Disaster struck the River Café in April. A chef was searing beef, when a flame leapt up and hit the extractor fan. Then an unexpected build-up of gunge behind the fan ignited, and in minutes the kitchen was ablaze. Across the metropolis, well-heeled publishers, writers, TV and media types (its core clientele) prayed as the fate of the Café hung in the balance. It had to close its doors for months, and re-opened in October after a £2m refit under the architect Stuart Forbes. So how is the new incarnation?
It looks gorgeous: on an unseasonally sunny November afternoon, the long room is full of light, autumn sunshine flooding through the big windows and splashing on the aquamarine carpet. The green glass of the service counter that runs the length of the dining area is cool as a mountain stream, and the white-clay Valoriani wood-burning stove flickers and flames as though awaiting some vestal sacrifice.
The menu is more elaborate than I remember, displaying the Café's devotion to quality verdura from the markets of Milan and Florence, its love for obscure foodie nomenclature (farinata, trevise, cime di rapa, cicoria) and its exaggerated reverence for produce. Some antipasti dishes are simple bits of salad, mozzarella or dried beef, given a wallop of oil. How Ruth and Rose like to show off their olive oil – our waitress brought a plateful of bruschetta, infused (she enthused) with their newest, cold-off-the-press stuff. It was good, but was still only, you know, toast with oil.
Carolyn's puntarelle alla Romana was a helping of sliced chicory shoots with anchovy, chilli and red wine vinegar, very fine and fresh-tasting. When she asked our sweet French waitress Melanie to describe chicory shoots, Melanie nipped round the back and brought one from the vegetable rack to show off. My daughter Clementine's Scottish scallops were perfectly seared, and surrounded by a blokeish, peasanty throng of borlotti beans. My other daughter, Sophie, was enraptured by her spaghetti con granchio, which mixed crab, chilli, fennel seeds and parsley to magical effect. "I like the way the crab doesn't taste fishy or seaside-y," she said, "and the spaghetti is soft and buttery, perfect comfort food." They all gazed in horror at my plate of polipo in tegame, aka slow-roasted octopus on bruschetta with fennel: huge piles of pink-purple tentacles lay in vivid disarray across the toasted bread like so many dismembered fingers. It was earthy, gross – and fantastic. Slow-roasting gave the octopus flesh a weird velvety texture, while the roast fennel proved a perfect accompaniment. It was a dish reborn and reinvented, like the kitchen itself.
I ordered a pinot bianco and, as our lady sommelier breezily explained the difference between biancos and grigios, she hoicked out the cork, sniffed it, rolled her eyes and said, instantly, "I'll get another bottle." I like decisiveness in a wine waitress. But then it's hard not to like the Café staff: there are so many of them, so helpful and un-pushy; and so clearly happy to be working there.
The main courses revealed the River Café's secret in its simple glory: this is flavour-at-all-costs cooking. If they want to flavour a red mullet with thyme, or a turbot with rosemary, they shove a whole branch inside it; if they're cooking a piece of chicken or lamb, they'll marinade it for days. That wood-burning stove isn't just an objet d'art – they believe in doing things slowly and intensely.
Sophie's mullet reeked of thyme, the anchovy and olive sauce was a sexy, puttanesca touch, and the pigna beans made a nice al dente companion. Carolyn's chargrilled lamb was pink and chewy, drenched in salsa rossa piccante and underscored with delicious smashed chick peas. My spiced grey-leg partridge had been wood-roasted in Amarone (or "expensive Chianti", as we sometimes call it) and was miraculous, shrouded in speck that was roasted to a brittle, crunchy explosion of flavour. The partridge itself was succulent and the potatoes roasted with rosemary, and soon a whole orchestra of flavours surged around my taste buds.
The puddings passed in a slight blur; indescribably rich chocolate Nemesis, zingy clementine sorbet, aromatic prune and almond tart, triumphant walnut-and-amaretto cake. Spoonfuls were exchanged across the table. It was madness to go on eating, but nobody could stop ...
It was an epic lunch. It was Homeric. It was intensely satisfying and incredibly filling, every dish thoughtfully prepared, lovingly flavoured, marinaded, stuffed or seasoned, before being put through the transformative alchemy of the wood-burning stove. I hate giving a perfect score to a restaurant, because of the grief you endure from friends who may have a bad experience there a week later. But the River Café has earned it. It looks like the post-fire refit has raised its whole game. That £2m was money well spent.
The River Café, Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, London W6 (020-7386 4200)
About £150 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary – all of it is dedicated to the restaurant staff. All tips go to the staff"