The River Cafe (London Travel Guide For Foodies: Day 3 of 3)

the river cafeFind day 1 of this trip here

Find day 2 of this trip here

This post is dedicated to two men I spent most of my waking hours with between the years 2006-2011: Staffan Terje and Umberto Gibin.

My morning started slow and mindful like it usually does. A little reading, a little journaling, some meditation.

But my zen routine quickly turned into a mad sprint when I received a call from the front desk of our hotel.

“Would you like to request a late check out?” a lady with a friendly voice inquires.

Gulp. “What time is check out?”

“11 a.m.”

“Uh, what time is it now?” I ask with a large lump now forming in my throat.

“It’s 11:45 a.m. ma’am.”

Holy shit!


“We gotta go!”

I’ve always hated black out curtains in hotels and this is a perfect example of why they can be a luxury and a liability at the same time.

I haven’t slept past 7 a.m. in years, but I think after two fast and furious days in London our bodies obviously needed the rest.

In fifteen minutes we were downstairs hailing a cab, completely out of time to visit Bouroughs Market. Bummer.

But, there was no way in hell I was missing River Cafe for lunch…

The River Cafe

We fly in hot with bags and suitcases flailing.

“We have to be out in 45 minutes,” I say apologetically.

“Absolutely, let’s get you set up right away then.”

“May we hold your suitcases for you?”

My mouth drops. I don’t know why I am still surprised at how helpful and kind people are here. The service in London is absolutely unparalleled to what I have experienced in the rest of the world.

the river cafe

I drop my purse and my mom at the bar and start exploring the restaurant.

the river cafeI am immediately transported back to my days cooking at Perbacco.

I scan the dining room.

There’s Sarah, our pastry chef, behind a counter of freshly baked tarts slicing Chocolate Nemesis Cake.

the river cafeI look over at the pantry station, lined with big bowls of ceci bean and kale salad; stewed peppers and blistered tomatoes; and freshly picked apples and I flash to visions of Yati, our pantry cook, squating down peeling beets before service.

the river cafe

the river cafeI look to the left at the expansive French brigade style hot line and see Benji, Alex and Sergio calling tickets back and forth, flipping pans of pasta and searing sardines ala plancha.

the river cafeI snap back into reality when my eyes make their way to the grandiose, neon pink wood burning oven–– the centerpiece of the dining room and kitchen.

It’s magnificent.

the river cafeI walk past its smoldering embers and smell of sweet smoke to the terrace outside. A long garden brimming with squash blossoms, cherry tomatoes, herbs and lettuces line the perimeter of the patio full of sophisticated diners basking in the sun.

the river cafe A man points a healthy bunch of kale out to his little boy.

the river cafeI walk back to the bar and notice that a plate full of fluffy, crusty focaccia fresh from the oven has appeared with three tiny bowls: olio nuevo, cracked black pepper and Maldon salt.

Oh man.

Savoring the bread is like riding a cloud up to heaven. I think, if I died right now I’d be cool with that.

the river cafe

I pick up the menu.

Ordering is easy. I know this food.

Not just in the way I know the names of classic Italian dishes and can tell how a dish will be presented just by reading its menu description. No, I KNOW these dishes. With every inch of my being.

I know them with my hands, the hands that spent hours tirelessly prepping these dishes over and over the same way day after day for five years.

I know them intellectually, from thinking about them every day. Ordering their ingredients, concocting daily specials,  studying their origins in cookbooks.

And I know them with my heart. The part of me that fell in love with Italian cooking and that lights up whenever I smell fresh basil, stir a pot of bolognese or drizzle olive oil over a plate of…anything.

The dishes on this menu were my life.

Grilled bread, covered with a heaping spoonful of those peppers and tomatoes I saw back in the kitchen are covered with purple and green basil leaves and peppery olive oil. A slice of creamy mozzarella di Bufala rests at its side.

the river cafe
Mozzarella di Bufala with bruschetta of grilled Italian peppers, basil and marinated summer tomatoes

Sarde––butterflied and wood roasted sardines––lie under a snowfall of crunchy breadcrumbs, lemon zest, chopped parsley and freshly pitted Nicoise olives.

the river cafe
Sarde – butterflied sardines wood-roasted with black olives, parsley, lemon zest and pangrattato

Beef carpaccio––thinly sliced raw beef top round––is rich and deep red like a ruby. Shaved baby beet, capers and grated horseradish complete the dish along with a glug of good olive oil and crunchy sea salt.

the river cafe
Carpaccio di Manzo – with pink & gold beets, parsley, capers and horseradish

Perfectly al dente ribbons of house made tagliatelle nest chunks of rabbit that have been slowly cooked with white wine and pancetta. Fresh basil. Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Simple perfection.

the river cafe
Tagliatelle – rabbit cooked in Pinot Bianco with basil, pancetta and parmesan

We are jamming through these dishes knowing that we have to leave for the airport very soon when I remember…

We must have dessert.

I place an order for their infamous caramel gelato and a slice of strawberry-almond tart while we finish our pasta.

Desserts appear and I am nearly in tears at this point.

I’m back at Perbacco now, sneaking into Sarah’s freezer for a spoonful of caramel gelato.

I smile when I take a bite because I actually remember enjoying Sarah’s more.

The trick to this gelato is burning the caramel, so that its flavor can over ride the fattiness of the cream in the custard. The flavor results in a pleasant bitterness reminiscent of a high acid, full body cup of coffee.

Sarah used to take her caramel to just under burnt, so that the flavor was sweet while still being front and center.

the river cafe
Caramel gelato

But, the tart. OMG.

Is this the best thing I’ve put in my mouth this trip? Or maybe ever?

OK, that’s saying a lot, but seriously this was one of those moments in my life that I will never forget.

The almond tart is chewy and buttery, sweet and nutty, caramelized and gooey. There are so many things going on in my mouth that my brain doesn’t know what to think. And frankly, it doesn’t want to even try.

Perfect, pink strawberries are intentionally placed in precise rows along the top of the tart and dusted in powdered sugar. The fresh, sweet, tart, crunchy berries pair with the tart so well I could never imagine them being apart. There is also a pool of silky smooth creme fraiche on the side for dipping.

the river cafe
Strawberry-almond tart with creme fraiche

Looking around the restaurant I start thinking about Staffan and Umberto and my stack of River Cafe cookbooks at home.

I get it guys.

I “got it” back then, but now that I’m here… I really get it. What inspired you about this place is inspiring the hell out of me now. And I have to say….you have succeeded.

You have taken the feel and beauty of this place and recreated it in a way that is you. That is San Francisco. That is completely unique, yet just like this at the same time.

So, thank you.

Thank you for everything you taught me, and gave me access to, in order for me to arrive at this place.

In this moment.

At this time in my life.

Right now.

Our bartender gets us out exactly on time to catch our flight. Before we know it we are being handed our luggage and settling into a Mercedes Benz Uber outside the restaurant.

On our way to  Heathrow airport I savor the taste of that strawberry-almond tart on my tongue.

In what was one of the quickest meals I have ever had I never felt rushed or stressed once.

I got everything in that I wanted to, and had a lovely time.

It was truly one of the greatest meals of my life.


Read the rest of my London Travel Guide for Foodies: day one here and day two here

* Side note: I always travel with a list of restaurant recommendations longer than I can possibly tackle. Here are the ones I didn’t get to on this trip that I will definitely visit next time…

Bourough Market

Ottolenjihi (Notting Hill)

Ye Old Cheshire Cheese

The Lamb

The Grapes

Darjeeling Express


Pillars of Hercules

The George

Granger & Co. 



10 Greek Street


Dean Street


Smithfield Market

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