15£ for half portion). These itty bitty pulses were gently cooked to showcase their delicate constitution and nutty flavor. Silky strands of treviso put in a nice contrast to the crisped fish skin, still smoky from the grill. Though rustic in appearance, it was all quite dainty.
The River Café’s philosophy and success is simply based.
First and foremost, the restaurant’s highest fidelity is to the ingredient.
The quality of the products here is unimpeachable.
As a result, not much needs to be done to make things shine.
You don’t even need to take the roe sack off of a scallop, as demonstrated by the “Cape Sante ai Ferri” (14£ for half portion).
Coincidentally, a French chef whom I was cooking with earlier that day (and who had worked in Paris for Alain Ducasse, among others) had chided me for keeping the roe sack on the scallops whilst preparing for lunch. He didn’t deem them fit for eating, accusing them of being bitter. Those Frenchies – so effete in their ways of eating.
Very good scallop roe shouldn’t be bitter at all. In this case, they were sweet and worked wonderfully against the salty, briny anchovy-rosemary sauce that skirted the plate. Though the scallops were perfectly grilled, the roe was the highlight of this dish, which also included large, creamy borlotti di Lamon and bitter red leaf lettuce. A simple assortment, it was fantastic.
Every dish at The River Café is ingredient-focused.
The “Punterelle ‘alla Romania’” (£12.50) was basically a study on one vegetable. This heap of thinly chopped punterelle, a sturdy member of the chicory family, was simply tossed with bits of salted anchovy, chile, olive oil, and a splash of acid. Minimalist and reliant upon its crunchy, peasant appeal, it was by no means inferior to the other salad we ordered, the “Insalate di Melagrana e Fagiano,” which was festive and showy.
That one had all the talking points of a successful salad: color, contrasting textures, and a cascade of flavors. Among the bitter winter greens were thin leaflets of papery baby Belgian endive and fleshy panels of albino treviso streaked with pink. There were strips of tender pheasant meat roasted in Nebbiolo and satiny ribbons of Prosciutto di Parma. Nuggets of meaty chestnuts and splashes of tart pomegranate seeds dotted the plate. It’s the type of composition that makes you happy that winter is on the calendar. Though a bit busy, and a bit hard to eat – especially with the prosciutto running about – the reward of this salad resided in the faultless quality and coupling of its components.
The other prong of The River Café’s success is the expert treatment of the ingredients.
The confidence of the cooking here spoils you. After a couple of bites, I was immediately lulled into sense of security – never doubting or questioning the next one.
I don’t need to tell you that flawless execution enables one to focus on and appreciate the pure, natural flavor of the food, like the subtle sweetness in “hot-poached” Scottish langoustines (“Mazzancolle Cotto in Bianco”) (£22).
Four to an order, these beautiful crustacea were given nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil, a dash of salt, and a garnish of fresh marjoram, a combination which I found particularly inspired. Each, the length of my hand, offered succulent tail meat and conical caps filled with briny head cream, which neither of my dinner mates seemed to want to enjoy nearly as much as I.
After a week of heavy eating, I had to recalibrate my palate to a cleaner and lighter touch. One of the restaurant’s “signature” dishes, the “Calamari ai Ferri,” for example, really stripped down the flavors and demanded more attention from the diner than most (13.50£). This was especially surprising given that the two scored and curled sheets of squid were coated in finely chopped red chile.
Perhaps I wanted (or expected?) more heat from the chile, or more smoke from the grill, but I was, in the end, taken aback by the graceful nature of the squid itself – milky sweet and incredibly tender. (The seeds must have been carefully removed before the flesh of the chile was chopped.) Sharing the plate with the squid was a stack of beautiful baby rocket, a patch of brilliant green set against the fiery red chile.
When food’s this fresh, it glows. This dish was beautiful.
In contrast, the “Maiale al Latte” looked like a dog’s plate (13.50£ for half order). But the shredded Middlewhite pork shoulder meat, which benefited from slow-cooking in milk with lemon peel and sage, was so phenomenally good that I quickly overcame its visual shortcomings.
Although pieces of lemon peel were observable, they imparted only a subtle fragrance (I feared it would inject bitterness), leaving sage and the natural pork juice to carry the flavor load. Together with the stew sauce, the texture of the pork was almost velvety, as was the accompanying “erbette saltate” – a soft mix of finely chopped and sauteed spinach, cicoria, cima di rape, savoy cabbage and rocket.
