Tuesday, 20 August 2013

River Cafe

River Cafe is one of those institutions that's been on my "to try" list forever. I've heard it's a favorite amongst top chefs, Heston Blumenthal included, so naturally, I had high expectations. I chose to go during summer, hoping to be able to dine outdoors by the Thames, which is such a rarity. With the record breaking temperatures all July, the day we visit River Cafe, the clouds closed in and torrential rain poured down, but that didn't dampen my enthusiasm. Half way through my meal though, it was a plate of fish that made me realise River Cafe had passed its glory days and it was not what it used to be.

The restaurant is by the Thames near Hammersmith, a lone restaurant in a quiet residential area. The restaurant's decor is simple but it struck us how dated it looked-- the blue carpet was fuzzy, the plastic chairs that were once white were scratched and worn. An oversized fire oven dominated the open kitchen at the back and gave the otherwise plain restaurant a bit of character. What we did like was the fact that servers all wore their own clothes, but in coordinating shades of blues and greens, which was a welcome change to the stiffness of waitressing uniforms so often found in other restaurants.

In the days leading up to our visit, I checked the menu a few times and noticed that the menu regularly changed and thought that it must change so often to reflect the changing produce the kitchen receives. But after the meal, I felt that the ever-changing menu meant inconsistency in the quality of cooking. I remember someone once saying, you don’t cook something great by cooking lots of different dishes, you become good at it when you cook the same dish over and over again. So while a changing menu is great for regulars, it also meant food that was unlikely to impress first timers.

Bresola-- flavourless
Scallops- So So
Taglierini with summer girolles-- this was again average and a bit bland, but in comparison with the rest, it is already one of the better dishes
Risotto with Sausage and Beans: finally some flavour! The best of the starters. 

Everything from the bread, to the peach bellini, to our starters, main and desert were just ok, run-of-the-mill dishes expected from a neighbourhood restaurant, yet the prices charged were anything but. 18 pounds for starters, 36 pounds for main courses, these are Dinner by Heston prices. It wasn’t that the food was terrible (except for the fish) it was just so average. I would give the meal a 6 out of 10, not the kind of score I expected to give such a famed establishment. And if I think about the food we were served and the price we paid, it was a total rip off.

Lamb-- not bad, at least it was tender 
I always order Dover Sole when I see it on a menu because I love it so much and it’s something I don’t prepare myself at home. What was served was an atrocity and I felt that a great piece of fish had gone to waste. The fish sat swimming in a broth with a side of overcooked zucchini. It was tasteless, soggy and bland. 

Deserts were... you guessed it: average. Good, but nothing to get excited at. But at 9 pounds per slice, I expected more.

The upsides: 

The bellini was definitely made from fresh peaches, which is a plus, but the downside was that it was more foam than drink and I could barely detect the fizz of the prosecco.

The Ossobucco was definitely the best dish (no photo of this). The veal was really tender and the flavours were great.

In a nutshell:

Why would anyone go to River Cafe? My guess is, if you live nearby (walking distance) and you don't want to/know how to cook, then River Cafe is a decent, albeit extremely expensive, neighborhood restaurant. I've been repeatedly told how good it used to be and I mourn for the passing of another great restaurant. In my bid to see if my experience was an isolated case, I searched online for reviews. Here is one I resonate with and was written the day after my visit:

"Unfortunately our dinner at The River Cafe was in the same week I found out that my favourite restaurant in London had closed down, a restaurant that did not have a Michelin star for which I could never figure out the reason. So tonight I spent all night figuring out the reason why The River Cafe does have a star. The service was so-so. My wine was topped up once by the waiter. The ossobuco tasted like an old school dinner, the spinach was so salty I can't wait to get home to drink a gallon of water....and despite the fact that I didn't eat most of my food (something that NEVER happens), we were not once asked if we enjoyed our meal, our starter, our wine or our evening. I love food and I love eating out, I am not a snob, I respect the graft and hard work restaurateurs, chefs and waiters put in, but I it's been many many years since I left a restaurant feeling that it had been a complete waste of money. So, in summary, perfectly ok place, great history, ok-ish food, lovely wine, ok-ish waiting staff, but with a lasting sense of disappointment. I just don't remember the last time i left a restaurant feeling cross and cheated. Why have they got a Michelin star? " Amen. 

River Cafe on Urbanspoon

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