There are some benefits to having a lover in London: eating in London. I’d had a tip-off from a good friend in the Cotswolds that the place to go was the Riding House Café just off Oxford Street and so I dutifully trudged.
The café opened in April and is the brainchild of the same people behind The Garrison. It’s a “modern all-day brasserie comprising a combination of eating, drinking and meeting spaces” says the website. It certainly talks a good talk but does it walk the walk?
Well, for a start, it’s beautiful. In a sea of concrete, and cars, and more concrete – the fit of the place is really rather refreshing. There’s a huge wooden communal dining table to the front of the open-kitchen (this is a no-booking bit), colourful contemporary seating and in the restaurant area proper (where you can book) there are rusty orange banquettes, wooden panelling and stuffed-squirrel-lighting (yes, you read right).
Secondly, the menu is equally and pleasantly unconformist. Want a starter, main and pudding? Well, you can do that or you can venture into a food blogger’s form of heaven – small plates – where you can order lots and not look like a complete glutton. There are nibbly bits, like oysters (£2 each), olives (£1) and smoked almonds (£1.80), “small plates”, salads, mains, sides, sharing meals and desserts. Pretty much all stages of hunger are covered then.
Presented with this many options we could have lost our way – in comes our helpful waitress. Sadly I didn’t get her name (because she really deserves a mention… bad blogger) but she gave personal recommendations without even being asked. I like this kind of enthusiasm and genuine passion and knowledge about the food. After all, the waiting staff are as much salespeople as they are servers. Now, it’s worth mentioning here a fellow food blogger’s experience. Dan, aka Essex Eating – whose opinion in such matters I genuinely respect – actually posted a review of the Riding House Café the morning after my visit. His overriding experience was that of poor service. It’s incredible what a difference a good waiter/ess makes. But, we definitely got a good deal on our trip.
We took our waitress’ lead and ordered the artichoke purée with bread (£1.50). The bread was of the crusty, tasty variety – tick; and the purée was creamy and packed with moreish flavour – tick, tick. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. We also ordered some spicy broad beans (£1.50). These were crispy dried beans doused in chilli and salt – think a middle class version of your traditional bar snack.
Next up were our “small plates” or tapas, or petit plats or whatever you groovy kids are calling it nowadays. The plates range in price between £3 and £5 and cover a good mix of veggie, pescie and carnivorous options. We tried the grilled hanger steak with white bean purée, truffle oil and shallots (£5). You are essentially getting a mere few mouthfuls here but WHAT a few mouthfuls. The steak was rudely blushing, its gorgeous juices bleeding into the creamy bean mash – the earthy aroma of the truffle attacking our senses. Tender meat, crispy shallots, smooth bean purée – exceptional flavours and textures.
I’d opted for the chermoula-spiced poussin with jalapenos and lemon (£5). The meat was tender, well flavoured and perfectly nice but it admittedly didn’t set my world alight. Main courses went up a gear.
TOH (that’s the other half) chose the squid and chorizo salad (£6). This was an incredible success. Well dressed leaves, pickled chillies, a deep smokey paprika, caramelised chorizo and milky squid. YUM.
I fancied the look of the Gressingham duck breast (£14.60). The skin had been expertly rendered down – bringing out that sweet flavour of the fat and making it nicely crisp and caramelised. The meat itself was a little unevenly cooked. I’d asked for it pink, which was true of about two thirds of it, but the final third was a little too rare for my taste. The gnocchi Romaine wasn’t what I expected at all either – a creamy mash consistency – but was absolutely delicious and was the perfect mop for all the meat juices and the perfect partner to some fried forest mushrooms.
For desserts there was a great choice: not your bog standard STP or lemon tart but gingerbread with grilled figs with caramel ice cream (£5.50), gooseberry and raspberry fool (£4) and my choice of chocolate praline semi freddo (£5). I LOVE semi freddo, you just can’t beat that creamy, pillowy, marshmellowy texture. Heavenly. And when it’s mixed with chocolate and praline? You’ve one happy food blogger. The addition of a nutty, sticky wafer added another dimension, as did a sharply sweet raspberry coulis. TOH meanwhile demolished a hot fudge sundae with macaroons AND honeycomb (£6).
So, did Riding House Café live up to my expectations? It was truly wonderful. From the atmosphere, to the service, to the food itself (which, did I mention, is actually incredibly good value): the Riding House has got it spot on. We’re already planning our next visit – upon which we’ll hopefully bump into that very clever Cotswold friend who recommended Riding House Café in the first place. Say hello to Laura if you see her, she is the incredibly talented and charming new Riding House Café manager!