The truth of the matter is that in the battle between design (publicity), ambience (simple but luxurious), capacity (considerable) and food (quick and uncomplicated), food is usually going to be the loser. The trend, in London as elsewhere, is towards the brasserie - a sort of compromise between fast food and a real restaurant. The River Cafe, working indoors and out, can cater for 120 diners a sitting; Le Pont de la Tour and its neighbours can do more; and the Train Bleu in Paris up to 400. This works well if the menu is limited, the kitchen staff is ample and experienced, has the required space and cooks within a specific tradition, a sort of set style. These the River Cafe has. But no one should expect gourmet cooking for so many people at one sitting.
What one can expect, and we got in both places, was first-rate ingredients, freshly-cooked. It is the niceties that are missing. At Le Pont de la Tour, for instance, I ate calves' liver, which I had asked for on the rare side. That it wasn't . Nor, might I add, does the traditional slice of bacon actually do much to keep liver fresh and moist - it only over- salts the meat. My companion's fish was also noticeably overdone, which is a pity, since the fish was fresh and had once been succulent. At the prices charged, I think the customer should get what he asks for; we didn't, so, on that score alone, the Conran formula, was, gastronomically, a failure that day.
The River Cafe has the good sense to work on a menu with perhaps half a dozen items each: starters, main courses and sweets. Furthermore, unlike the Conran restaurant, it works within a single tradition. This could be described as "adapted" Italian, or, if you'd prefer, Italian with a touch of California - as, for instance, in the San Daniele ham with sweet peppers with which I began. The San Daniele was excellent, but I'm unsure that the peppers and accompaniments really played off well against the ham. San Daniele is delicate meat and best left pretty much alone. My son had deep-fried courgette flowers. Here the art is to make the flowers as light as possible, and it is the flowers one must taste, and not the oil in which they are cooked. Again, I do not think either dish, though each was tasty, was an unqualified success: he, born in Venice and brought up on Italian cooking, found the batter a touch heavy, while I found it salty.
There were also minor defects in our main courses, though his lamb was, I thought, better than my spigola or sea bass, which was drier than I like my fish. But basically - and here I admit to being picky - the difficulty lies with preparing Italian food at high speed for many people. Italians manage because the main courses they prepare (except for fish, which is almost always poached or grilled at the time) are dishes which can rest, which can be prepared first and served later. The only frenzy in a busy Italian restaurant is over getting the pasta just right, and that is a matter of loving care and supervision which, again, are not always possible when one is feeding a throng.
However, these are cavils. The River Cafe is a delightful place to eat. The kitchen is open, the staff friendly and engaging, the mood relaxed. I don't know, of course, what it would be like on a lugubrious Fulham February day, without the windows open, the tables outside, with the grass sere and muddied, its vast expanse of glass spotted with rain. The place is, as one would expect of Richard Rogers, whose wife Ruth runs it with Rose Gray, exceedingly well-designed without being over-designed. It is functional and a pleasure to be in. I would commend, too, the simplicity of the menu, a very good wine list (all Italian and not excessively priced), and certain touches which indicate class: the right linen and glasses, proper and friendly service, an unhurried pace, a well-run reception, a relaxed mood in which one is a guest.
Most of all, despite its obviously trendy clientele, the River Cafe is both unpretentious and unawesome: no one is going to be intimidated by waiters brandishing vast wine-lists, snobbishness dripping from their curling lips. In class, it is upper democratic. But these values are just about balanced, I think, by the rather high price-for-value balance, and by the too breezy, too New York-and-California compromises and inventions of its cuisine. Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray speak in their handsome book (The River Cafe Cookbook) of the "directness" of American cuisine and their desire to combine this with Tuscan traditions. The combination is an uneasy one, even an unlikely one. America's willingness to experiment is all to its credit; its lack of concern with tradition is refreshing. It fits the speed and unfussiness of American eating habits.
By contrast, Tuscan cooking is pre-eminently family cooking, done at leisure for a small number of people. In short, the River Cafe is not strictly speaking authentic; on the other hand, it isn't eccentric. And any small disappointment I felt, being aware of its reputation and good press, lay in the fact that it did not exceed the bounds of the kind of food we, as a family, eat and make day in and day out: just a bit more soigne and better presented. As such, worth the price? That is the question
River Cafe, Thames Wharf, Rainville Rd, London W6 (0171-381 8824) Open Mon-Sat. 12.30pm-2.30pm, 7.30pm-11pm (last orders 10pm), Sun 12.45pm-3pm. All cards, except Diners. Three courses about pounds 50 plus a head, including wineReuse content