The River Cafe Still Has It

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The River Cafe is a classic that has withstood the test of time by championing a seasonal manifesto, serving top quality ingredients and having great leadership at the top.

It was originally opened in 1987 by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray as the employee cafe for Rogers’ husband’s architectural practice. The location was an old oil storage facility right on the river Thames that was turned into a handsome office building with the restaurant at its heart.

A courtyard faces the river with dining tables for al fresco eating during nice weather surrounded by garden boxes filled with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s quite an idyllic spot.

Many now-famous chefs have honed their culinary chops under the tutelage of Gray and Rogers including Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall and April Bloomfield, to name just a few. Gray passed away in 2010, but Rogers carries on the foundations they started together. The restaurant remains dedicated to Italian cuisine in all its simplicity, from fresh homemade pasta to whole fish roasted in the watermelon pink wood oven that’s finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and a squirt of fresh lemon.

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The wood oven anchors the space and many of the standard dishes the restaurant is known are cooked in it – such as that whole roasted fish. But the kitchen is proficient at bringing optimum flavor out of seasonal ingredients and uses many techniques to achieve that.

One example was a starter of creamy burrata, juicy, roasted cherry tomatoes, cracked olives and wilted swiss chard that hit sweet, bitter, salty and creamy on the taste buds. A drizzle of olive oil pulled it all together. Another starter of chargrilled squid was topped with a tiny dice of spicy red pepper so the elements of chewy ocean interplayed with a piquant heat. Lemon, olive oil and a pile of raw autumn leaves completed the dish.

The mains were also examples of simple ingredients brought to the peak of flavor. The kitchen was using many varieties of chicories, both raw and cooked. The bitter bite of  treviso alongside a pan roasted loin of monkfish accentuated the buttery moist fish. Slices of rosy lamb were accompanied by cicoria which contrasted with the meat and a luscious, wood roasted artichoke. A refreshing minty garlic sauce snapped it all to attention. A plate of homemade ravioli stuffed with girolles mushrooms and cheese was the weakest link of the meal, not because it wasn’t done well but more because it seemed boring compared with the flashes of brilliance and color on the other plates.

Prices are high but I would say you get what you pay for. The chance to enjoy a fantastic meal at this gorgeous place that is still going strong after 31 years was worth every pound.

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Hidden Gem in Central London

I recently had the pleasure of dining at The Vincent Rooms which is part of the Kingsway College culinary program. The “rooms” consist of two restaurants: one is the more casual Brasserie with a modern European menu; the other is the Escoffier Room, which offers a weekly themed 5 course tasting menu.

Famous alum have passed through the cookery training here and gone on to make a name for themselves including Jamie Oliver, Aisley Harriot and Sophie Wright, to name just a few.

The beautiful Brasserie looks over verdant Vincent Square and has lovely paneling, wooden floors and natural light. The tables are all dressed with flowers and cloth napkins and, although there is an upscale air to the place, all staff are welcoming and professional (if a tad shy and nervous). All the food and service is provided by students in the culinary classes who are overseen by professional chefs and maitre d’s.

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The first thing my pal Rene and I noticed was the outstanding basket of home baked breads that were delivered to the table. The sliced multigrain was our favorite and we even asked for more of it, which isn’t something we would usually do. Each bite was hearty and wholesome with a delicate crumb and wheatie flavor.  All varieties of the bread baked on the campus as well as homemade chocolates and other goodies are for sale in the lobby of the restaurant so you can pick some up for home on the way out.

We ordered glasses of Prosecco to wash down all those carbs and chose fresh fish dishes for our mains. Rene got the pan seared haddock (£13), which came with lentils and spinach. The skin was caramelised to a deep golden and the filet sat in a satisfying puddle of creamy lemon butter sauce.

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I ordered a gorgeous piece of grilled sea bass (£14) atop a pile of leafy greens, shaved carrots, dill and delicate spring onions. The fish had perfect grill marks and a smattering of caper sauce completed the plate.

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We ordered a stellar dessert of panna cotta (£5.50), which we chose as almost a test to see what the kitchen could do. Often this dessert has a rubbery texture from too much gelatine and not much depth, however the Vincent version did not disappoint. Creamy and rich, with a haunting vanilla finish, the dessert was satisfying and came with delicate homemade cookies.

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Overall, this is a top notch eating experience with quality of food and service that far outweighs the prices. Keep it in mind if you are in Westminster touring the sites or have theatre tickets in the area, you won’t be disappointed.

The Vincent Rooms has just launched a new website that makes it easier to book a table, look at menus and find our more about the program however I’m still secretly hoping that it won’t get too popular – best to keep secret gems a little secret.

You can read more of my reviews on Time Out London:

Enoteca Rosso, Bobajam, Nusa Kitchen, Soho Coffee, Sama Bankside, Ivy Cafe Blackheath

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Good Bite

You know you’re in for an intriguing restaurant experience when there are so many great things on the menu you can’t decide what to order: Brew on the North Cote Road in southwest London holds a treasure trove of choices.

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This location is part of a group that includes four Brew cafes and two Antipodea restaurants (all in southwest London) that are inspired by Australia. That means great coffee is front and center with a variety of hot java drinks as well as fresh-pressed juices, smoothies and milkshakes. They have an in-house baker that makes all the bread, brioche, pastries, pizza dough and even bagels. An onsite butcher cuts all the meat, makes the sausages and grinds fresh beef for the burgers. Some locations have wood ovens for pizzas blistered to perfection and the freshness of produce and ingredients is palpable in each bite.

We started with a couple zingy juice drinks that set the table for our day. The Red Rooster was a gorgeous ruby color with a kick of ginger to get the blood flowing while the Forest Berry Smoothie was a rich, deep magenta blend of four types of berries and apple.

On the heels of that healthy beginning came the Brew Melt, a comforting nosh of ham and melted gruyere with tomatoes on Brew’s homemade bread. Two perfectly poached eggs had our forks jousting for yolk position while a dab of pesto spiked up the Indian summer flavors.

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An order of woodland mushrooms with yogurt, spinach and more of the pesto exceeded the sum of its parts; the creamy sauce was a shoe-in for some cholesterol laden concoction but it was really just Greek yogurt stirred into the luscious pan juices of the season’s best fungi. I’ll be making this one at home….

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Of course, you get what you pay for so prices are a little higher than the competition for mains, egg dishes and those fun drinks; our brunch cost about £26 however we shared the sandwich and mushrooms.

That doesn’t seem to put off customers – as we left, a line streamed out the door and down the block, a testament to the popularity of all things Brew, which serves the neighborhood with Aussie inspiration for every meal of the day.