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A simple formula - but it works brilliantly

Published 29 April 2007
News Review
719th article

Michael stands behind Sofia Manussis, the assistant manager at the River Cafe (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

They say when buying property only three things matter: location, location and location. If so, the River Cafe is a dead duck. It's located in a strange part of Hammersmith, which is itself a strange part of London. It's more or less impossible to find.

I go via Hammersmith roundabout, down some ghastly main road, then eventually turn right into an area of terraced Edwardian houses, then left to apparently deserted warehouses. There's no sign indicating one of these houses the River Cafe.

You might imagine if it's called the River Cafe it would be on the river. In all the years I've been going there I've never seen a stream, a trickle, or an ooze, let alone a river.

What you do see from the restaurant, even from seats outside, is a sort of sunken lawn. I once got a best garden award from the Kensington council. The River Cafe garden would be lucky to get the booby prize.

At the end of this space is a wall. I'm assured the Thames lurks behind it. It could equally as well be a motorway, railway lines or a car park.

If you can (a) find the place and (b) get over your disappointment at not seeing a river, you will be spectacularly rewarded. The restaurant is brilliantly designed with great simplicity.

A counter runs along one wall behind which people are cooking, laying out food and generally looking busy. They have a particularly pleasant general manager, Charles Pullan, who's never there when I want him for our photo.

He once gave me a ghastly table at the perimeter of the property. I was by a walkway adjacent to the wall hiding the river. People were sitting on the wall with backpacks; prams were pushed so close to me I expected to be run over and devoured by tiny tots.

When I complained, Charles said, "People think that's our best table." I noticed on this visit they'd planted hedges to hide the common masses from their diners.

I was greeted, perfectly, by the assistant manager, Sofia Manussis. She'd reserved a lovely table outside, uninterrupted view of the so-called garden, the car park and some rather tired pampas grass. But it was too hot, so we moved inside by the french windows.

Unfortunately an extremely overweight baby appeared right in front of me with a sort of cot on wheels. I had to sit and watch this baby being fed from a bottle. This was not my idea of happy hour.

I may as well make it clear, right now, the food at the River Cafe is superb. Every dish has a taste and a simplicity which makes it near-perfect. I have never had a bad course. It's unquestionably the most reliable good grub to be had in London.

It's Italian food, often prepared by the owners, Lady Ruth ("call me Ruthie") Rogers and her partner, Rose Gray, who, until my recent visit, I didn't think existed.

Geraldine said, "There's Rose Gray."

"Where?" I asked.

"Behind the counter, cooking," said Geraldine.

I turned to see a pleasant white-haired lady hard at work. "How did you know it was Rose Gray?" I asked.

"I've seen her photo," Geraldine replied.

I had bruschetta, followed by wood-baked sardine fillet layered with pine nuts, chilli and lemon zest. Then tagliatelle "hand-cut pasta with first-of-the-season basil, lemon and parmesan", two Coca-Colas (most unlike me) and, for dessert, their chocolate nemesis, one of the great choccie-puds of the world.

On previous visits I've had marvellous Anjou pigeon, lamb, calf's liver -you name it, they do it brilliantly.

Lady Rogers (her hubby Lord R, the architect, has his offices adjacent) goes frequently to Gianni Franzi, a trattoria in Vernazza in Liguria. There she picks up a lot of tips (not cash ones, information) about Italian cooking. There's no doubt Ruthie and Rose can cook Italian better than most Italians.

A lot of people complain it's too expensive. I don't agree. For real quality you have to up the ante a bob or two.

  • I was warmed by the concern of reader Simon Hunt writing from Lincolnshire last week. "Can I take it you are now fully recovered?" he asked. Would it were true. I walk, painfully, with a stick. The wounds in my left leg are vast bubbling and oozing craters (oops - I won't go further, it might spoil your breakfast). They still need re-dressing every day, when joy of joys, vinegar is dabbed on them. This will continue for at least three months.

    If Mr Hunt wants everyone to call me a pompous oaf, please go ahead. That's a mere bagatelle compared to what I'm going through.

    Winner's letters

    While in Leeds with my friend on a girls' weekend we tried to get into a restaurant only to be told it was fully booked. I said, "Do you know who I am? Michael Winner, I'm in disguise." The head waiter didn't bat an eyelid and replied, "Just a moment, Mr Winner, we'll find you a table." And he did.
    Jackie Jordan, Bangor, County Down

    Mick struck a very formal pose in last week's photo - hoping the Ivy would hang him with the other glitterati behind him. He deserves hanging, he never caters for those of us who eat vegetarian.
    David Prendergast, County Cork

    What's it like to work for you? I've often wondered. Are you a kind and beneficent master . . . or a vile, nasty, self-centred, bullying, vain snob who makes the lives of his underlings a constant misery? Perhaps a former employee could write in and illuminate us.
    Angela Price, Hampshire

    Glad to hear it's open season on you again - you've been sounding terribly mawkish in recent weeks, as if you somehow want us to feel sorry for you suffering on millionaires' row after stuffing yourself inappropriately on your 90-grand holiday. So come one and all, load your anti-Winner blunderbusses, take aim and fire something off to the preposterous buffoon.
    Giles Hamilton, Edinburgh