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Rainville Rd, London W6 9HA
+44 (0)20 7386 4200
(Nearest tube: a stroll from Hammersmith or, best advice, catch a cab)
BY NEAL MARTIN | OCTOBER 08, 2021
Chargrilled squid with fresh red chilli and rocket
Girolles with borlotti beans
Ravioli stuffed with buffalo ricotta, garden herbs and lemon zest with marjoram butter and pecorino
Wood-roasted whole Dover sole with wild oregano, capers and lemon with slow-cooked peas
Almond and mirabelle tart
|2011 Domaine Ballot-Millot Meursault Les Perrières 1er Cru||96|
|2014 Niepoort Coche Branco||90|
|2006 Domaine Ramonet Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru||90|
|2012 Domaine Arnaud Ente Meursault Clos des Ambres||92|
|2002 Domaine Jean Grivot Richebourg Grand Cru||?|
|1992 Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat Richebourg Grand Cru||95|
|1997 Fontodi Flaccianello||94|
|1996 Domaine des Lambrays Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru||91|
|1971 La Fleur-Pétrus||95|
|NV Mullineux Olerasay 1°||99|
How long must a restaurant exist before it becomes an institution? The River Café is the paradigmatic restaurant institution. People know it even if they have never eaten there nor ever will. They probably know that it is where Jamie Oliver came to public notice after his boundless enthusiasm lit up a BBC documentary back in 1997. They probably know that it is Italian because The River Café Cookbook has been on their shelf for years. They probably have an inkling it is more expensive than your local Pizza Hut.
The River Café was founded by Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray in 1987, primarily as a canteen to serve the staff of Rogers’ husband’s architectural firm, her husband being Lord Rogers. They prioritized seasonal ingredients and simple dishes when nouvelle cuisine was determined to make cooking too complex for anyone to understand, and rapidly gained renown for their refreshingly straightforward creations, earning a Michelin star in 1998.
I have been to the River Café several times over the years. Let’s cut to the chase. It is unashamedly expensive. The cooking is delicious but not the pinnacle of Italian cuisine. It’s a bit of a hassle to reach, hidden away down an alley among Fulham’s terraced houses on the north bank of the Thames. But every time you eat at the River Café, you wish you were coming back the following day.
Why? It’s a combination of factors. The food is consistently great, never adventurous, but the ingredients always shine on the plate. The atmosphere is relaxed; overlooking the river away from the hustle and bustle, you could almost be in the countryside. Yes, you do see famous people who appreciate the seclusion. Last time, there was David Gilmour from Pink Floyd tucking into his tagliatelle, and actor Rob Lowe, whom I failed to recognize, as he looked about 20 years old. This restaurant conjures a feeling that you’ve made it. Exclusivity is not the right word, but whenever you mention that you are dining here, the other person is thinking “lucky sod.”
Girolles with borlotti beans.
In August 2021, a group of friends hired the River Café’s private room and drank some very nice bottles of wine because… well, do we need a reason? We had not seen each other since lockdown, and it was time to congregate.
What can I say about the food? This is one occasion when I see little point in using words, as the photos will hopefully translate the deliciousness on every plate. With a few pointers, maybe I could rustle up something similar, but it would never be cooked to the perfection in evidence here. Perhaps I might single out the fig pizza, which was so glorious that I berated the fig tree in my back garden for providing just one measly fig this year. (Call that a harvest, Mr. Fig Tree?) I will let you gaze at the photos...
Let’s crack on with the wines, because there were some pretty nifty bottles – incidentally, all served blind. I should point out that The River Café does have an excellent Italian-themed wine list, though we negotiated corkage for this occasion.
Ravioli stuffed with buffalo ricotta, garden herbs and lemon zest with marjoram butter and pecorino.
The 2011 Meursault Les Perrières 1er Cru from Domaine Ballot-Millot exceeded expectations. Unanimously voted the best of the four whites served blind, it has a stunning bouquet that sports a subtle but effective reduction: limoncello mixed with chai underlaid with fabulous mineralité. I confess that I guessed it might have been made by the hand of Jean-François Coche. The palate is medium-bodied, saline and taut with a judicious bitter edge lending great tension and Perrières typicity on the finish. This domaine immediately went up in my estimation. The 2014 Coche Branco from Dirk Niepoort has a ripe orange blossom bouquet, maybe a little blurred, with hints of tangerine and lemon thyme, and a touch of blood orange developing with aeration. The palate is slightly viscous with a fine bead of acidity and lightly spiced, leading to a rounded, pure finish. Coche in name but not in market price; this is drinking beautifully. The 2006 Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru from Domaine Ramonet was a bit of a letdown considering the grower. Deeper in hue, it has a lot of reduction on the nose, although it still works and conveys a sense of energy. The palate feels a little oaky and expresses more winemaking than terroir. I noticed some alcohol toward the finish, not uncommon in the white 2006s. I just want more breeding here. The last white was the 2012 Meursault Clos des Ambres from Domaine Arnaud Ente. Now this had a ton of reduction; the words “struck match” are underlined in my notebook. For me, it muscles out the terroir expression, and I prefer the 2014 that I tasted the previous month. The palate is a different matter entirely. Very concentrated, with citrus peel, wild peach and allspice, this blossoms in the glass, revealing veins of green olive toward the finish. Monitoring over a couple hours was crucial, as that reduction finally lifted to reveal some lovely peach skin notes. This is a great wine, but chuck it in a decanter for two or three hours before serving.
