They say misery loves company. I could have done with some as I gawped in horror at my bill when I recently ate lunch at The River Café in Hammersmith, West London.
There is another Italian restaurant in Bermondsey called Zucca that models itself on The River Café, though you’d have to squint to see it. But whereas Zucca delivers cooking of a similar standard at a reasonable price, eating at The River Café is like being asked to toss your wallet into the robbers’ bag during the diner scene in the movie Pulp Fiction, and all you want is to “strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger”.
Puntarelle alla Romana £15
Hailed as a ‘London institution’ this is the place where a BBC television crew once discovered a blithering Essex boy by the name Jamie Oliver in the late 90′s. The kitchen has also breast-fed other notable chefs including Theo Randall and Sam and Sam Clark of Moro over its time.
Mazzancolle cruda £26
We get off on the wrong foot: On a dreadful day when the weather won’t make up its mind, I am seated next to a table of coma-inducing yuppies. There is a floor-heater that was bothering the one nearest the window. The waitress has the dazzling idea to open the full-length windows so this one man could counteract the heater with blustering wind during a downpour of rain.
I’m caught directly in the draft, and in case it isn’t obvious, my tablecloth is flapping around like a possessed tentacle up into my chin. I look around. It’s happening to others too, but nobody has the heart to complain. The waitresses turn a blind eye. I get one’s attention and gesture to the window then to my tablecloth. She disingenuously asks “Are you cold?” which makes my blood boil. They eventually move me to a different table.
Agnoli con coniglio £17
The menu is crushing, with antipasti averaging £20, primi £17 and mains around £35. Tag on dessert, a single glass of wine and service and you’ve already broken the £100 mark. The food in no way justifies the cost: A puntarelle alla Romana is fresh and crispy with a pleasant vinegary dressing, but any supposed inclusion of anchovy is imperceptible. This bowl of salad: £15. At a brutal £26 comes a starter of raw Scottish langoustines off the shell. They are seasoned simply with wild oregano and drenched in olive oil. There is rabbit agnoli which tightly packs rich slow-cooked rabbit meat into ultra-thin sheets of fresh handmade pasta. This is the restaurant at its best.
Controfiletto ai ferri £36
My main of ‘controfiletto ai ferri’ involves slices of beef sirloin from the butcher H. G. Walter, chargrilled to a perfect medium rare. A smoky crust forms a ring around the outside of each slice. With it is a salsa Etrusca providing a cool, herby foil. Alongside is slow-cooked Florence fennel and rocket leaves. It’s decent but for £36 I don’t want the word ‘decent’ to even enter my head.
Chocolate Nemesis £9
Desserts follow the same pattern. ‘Chocolate Nemesis’ is an oversized slab of chocolate cake with a good deal of richness and a luscious texture that simultaneously manages to be completely uninspiring. The ingredients at every phase of the meal were of high quality but nothing jumped off the plate. Some dishes were good. None of them were great. All of them forgettable. Far better can be had elsewhere for considerably less money, with much better service in better surroundings.
With the other so-called ‘London Institution’, Zafferano having just (deservedly) lost its star, I can see The River Café in its rear-view mirror. They belong to the old guard of elitist restaurants that actively price-out the less well-off. They don’t want to feed ‘you’, they want to feed their egos by feeding the rich. They’ve been surpassed by a new breed of restaurant that is not only meeting a higher standard where cooking is concerned, but also more in-tune with the current economic climate – Medlar comes to mind.
The bill will leave your jaw hanging open. This is a financial wrecking-ball of a restaurant that is anything but egalitarian, and it knows it. Arrogant to the bone, The River Café is a restaurant that believes its own hype. Charging sky-high prices to show you a meagre time, it fails to back it up.
food : 7.5/10
service : 4/10
ambience : 4/10
value : 2/10
The River Café
Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, London W6 9HA
020 7386 4200