The View Along The River Thames
- Photographer Georgina Skinner
- Author Joshua Elias
- Location London, United Kingdom
Since 1987, the River Café has been a beacon of Italian culture. We spoke with head sommelier, Emily O’Hare and restaurant manager, Vashti Armit about Mozart, Sicily and the River Café wine program, amongst other things.
Walking from Hammersmith station through to Rainville Road, one gets the impression that there aren’t too many places to eat around Thames Wharf. Mostly occupied by residential properties and a selection of local businesses, the picturesque riverside district is not exactly a hive of social activity. Yet, nestled unassumingly by the waterfront lies perhaps the most important Italian restaurant in the UK: the River Café. Materialising the concept in 1986, co-owners Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers—two unqualified home cooks—opened the doors of the restaurant in 1987. Now pushing 27 years of operation, the River Café continues to celebrate the beauty and purity of produce garnished with an Italian theme.
If you are not familiar with the books, the TV series or more importantly, the restaurant itself, the list of eminent culinary alumni to have graced the kitchen at River Café—Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to name a few—will surely coax you from the rock under which you have presumably been living. Though the interior of the River Café has received five or six refurbishments over the years, in the words of restaurant manager, Vashti Armit: “The ethos remains the same.” When it comes to food, the menu changes twice daily; an occurrence that allows an incredible degree of flexibility. Armit explains, “If produce comes into the restaurant that is not of a standard that we will accept, we’ll simply change the menu accordingly.” The venue sources ingredients from both the UK and Italy, all the while maintaining a strong relationship with its suppliers. “Early on,” Armit states, “Rose and Ruth would bring seeds back from Italy and find people in England who would grow the produce for them.” Presently, members of the kitchen and wait-staff take turns embarking on sponsored trips to visit olive oil, balsamic vinegar and wine suppliers in Italy.
The most recent refurbishment at River Café saw the installation of a cheese room. Whilst speaking of the selection of delicious cheeses now available at the restaurant, head sommelier Emily O’Hare recommends the Marsala wines of Marco de Bartoli as a luxurious accompaniment. In O’Hare’s words, “The ten-year-old is such a great match with blue cheeses and hard cheeses alike. There is an amazing aromatic liveliness to the nose and a lovely saltiness and sweetness on the palate.” Made with 100 per cent grillo from sun-beaten sandy loam soils, the wine presents the illusion of tasting dry, despite its high sugar content. O’Hare adds: “Marsala is a real sleeper as a category.” Having visited the estate in Sicily, she has the ability to reinfuse context and meaning into wine served at the dinner table.
Restaurants such as the River Café bear the burden of breaking convention. Where many may endeavour begrudgingly, this restaurant team seem to exhibit cunning enthusiasm; coolly challenging their diner’s expectations, not only in regard to Italian food but also Italian wine. Whilst conversing with O’Hare, we spot a relatively obscure red wine being served by the glass—a marzemino produced in Trentino-Alto Adige by Eugenio Rosi. Asking how she describes the style of the wine to those unfamiliar with it, O’Hare explains: “It was the first wine to be mentioned in Don Giovanni, an opera by Mozart: ‘Versa il vino! Eccellente marzemino!’ The phrase translates to ‘Pour the wine! It is an excellent marzemino!’” With a smile, she continues: “It is a light-bodied wine and it is quite accessible. It is the most excellent match for pan-fried liver—a dish that has become a bit of a fixture on the menu. The liver is pan-fried with sage and finished with a dollop of crème fraîche. The soft herbaceousness of the wine and its texture pairs very well with the creaminess of the dish.” With age, marzemino can become intensely peppery.