Wood-roasted whole Dover sole with wild oregano, capers and lemon with slow-cooked peas.
The first red is the 2002 Richebourg Grand Cru from Domaine Jean Grivot, Sadly, its hefty price tag did not protect it from light TCA. How frustrating. The taint was not strong and did allow a glimpse of a great Richebourg. The donor generously opened his backup and I was amazed by what turned out to be the 1992 Richebourg Grand Cru from Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat. It is ethereally transparent on the nose, conveying so much energy without a trace of underripeness in what was a challenging vintage for the reds. The palate is razor-sharp with a perfect line of acidity, stunningly balanced and impressively weighty on the finish. It just exudes Pinoté and transcends the 1992 growing season with style. I cannot recall a 1992 red Burgundy strutting around at this quality level. The 1996 Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru from Domaine des Lambrays is a wine that I panned when I tasted a magnum in 2018. This bottle was far superior, virtually a different wine. Mature on the nose, and still a little green, it gains complexity and reveals garrigue and star anise aromas, plus touches of burning embers/ash. Fleshy and balanced on the palate with a dash of white pepper, it has a very tertiary finish and feels evolved for a 1996 red Burgundy, yet undoubtedly this was a far better showing than the previous one.
Moving away from Burgundy, the next wine was the 1997 Flaccianello, the pure Sangiovese from Tenuta Fontodi. The bouquet is outstanding, a heady mélange of red and black fruit mingling with star anise, freshly rolled tobacco and sandalwood; this seems to be effortlessly moving into its secondary aroma stage. The palate is beautifully balanced, with fine breeding and impressive concentration given that it is now 24 years old, leading to a full-bodied, rounded finish. This is drinking perfectly now but has the substance to last. The home straight saw us move to Bordeaux. The 1998 Palmer showed extremely well. Featuring blackberry, cedar and a touch of black olive on the nose, this has evolved a little since I last tasted it, yet it remains wonderfully defined. The palate is supple and concentrated, with touches of clove and black pepper infusing the black fruit, and gentle grip on the finish. I might actually afford this another year in bottle, but it probably represents good value vis-à-vis other vintages. The 2001 Lafleur is a Pomerol that I had tasted just a couple of months earlier. This bottle feels a little riper and more plummy on the nose by contrast, and perhaps it required more decanting, as the palate here is ferociously backward. But the breeding is all here – it just needs time.
The final red was the 1971 La Fleur-Pétrus. This came from the same munificent gentleman who gave me a bottle for my half-century innings in February during lockdown. This was a much better bottle. It has a stunning nose reminiscent of a magnum opened by the Moueix family at the château a few years back, beautifully defined and featuring menthol and wilted rose petal scents and a touch of balsam and black tobacco, all displaying ethereal transparency. The palate is perfectly balanced with almost piquant red fruit, elegant and old-school. The silky-smooth finish lingers in the mouth, showing much more grip than the bottle I had in February. Brilliant.
To finish, there was the Olerasay 1° from Mullineux & Leeu. It was the 2° that I awarded a perfect score last year, but this debut solera, a blend of vintages between 2008 and 2014, remains a showstopper with a hedonistic quince, tangerine, barley sugar and clear honey nose. The palate is tensile despite a huge payload of residual sugar, mandarin, peach and passion fruit fighting for attention on the finish. It will blow you away.
In between services. I think that is actually Ruth Rogers in the middle.
That was the perfect way to end a fabulous lunch. The bill was, predictably, not the cheapest in the world, yet like all the satisfied diners who have visited over the years, you feel that life is good when you finish. Every dish was so delicious that I could have eaten another, while the wines mostly delivered and kept our palates on their toes. Leaving my table, I scanned the room just in case I had missed a celebrity and, as I expected, began to yearn for my return – the sooner, the better.
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