One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that cities are a lot more fun if you avoid a) the city centre core and b) any of the attractions that first spring to mind when you think of that city’s name. Instead, the café, restaurant and neighbourhood should be what you build the bones of your day around; these, after all, are what we tend to continue to discuss at length afterwards, even years down the line.
We very much followed these resolutions when we were in London last weekend for a mini-break. Bar a walk on Hampstead Heath, we didn’t do any of the usual touristy things this time, and the trip was all the better for it. We spent most of our time wandering around residential enclaves like Fulham, where we were staying, just beside the bustling North End street market (and close to an Emma Bridgewater store, which was in sale); Notting Hill, where we had lunch at Ottolenghi (more on this in a later post), a wander around the streets and a meal at Polpo; and Hampstead, where we had a wintry walk on the Heath, a nose into the nice shops, and pints, pub grub and muddy dogs at the exceptionally charming Holly Bush pub above the town.
Since we only had a short amount of time, I decided that I wanted to go to places which have loomed large in my mind for years rather than trying to hunt out the latest, coolest, trendiest spots. With that idea in mind, we booked lunch in the River Café as a special treat, given that I have wanted to go there for about a decade, or ever since I started reading cookbooks and British newspapers when I was a teenager. We were a little early for our 12.30 booking, so we wandered down the walkway along the riverside, enjoying the bright sunny weather, the rowers on the Thames and the happy bustle of Saturday morning in what’s actually a surprisingly suburban part of the city.
Inside, it’s the confidence and the calmness of the place that strikes you, with big windows; lots of bright light and sparkling chrome; cheerful, brazen pops of colour that speak of all the positivity and push of the 1990s. The staff are comfortable in the room, and so are the customers, out for Saturday lunch with their families and friends. They have been here before; they know what they like; they wear open collared shirts and pick their favourites off menu. But there’s nothing arrogant about the place, and although it’s certainly a little more pricey than your usual lunch, it’s relaxed, and the atmosphere remains informal: children are welcome, old and young dine together, and many guests seem to be celebrating special occasions. It’s a bright place for celebrating happy moments.
The food carries this same feeling and is sure enough of itself to be kept completely simple. At the entrance to the room is a giant bowl of fresh artichokes, and at the back a wood fired grill stands sentinel to the open kitchen; both book-ending the room with the slick touches of Italian authenticity that have kept the River Café at the front of the game in London dining for almost 30 years.
What really makes the River Cafe so compelling though is the quality of the ingredients and the cooking that’s on offer. I had a plate of prosciutto di San Daniele with boiled artichokes, almonds and a honey and lemon peel reduction to start, along with a blood orange and prosecco aperitivo; while Ryan had the creamiest buffalo mozzarella I’ve ever tried, which came with a simple tomato, olive oil and sea kale salad. For my main, I had handmade tagliatelle with crème fraîche, rocket, parmesan and Amalfi lemon, which was exceptionally good and he had spaghetti with red mullet. Dessert was coffee and two homemade ice creams – roasted almond and an almost burnt, honeycomb-flavoured dark caramel delicacy. It was all wonderful.
Later, in Gatwick, delayed by a tiny bit of snow and reading the Observer Food Monthly magazine in Pret, I came across a profile of French chef Gregory Marchand, discussing the influence that London has had on him as a cook – the potential of the place; the Italian-inspired techniques that he learned at the River Café. I showed the piece to Ryan to explain why I wanted to go there too, to say, this has been an influence far and wide for a long time, and indirectly, although I hadn’t tried it till now, on me too. I wanted to try it for myself, and it didn’t disappoint, not at all; I loved it from start to finish.
This is based on a recipe by Gregory Marchand, with a few little additions to keep the flavours of the River Café alive in my mind, such as the artichoke and blood orange. The bitter radicchio pairs beautifully with the sweet blood oranges and the parmesan & smoked prosciutto – perfect food for brightening days.
2 blood oranges
12 mint leaves
A large handful of bitter leaves, such as radicchio, chicory & rocket
Juice of half a lemon
Salt & black pepper
8 slices of smoked prosciutto or speck
Half a jar of marinated artichokes, drained
Peel the blood oranges and cut into 1cm-thick wheels. Put them in a bowl and the mint leaves, marinated artichokes and bitter leaves. Season with lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil and salt & pepper, and toss gently with your hands. Arrange the salad and slices of prosciutto on two plates and add some parmesan shavings, a drizzle of oil and a few more mint leaves. Serve with warm slices of toasted sourdough.