LONDON — The River Cafe in Hammersmith isn't the best restaurant in London. How could it be? It's such a little, casual place and it's open only on weekdays, and only for lunch. The food is nothing fancy--just simple country-style Italian fare (principally Tuscan in inspiration), with a few straightforward contemporary Englishy things around the edges. The owner-chefs are an Englishwoman named Rose Gray, who is best-known for having set up the original (and quite small) caviar-and-hamburger menu at Nell's, the trendy club in New York City, and an American woman named Ruth Rogers, who has no previous professional cooking experience at all. Clearly, then, not the best restaurant in London at all. . . .
But then why am I sitting here in this cool, light dining room, sampling dish after dish and finding myself almost maddeningly unable to detect the slightest fault in any one of them? And why is my luncheon companion--a man not much bigger than an owl, and one who usually orders one course, period, when we go out to dine, and then merely picks owlishly at that--devouring everything in sight with patent relish, even reaching over onto my plate? And why, ultimately, after having visited so many very good restaurants in a week's worth of eating in the British capital--among them such top-flight establishments as Alastair Little, Turner's, Bibendum, and Clarke's--do I find myself seriously considering changing my travel plans so that I can come back to this place, and this one alone, one more time before I go?
It all has to do with what I call food sense --that elusive quality that combines honesty of intention, consistency of culinary ability, and intuitive understanding of flavor--a quality all too few chefs seem to possess, but that Gray and Rogers are apparently very well endowed with indeed.
Rogers is married to English architect Richard Rogers (among other things, he designed the new Lloyd's of London building and co-designed the Centre Pompidou in Paris), and he has given the restaurant a clean, pleasingly unobtrusive interior punctuated by a few bright paintings here and there. One whole wall is devoted to floor-to-ceiling windows and glass doors opening onto the Thames.
The look of the place led me to expect food of a different sort--something eclectic, contemporary, post-modern. What I got was long, thin leaves of red chicory glazed with light Tuscan olive oil, clustered around an intense but perfectly balanced dipping sauce of anchovies and fresh rosemary; a bowl of pappa pomodoro , literally "tomato pap," but in fact an addictively delicious peasant-food mush of great bread soaked in wonderful fresh tomato puree and more fine olive oil, perfectly seasoned and better than any cream-rich French soup; some wrinkled, pewter-green fava beans sauteed with red onion, summer savoury, and shreds of first-rate Parma ham, served with more of that bread, this time grilled and brushed generously with oil; slices of grilled boneless leg of lamb, moist and full of flavor, with textbook-perfect polenta and some charred whole zucchini--not exactly baby-sized, but not quite teen-aged either; a "hamburger," which was actually a tennis-ball-sized sphere of excellent ground beef, blackened outside and gloriously red and juicy inside, accompanied by a watercress salad, two pieces of grilled baguette with mustard-seed-butter, and the best French fries I've ever had in London; a slab of chocolate and almond pie, full of concentrated flavors but not unduly sweet or sticky; and a piece of sbricciolona, Italian crumb cake, that I could have gone on eating forever.
Other typical River Cafe specialties--the menu changes daily--include bufala mozzarella with fresh basil and young extra-virgin olive oil; warm broccoli with lemon and red chili dressing; a classic penne al arrabbiata ; sauteed cotechino sausage with green lentils; grilled John Dory with fennel; and warm duck breast salad with roasted garlic.
With such fare--which is exactly the sort of succulent, no-nonsense thing a lot of Italian and wanna-be Italian chefs think they prepare but don't--Gray and Rogers offer a small but sensible choice of wines, no more than about two dozen choices in all, representing Italy, France, Spain, and Australia--with roughly half of the bottles priced at $20 and under.
The River Cafe, Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, Hammersmith (London W.6). Telephone: 385-3344. Lunch for two (food only): $30-$65.