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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Truffle time in Italy

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During a recent trip to the Le Marche region of Italy in the Apennine Mountains, I had the good fortune of crossing paths with some fresh truffles. The white ones (on the left sitting on the white napkin in the above photo) have a distinct yet subtle flavor and tender texture while the black ones are stronger and firmer. White truffles are lots more expensive than their black cousins at about $260 per ounce vs. $35 for the same volume of black ones.

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We visited the village of Acqualagna, the tartufo (truffle in Italian) capital of the area and went to a store that specialized in fresh truffles and products made from them.

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Black truffles were at the end of their season; they are mostly harvested in Le Marche in the late summer months. It was just the beginning of white truffle time, which will last until December. The store had truffle sauces, salts, oil, even chocolate infused with the aromatic fungi; it was quite a treat to experience such a place.

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Next we drove to Urbino, a classic Renaissance town with a thriving university. Amongst the ancient buildings and religious art were restaurants celebrating tartufo in all their glory.

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Although this plate of pasta doesn’t look like much, shaved white truffles were scattered in its buttery midst, creating one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten.

Many restaurants in the states will be hosting truffle dinners this fall. Check in your area and do partake if the opportunity arises. Here is a Yelp link to places in San Francisco that may have white truffles in the coming weeks:

http://www.yelp.com/search?find_desc=white+truffles&find_loc=San+Francisco%2C+CA