EATING OUT / A post-Italian cafe by the Thames

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The Independent Culture
THE RIVER CAFE

Thames Wharf Studios, Rainville Road, London W6 9HA. Tel: 071-381 8824.

Lunch around pounds 30 a head, dinner around pounds 40 a head. Open for lunch seven days a week, dinner Monday-Saturday. Visa and Mastercard only

I THINK the architectural expression is 'pared down'. Richard Rogers, whose wife runs the River Cafe, designed the place as a high oblong space, painted white, with a barrelvaulted ceiling lined with a kind of chromium mesh. One side of the room is glass, the windows framed in blue-painted metal, and it seats about 100, with black tables, chromium chairs and a soft grey carpet.

There is a bar at one end and double white doors with the word EXIT over them in red. Hanging on the wall facing the bar there are two large framed squares of plain black, each patterned with a maze of white handprints. Otherwise, there is nothing unfunctional and absolutely nothing vulgar.

Introduce an old Chianti bottle with a half-melted candle stuck in the top or a basket of breadsticks in a pink napkin and the place would empty in a flash. It is, none the less, an Italian restaurant. Or to be more accurate, a post-Italian cafe. (It opened in 1987, the height of the Post Period.)

Like an old-fashioned cafe, it has paper tablecloths. There are cheapish white-handled Divertimenti-type knives and forks, and every table has a chic little roundbottomed blue nightlight floating in a small plain Pyrex bowl half full of water.

Coming out of the respectable backstreets off the Fulham Palace Road you find nothing to indicate a restaurant except, on the wet night we went there, a very tall, post-Modern doorman in a grey-black chauffeur's hat, a long lightweight grey mackintosh and a pigtail, who showed us into a new block of high-rise, redbrick flats. The restaurant looks out on the central courtyard, with the river beyond.

The first impression is one of transatlantic good taste. There is a marked absence of showbiz beards kissing each other on both cheeks, nobody shouts or waves their arms. Nobody, you sense, would dare. The men and most of the women were in suits. Some of the men had risked taking their jackets off to reveal recently laundered shirts and expensivelooking braces, there were several sets of half-moon spectacles, and it crossed my mind that the clientele might have been pared down entirely to middle-aged architects and wives, colleagues, discreet gay partners etc, all from the Eastern seaboard of the US.

The service is similarly economical. There are only four people waiting and one behind the bar, but everything arrived very quickly and efficiently. This is probably because there is only one sitting. A hand-written notice on the table warns you that due to planning restrictions - the neighbours in the flats, presumably - everybody has to be out by eleven. Most people had therefore begun dinner by 8.30, and looked as though they would in any case be propped up among spotless pillows in their half-moons and silk pyjamas by 11.40, reading a very fat book from the Best Seller List.

The wine is all Italian, ranging from pounds 10 to pounds 80 a bottle, with an economically phrased guide to where it comes from and who makes it. The food is Supercharged Italian Peasant. The Italian Peasant, you have to remember, is to contemporary architects what the Noble Savage was to 18th-century philosophers. The Italian Peasant, in his unsophisticated purity of mind, knocks up chunky white farmhouses of uncluttered simplicity, and sits down at night to chunks of ciabbata and olives, flasks of good local Italian wine and big dishes of solid Italian food. Sitting at the River Cafe the contemporary architect can believe that under his expensive braces and half-moons, he is an Italian Peasant, evolved to perfection. Mama Rogers satisfies the fantasy.

There is therefore no messing about with a few frail leaves of green salad in raspberry vinegar and walnut oil. Food at the River Cafe is solid and substantial, and the word is that Mama Rogers and her partner in the business, Rose Gray, have been out early at the market, concentrating on Ingredients. Elizabeth Furse, who used to run a very successful restaurant in Chelsea in the Fifties and Sixties, officially in order to put her boys through Eton, always claimed that she got everything cheap from barrows in the market just as it was closing, and some of the avocados gave the impression of having had the black bits carved out of them just before you got them, vinaigrette. Mama Rogers and Signora Gray would not approve. As good functional cooks they are out there in the dark at 5 am, we are told, squeezing the most expensive avocados, dallying in the fishmarket regardless of expense. There is a New England Puritan sense of standards being maintained.

The menu offers various salads, but all with some wholesome body to them, the main course meat and fish, followed by puddings. For the first course my wife, on whom the decor seemed to have a calming effect, enjoyed a warm salad with grilled scallops, and I had grilled polenta, also with grilled vegetables, both of which were faultless but uninspired. She then plunged into an Osso Buco, complaining mildly about there not being much marrow-bone in it, and I wrestled with a small, rubbery and very expensive partridge with quite good fried potatoes.

For pudding we had blackcurrant sorbet with frozen creme fraiche - the beautiful Eurasian waitress with the graceful carriage thoughtfully gave us two teaspoons for that - and a really delicious Italian bread pudding. Until then I would, as an old schoolmaster, have given the food beta double plus, but the Italian bread pudding was well into the alpha class. It was squishy and full of flavour, smothered in some kind of delicious custard.

We drank a bottle of one of the cheaper Chiantis, which was perfectly all right, and I would recommend afterwards a glass of Vino Santo, which tastes vaguely of plums. The bill for two, with 12 1/2 per cent tip included, came to 60p short of pounds 100.

Booking is not always easy. I was planning to invite some friends recently and rang three days before to book a table for six. The girl at the other end was doubtful, but eventually agreed if I would leave a credit card number. This, she explained, was to discourage people from not turning up. I asked them what she actually did if they failed to show. 'We castrate them,' she replied. You see what I mean about everything being pared down.-

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