A feast of Mediterranean culinary perfection at The River Cafe in Hammersmith would be all that one could wish for on the eve of their one year anniversary into coupledom. Ideally, the evening would be a synthesis of sparkling perfection; overindulgent melting into translucence of frothy warmth, seamlessness, angst-free and with an abundance of lip colour longevity. It may be that the symptom of society -that we are conditioned to expect idyllic airbrushed snapshots of our contrasting and occasionally brutal reality – is to blame for my folly. Needless-to-say, our evening was far from picture perfect idealism.
What I failed to consider is that life would not cease to occur around us; however special, a trip to savour the delights of two of Great Britian’s most influential chefs Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers – who, together trained and inspired Jamie Oliver – at their beautiful restaurant in Hammersmith, sadly did not ensure that the day was stress-free. A new job, long working hours, a grumpy parent causing –petty and pointless- emotional distress and sheer exhaustion collided between my companion and I as we openly shared our burdens of toil and frustration on the circuitous train journey to our heavenly destination. I am sure it is not surprising that train tedium did not do much to soothe our frazzled nerves.
Still, we finally arrived in good time and typically, I felt a lot less like Keira Knightly –sweeping effortlessly through the doors in Chanel Rouge – and related slightly more to the social awkwardness of a real-life Bridget Jones, surrounded by ‘upper-middle class twits’ as she herself delicately phrases it. In retrospect of this moment, my feelings of ridiculousness act almost as a forewarning –that I did not heed- instead, I reconciled myself to my social absurdity and focused on lubricating my palette.
The fruit of the season; a delightfully floral and nectar-honeyed pear coupled with frosted prosecco warmed the cockles of my soul and endeared my heart to The River Cafe- were I not already enchanted by many a recommendation and rumour, it would have been love at first sight. The beau was rapturously contented from the minute he got his mitts around a bottle of beer – simple pleasures for a simple fellow.
A quick glance down the length of this vibrantly bustling space and a large projected clock brought me up to speed as I realised that time had evaded me throughout our wearying travels. Despite the 9.15pm booking, we are speedily whisked through the suburban canteen of a restaurant and seemingly relocated at a humble table for two opposite the bar; time for wine. A careful scour of the menu and I saw nothing of familiarity and had not got a clue which wine to choose; I am so accustomed to choosing a Chardonnay Semillon that I was utterly flummoxed and felt a Bridget moment coming on. Opting for a stab-in-the-dark-lucky-dip approach, I pointed and picked a…Sardinian Vermentino ‘Crabilis’
Lucky-dip wine No1 had an overpowering gooseberry sourness that followed my pear aperitif and made me want to cry acid. I was then recommended the Riesling of Trentino (south of the Tyrolean alps, which was still not quite what I was after, but frankly it complimented my companions antipasti of tender chargrilled squid with subtle chillies; the fusion of gentle aromatic warmth, softly smoky flesh and peppery rocket met with the citric syrup of the Riesling and the equilibrium was quite perfect.
Anticipating his gamey grouse, the beau was drinking a sharp and crimson-rich red, which I can’t believe met with his squid quite as harmoniously as my white; Oh the pleasure that can be sought through anti-analytical simplicity –if you happen to be of that breed.
Honestly, the squid could have stood alone; I could have polished it off easily with water- yes, tap water- and skipped straight to the cheque. No doubt I would be missing an important poetic romance of the experience – the myriad of elegant profundities of squid and chillies as enhanced by a buono vino. Believe me, Passion Pants (our saucy waiter) who was no doubt soused with frosty nectar himself, did much to educate me in the subtleties of authentic Italian cuisine; he was clearly motivated by the taste and experience of food, driven to share and inspire others with the joys of Italian food and not by the jingle-jangle-denim-pockets of regular clientele and investment bankers.
He proudly presented -the absurdly simple and yet majestically perfect- crusty warm ciabatta with the River Cafe’s florally Tuscan extra virgin olive oil as if it were a bottle of Moët & Chandon Cuvée. Quite rightly, the complexities of the oil were staggering, much like sampling a fine wine.
It was the Bagna Cauda di Nebbiolo that Passion Pants recommended that blew me away; truly I could have cried right there on my plate, it was so heavenly. Ever the figure of poise and elegance, I waited and…well, cried in my secondi –oh, I shall explain shortly. Originally a Piedmontese dip of anchovies, garlic, olive oil and butter, served as an accompaniment to autumnal vegetables, this Bagna Cauda was enriched with a rubied Piedmontese Nebbiolo. The river cafe’s seductively sensuous ‘hot bath’ sauce – in translation- was drizzled over boiled seasonal vegetables, pumpkin, Florence fennel, spinach and chard stalks.
The anchovy and Nebbiolo red wine sauce was a smooth, dark hue some degree between mahogany and burgundy. It was chocolaty-rich, yet with saline savouriness, it was vaguely reminiscent of Sunday’s roast gravy – and no not Bisto gravy, I mean pan-scraping gravy with rump beef juices, sweet roasted garlic and red onion. This sauce inescapably and evocatively transported me back to autumnal Sunday’s of my childhood and summoned sensory –semi-kinaesthetic- memories of background acoustic folk, crackling hearth lulls and aromatic wisps of my Dad’s amazing roast dinners. It was just too bad that he happened to be the irritable cause of my upset. And, it was around the point when Passion Pants brought me my beautiful secondi of wood-roasted Dover sole –silkily delicate and soft- with barky marjoram, intense capers, trevise and Italian spinach. Once again, the flavours gently balanced to perfection, however, my heart ruled over my head.
Unfortunately, as the beau casually and softly referred to a gruff lecture that I had received earlier that evening from my father – whom I have always thought that I could never please anyway- I cried. I did not burst into a fit of tears – no, at this point, nobody would have noticed the guiltily-quiet, salty tear slowly stroke my cheek and drop tragically from my chin into my beautiful dinner, nobody but the terrified man seated opposite, who loves me. Yes, a heart-rules-over-head moment indeed, the tears fell prior to any warning and without any cerebral consent what-so-ever.
It was only natural – undeniably human- of me to react as I did, especially when the upset was stimulated by exhaustion, an abundance of alcoholic fuel and sparked by an asinine reminder from a lovely- however innately dim creature- a man.
Despite, my emotional emancipation and puffy-eyed-weariness the next morning, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening at the River Cafe and would definitely advocate a second visit. I, however, will endeavour to leave my tissues behind next time and will be moved to cry a river for no man, rather I will shed a tear exclusively for the decadent deliciousness of The River Cafe’s variety of peasant-grub-luxury.