The “Rombo al Forno” was not available in a half portion for a good reason (34£). This tranche of bone-in turbot, the size and shape of a brick, really couldn’t (and shouldn’t) have been portioned down.
As I stated in my review of The Sportsman (“review: salt marsh umami…”), I prefer my turbot on the softer, flakier side. The texture of this wood-roasted turbot was much closer to my ideal than the turbot at The Sportsman, though it was still a bit stiff around the edges. To be sure, it had excellent flavor, not the least of which was attributable to the marjoram and caper butter sauce twitching with lemon that coated the fish in a glossy sheen.
Like the treviso with the sea bass and the saltate with the pork, the accompanying mix of chard, chard stalks, and fennel were meltingly soft, which, like the vegetables on those other plates, transformed this rough and hearty-looking food into something elegant.
We sampled two of the four pastas offered as Primi, deliberately choosing them for their contrasting nature.
A specialty of the Emilia Romagna region, the “Cappellacci di Zucca” were filled with a roasted pumpkin and sweet potato puree spiced with cinnamon and chili. At a rate of three cappellaci per half order, which cost 6£ (approximately $9 at the current trading rate), it was, perhaps, one of the noticeably pricier plates.
The pasta was not the point of this primo (nor was the Pecorino Toscano that dusted the plate). In fact, it seemed to serve no other purpose than as a casing. The pasta was thin – almost translucent – and disappeared in thought and substance once the warm, sweet filling was released. Cinnamon appeared first, followed by a slow-rising heat which dissipated as soon as it registered. The experience was tied together nicely by sage (the recurring theme of the evening), both in a light butter sauce and fried leaf forms, which perfumed the plate and each bite. It was a thoughtful composition full of warmth and comfort.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the “Spaghetti con Bottarga e Limone” was bold, crass, and all about the pasta (6.50£). I smelled it even before I saw it.
This was a workman’s primo; the spaghetti had an earnest bounce. A generous dusting of salty bottarga, whose fishy pungence might have been a bit overwhelming or cloying had it not been chased with the fresh lemon juice laced throughout, clung to the noodles and blanketed the plate. Although I enjoyed the robust flavor of this dish, it was certainly not for the timid or squeamish.
With a small but fine selection of imported Italian cheeses at our disposal, I felt obliged. I picked the two (of the five) that I was not familiar with – Puzzone di Moena and Basago – and the Robiola delle Langhe for Food Snob, whom I knew was partial to creamy white cheeses (11.50£).
Coming from the U.S., where cheese courses tend to be shy and stingy, it was refreshing to get cuts of cheese that I could actually sink my knife into.
All three were in fine form, especially the Robiola, which was particularly soft and lush on this occasion. The Basago, a sheep’s milk blue cheese, was equally creamy. This unique cheese was was marinated and crusted with grape must. I was quite amazed how well the infusion of grape penetrated into the paste.
But, partial to Alpine cheeses, it wasn’t surprising that I favored the Puzzone über alles.
The cheeses were served with chunky quince compote (which paired particularly well with the Basago) and a side plate with fat, oily grissini, sliced bread, and cracked whole walnuts.
Our server, a spunky Italian girl, was incredibly friendly and accommodating (especially when it came to checking with the kitchen about half-portions). Actually, everyone we encountered – from the reception desk to the coat check – was sincere and hospitable (though I believe one of the servers knew Food Snob). Given the string of chilly and awkward services I experienced earlier in the week, this was an especially nice way to end my stay in London.
We ordered one of each dessert, though we passed up the chocolate and tangerine sorbets and the caramel ice cream, opting for a scoop each of “Chestnut Sorbet” (3.50£ per scoop) and “Toasted Almond Ice Cream” (3.50£ per scoop) instead.
Our desserts came in two services. The first was a sampling of all of the half-portions we ordered.
Next to the “Chestnut Sorbet,” which produced on its own rich creaminess without any added dairy, the restaurant’s signature dessert, the “Chocolate ‘Nemesis’” (4£ for half order), was the best sweet bite of the night. What I imagined to be just another obligatory flourless chocolate creation, the “Nemesis” was a wedge of incredibly fluffy chocolate mousse with a slight spongy give. Made from a variety of cocoa beans (I think there were seven different cocoa beans involved) each bite was like spooning a dark cloud of sin.
Always playful with my desserts, I discovered that the chestnut sorbet, taken with the “Nemesis,” was a stellar combination.