As our discussion with O’Hare takes place, the bitter edges of winter are descending upon London, yet she still pours a Tuscan rosé by the glass. Produced by Guado al Tasso (part of the Antinori group), the wine known as ‘Scalabrone’ is a deeply coloured blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. O’Hare describes it as, “Dry and crisp with fresh fruit flavours that aren’t jubey. I find that I’m always defending myself with rosé and pink champagne but they work really well with food.” Speaking of some other wines that are causing excitement at the restaurant, she notes an increased interest in Sicilian varieties. “It appears that people are going there for holidays and are starting to feel really comfortable with those wines. There is intrigue around Mount Etna and it helps that the wines coming from there are very exciting.” From the blue-fruited, scarlet hued nero d’avola and frapatto wines produced in and around the town of Vittoria, through to the crisp and structured nerello mascalese wines from the foothills of Mount Etna; Sicily provides an exciting new frontier for Italian wines.
As conversation turns to the varied and celebrated vinous terroir of Italy, O’Hare speaks of a recent trip to Tuscany taken by the River Café employees. The journey was designed to educate the staff about the olive oil estates that currently supply the restaurant. At present, three different extra virgin oils are used at the River Café: each produced by separate estates in the subregions of Chianti. As well as olive oil, the aforementioned estates (Selvapiana in Rufina, Capezzana in Carmignano and Fontodi in Panzano) all produce chianti style wine. The notion of olive oil sharing similar production nuances—or at least, place of “birth”—to wine seems natural. Considering this, it is perhaps unsurprising that O’Hare is charged with enthusiasm as she muses about her experience with olive oil production in Tuscany. She recounts: “I had no idea that it would be that green! It is luminous and radioactive in colour. The estates seem to operate and process their oil quite similarly and yet the flavours between the oils differ considerably. There was a peppery kick in the north that could perhaps be attributed to the cooler climate. The southern estates produce oils with a little more richness; they are subtle and creamy.” O’Hare specifies that the oils utilised on the River Café menu are all used differently, yet each is handled with the same high level of respect. “Oil is such an integral part of the Italian meal. We use it on the bruschetta and it’s almost like a sauce. Sometimes I see it being poured onto a dish and I wish that I was the one sitting down to dinner!” Balsamic vinegar is another product that the restaurant sources with an acute attention to detail.
Their chosen vinegars are solera aged: a method not unlike that afforded to sherry wines in Jerez. On this subject, O’Hare states, “The concentration of good balsamic vinegar is very intense.
As a sommelier, I find it quite ironic cause it is kind of good wine gone bad … and then made good again.”
Our exchange moves to the food and wine matching philosophy at River Café. “We always think about the region of the food first and that helps to suggest a wine that has been tried and tested with the particular dish. Introducing the food and wine with a cultural context is a really nice thing to do.” However, O’Hare is quick to qualify that this process does not work as a one-size-fits-all approach. “You have to read the tables and try to find out what they are really in the mood for. Some people just enjoy certain wines and you aren’t there to dictate what they should have. There are always some people looking to enjoy ‘old-faithfuls’, such as gavi and pinot grigio.” Understanding the needs of the regular clientele at River Café is an important part of service, given the restaurant’s semi-isolated location. Having worked at the restaurant for over six years, O’Hare speaks fondly of the relationship between customers and staff: “Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen babies become toddlers, small children become teenagers, university students graduate. It is very special to share significant life events with the people that you get to know.”
The generosity of spirit with which the guests at River Café are treated is echoed in the way the establishment treats its staff. According to Armit, “I think that it’s all part of a lifestyle. [The way] guests are treated and staff looked after, [it’s] really one and the same. It is really about family; everyone has his or her role and we are each as important as the next person.” This ideology extends as far as the staff dress code: they can wear what they like, as long as it is colourful … yes, you read right—for front of house staff, both black and white are forbidden. This ensures that wait-staff are perceived as welcoming and approachable. Furthermore, Richard (husband to restaurant cofounder, Ruth) loves colour. The River Café dining room is similarly relaxed: fitted with a relatively simple décor and layout, particularly when considering the price of the dishes. Customers are often surprised, as they expect something more lavish. Yet, as the food arrives and wine is poured, they are reminded of what they are paying for. A
Rose Gray MBE: 28 January 1939 – 28 February 2010
River Café co-owner and cofounder, Rose Gray passed away in 2010. Recognised by the British Government for her outstanding service to the community, her legacy lives on in the restaurant.
Edition two can be purchased online here.