Long established and vibrant Italian restaurant 10 minutes walk from Hammersmith tube station, serving simple, yet powerful dishes
I was unimpressed with The River Café on my first visit owing to the frankly bland nature of the dishes we had five years ago. However, I am delighted to have had what I did today on this, my second visit, to totally re-invigorate my impressions of this venue. The summary is that this is a buzzing place just off the river (which you can only just see from the restaurant) and it is perhaps one of the must do places outside in the summer with some very simple and commanding Italian food I am now pleased to say on second visit.
Let’s get the bad things out of the way first: it was surprising to see some dishes from my visit 5 years ago still on the menu (grilled squid and almond cake, both of which I thought only so so to) and the bread had not seemed to have changed at all which initially gives an impression of resistance too change (not daring), but the set menu does change daily to put in to perspective. However, it was very good to see a set menu this time, which, we were told by the staff today is only done during the winter months owing to it costing the restaurant too much. I can immediately note however, several, other Michelin starred restaurants such as Social Eating House, Texture and Wild Honey among many others that have a far cheaper set menu and do all year round and are simply more attractive as a result.
However, the dishes had on this winter tasting menu today were nothing short of superb and I have not had this sort of powerhouse impact for all stages of the meal for quite some time, so this visit today is a complete turn around from the first, 5 years ago. The pumpkin toast with mozzarella cheese was delightful and the punch of cheese on top of the homemade potato soup with anchovies was a thumbs up dish.
The mains were both on an even higher level – wonderful and tender cut of lamb with just the right amount of garlic and dressing and the partridge came with frankly some of the best bacon I have ever had with a gorgeous olive oil and red wine dressing for the potatoes and wilted salad leaves, finished with pine. These really were fantastic and I was not expecting it to go higher, but the chocolate ‘nemesis’ as a flourless chocolate cake with sour cream was a sheer explosion. This gave instantaneous pleasure and I was frankly bowled over by how perfectly light but chocolaty this was – fondants can very often be so dense and doughy and a mousse is just a waste of time but this was something else. There was hardly any conversation throughout the entire of this dessert and it finished off a superb meal. It was just our good fortune that the set menu had run out of the chocolate option and had to be replaced by this, which I gathered, was the signature chocolate dish of the restaurant. I now understand why this has been on for several years and is likely to continue to be.
On miscellaneous points, I only discovered that home made carbonated and filtered water is offered (as the opening was the usual “Still or Sparkling” giving the impression that it was bottled) and this is only the third place I have seen do this (Lyles and Portland, both 1 Michelin starred venues doing the same) and is a very nice touch and I applaud River Café for doing this as is worthy of credit. A final point I think worthy of mentioning is the inclusion of the voluntary £1 per person addition to charity which I asked to be removed for two reasons: a) I do believe venues are aware that this will increase the total service charge element and are hopeful that the emotional blackmail attached to asking it to be removed will prevent diners from asking and b) the diner may not have this charity as their first choice and is their decision what they choose to donate to. Doubtless some may think is too stringent (selfish) a thought for just a pound, but the fact remains, it is an individual’s choice on charity donations.
I am aware many restaurants do this and are, in the main doing for entirely honourable reasons and the staff on this occasion were very good at saying “Of course” straight away to my request to have it removed, but it seemed to cause quite a strain to deal with at the counter and I believe I heard this being commented on by staff as we were leaving which, (assuming this was the case), is case in point for hoping that the diner does not want to do for of risk being seen as ‘the bad guy’ in asking what is actually a perfectly reasonable request.
Overall, and back on the main issue by concentrating purely on the food (as the food grade on this website always does), I thought what was served today was outstanding and has done its job with bells on, of hooking the diner in and being seduced enough to opt for the more expensive a la carte again in the non-winter months. It remains a bustling, atmospheric restaurant and for the sheer volume of covers I was impressed how the staff seemed to take it all in their stride today. A wonderful meal and as with all eateries, the overall food grade is the average of all had to date (in this case two visits).
Food Grade: 89%
This was an enjoyable occasion at The River Café in an undeniably nice setting. However: you are not immediately on the river so diners should not expect that, the menu is clearly designed to maximise on style, is too pricey with no set menu options and the food was pretty basic on first look. The bread was average and actually felt a little stale (there were no options of different kinds of bread and freshly warmed / baked).
The butter was bland and had the cardinal sin of being too hard at the table and was only made up for by the fact that the balsamic glaze and oil combination was extremely good. Little things like that tell me it is complacent and feels as though it does not need to bother as much as it is ever popular which is a big no no in my book – almost fatal for any repeat visits. The dishes themselves were very well done but far too simple for the price tag given and ultimately I walked away with the feeling of: “…is that it?”. Perfect for taking someone out as a treat in the Summer as the venue is beautifully done, no question but from a foodie point of view it was not good. Although they have a set menu at time of writing (Feb 15), this is only a winter option and is not given as an option from March onwards – for this reason I have not placed this restaurant in the set menu category.
Food Grade: 59%
Location (Click google logo for directions)