The “Toasted Almond Ice Cream” wasn’t bad either. Unto itself, it was some mighty fine ice cream; exhibiting a light, but nice toasted nuttiness about it. But compared with the chestnut sorbet, which eclipsed everything else on the plate for me, it seemed somewhat dull.
The “Lemon Tart” (3.50£) was also a fine example of its kind. It was bright and luscious – a quality only achieved through copious quantities of butter (I know from experience, unfortunately). Whereas so many tarts are ungainly – a clunky monster, more filling than crust – this boasted a near-one-to-one ratio between the two layers. This not only allowed for the filling to be less sweet, it also forced the crust to play a more essential role. Thankfully, it was very good crust – it possessed a rounded sweetness and a slightly moistened – but not soggy – crumb.
A similar approach had been taken with the crust on the “Pear & Almond Tart” (3.50£), which was filled with a fine frangipane – a moist, sandy nut paste with pockets of melted pear. We supposed that the little dish of whipped cream on the side was meant to be paired with this tart. It really was superfluous. This tart needed nothing more than itself.
None of the desserts here will have you swinging from the chandeliers in ecstasy (indeed, that’s a rare occurrence to begin with). But, they were, like most of the savory courses, thoughtfully executed. As one who bakes constantly, I consider The River Café’s desserts to be the textbook ideal. They’re the type of dessert that you could feasibly reproduce in your kitchen at home, given some sense and proper ingredients.
Nothing was too sweet.
Our second dessert service included the two remaining desserts, both of which were full-portions.
The slice of “Pannetone Bread and Butter Pudding” was a decadent sponge for a warm, satiny pool of vanilla crème anglaise (what the British curiously refer to as “custard”) (7£). Like everything else it was good. And, given the many bad versions of bread pudding I’ve had, I’ll even say this one was great. But, I’m not the most ardent bread pudding fanatic, so I’ll defer my opinion to my dinner mates – especially the Brit among us, who, apparently, likes his bread and butter puddings – who both gave their approval.
As with the bread pudding, I hesitate to pass too hasty or definitive a judgment on Pannacotta with Grappa & Champagne Rhubarb” (7£), a half-dome of milky custard barely capable of holding its own shape and form. It’s not really my type of dessert either.
To me, panna cotta, like bread pudding, should be an entirely spoonable experience. This wasn’t. The rhubarb, which was really good, needed cutting. And, in my opinion, I thought the panna cotta was a bit too loose – one almost had to drink it.
Ill-paired though these two components were, the flavor was quite nice. I’m not sure I got much of a sense of the grappa in the panna cotta. But the hot pink clubs of rhubarb that came with it were noticeably drunk with champagne.
Overall, the food at The River Café was a less hearty and robust than I had imagined. There was a refinement and finesse – like the subtle use of herbs and acid – that I wasn’t quite expecting; it was all quite thoughtful. Of course, I’m not surprised by it either. To borrow a bit of my dear Austen’s genius, The River Café was more sensibility than sense.
The most important take-away from this dinner for me was a reminder that high ingredient quality requires little manipulation in order to be great.
The River Café has maintained its one Michelin star since 1998. I received word today that it has retained its status for another year (2009). I think it’s a well-deserved acknowledgment of this restaurant’s achievement and continued dedication to its craft.
I cannot fathom what the state of British “agricuisine” was like in the 1980’s when this restaurant opened. I can hardly fathom the state of the British “agricuisine” now outside of the better eateries in the country. I have heard horror stories.
Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers did something wonderful for the British food and restaurant industry in opening The River Café. They helped changed the landscape of the British palate (with, of all things, Italian cuisine). And their legacy has spread into many other kitchens in their country and abroad.
Though there is paper on the tables, this is no home-spun enterprise any more. Like St. John, Chez Panisse, and other “cute, rustic” eateries backed by now-celebrated chefs, The River Cafe has been branded and packaged. The little cottage industry by the wharf has spawned paraphernalia, like myriad of cookbooks, t-shirts, logo-etched sugar packets, and their own bottled olive oil.
But I can overlook all of that glitz because, at the heart of it all, there is a living, breathing purpose to The River Cafe that touched this diner.
After a week of binging on bijou food, The River Café’s simple and honest cooking reset my palate and provided an emotionally lovely note on which to leave London.
The River Café
London W6 9HA
+44 020 7386 4201
To read about the other meals I had on this trip abroad, CLICK HERE.