Three decades after the River Cafe first opened in a converted warehouse on the Thames, Ruth Rogers’s idea of the perfect meal hasn’t changed. “Tagliarini with slow-cooked tomato sauce,” she answers without hesitation when I catch her during a rare break from prepping the day’s menu. It’s this sort of reassuring consistency that has defined the last 30 years at one of London’s best Italian restaurants, a place seemingly immune to culinary fads. As Rogers explains: “By the age of 30, most people – and most restaurants – have left home. But we’re still in the same place, and our approach to food is guided by the same core principles. The River Cafe has always been a family affair, and this is like home for a lot of our staff and regulars – a home where you learn about first press olive oil or how to clean an anchovy.”
Hitting shelves this week, River Cafe 30 revisits the contents of the original River Cafe Cookbook – but with 30 years of culinary wisdom (and at least as many fresh recipes) added to the mix. “The way that this country approaches food now is markedly different from when we started all of those years ago,” Rogers says. “Everyone travels more. People will eat truffles in Italy or fresh squid in Greece – then come home and incorporate them into their own food. When Rose [Gray, co-founder of the River Cafe, who died in 2010] and I did our first cookbook, people would come up to us at readings and say, ‘It’s all very well to include parmesan cheese in a recipe, but I live in Chipping Norton, and that’s impossible for me to find.’ Well, not anymore.”
Revisiting the dishes that Rogers created with Gray, was an intensive, hands-on process. “I realised that the River Cafe 30 still had to include our classic dishes such as grilled squid with chilli and rocket and our chocolate nemesis cake – but the newer recipes like veal shin with barolo and sage or trofie with pesto show the ways our menus have evolved.” Also included in the book are sketches drawn by Gray; architectural designs for the restaurant and garden; and menus decorated by artists (and regular patrons) such as Damien Hirst, Peter Doig, and Ed Ruscha. Peruse them while eating tagliarini with Ruth’s favourite tomato sauce, below.
Sugo di Pomodor a Fuoco Lento / Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce
Makes enough for 6-8 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced as thinly as possible into rounds
2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into slivers
2 × 1kg jars peeled plum tomatoes, drained of their juices
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or frying pan, add the onions and cook over a low heat until they are very soft. This will take at least 40 minutes – the onions must disappear into the tomato sauce. Some 5 minutes before the end of cooking, add the garlic.
Now add the tomatoes and stir to break them up. Season with salt and pepper. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for at least 1 1/2 hours. When the sauce is ready, it will be dark red and extremely thick, with no juice at all, and the oil will have come to the surface.
River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers, Rose Gray, Joseph Trivelli and Sian Wynn Owen is available from October 5 (Ebury Press, £28)