Viva Riva

A good meal is hard to find in celebrity-obsessed London

Lisa Hilton

Rumour has it that Hollywood is considering a remake of American Psycho, the cultish film based on the eponymous book by Bret Easton Ellis, which chronicles the escalating murder fantasies of Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale), an archetypal Eighties Wall Street yuppie. Fans have been posting suggestions as to what the remake might include, prominent among which is “We actually get to see Dorsia”. Dorsia is the El Dorado of New York restaurants, a reservation there symbolising the pinnacle of social and sexual success. Bateman’s frustrated attempts to attain such a reservation contribute to his sense of enraged invisibility—a key moment in the 2000 version has him calling for a table for two, only to be tormented by the maître d’s eerie laughter at the absurdity of his hopes. The elusiveness of Dorsia leads Bateman to psychotic experiments in home cooking involving call-girls’ brains, but as the character states at the end of the film, “There is no catharsis.” He remains excluded from the promised land, and I know how he feels.

Dinner in central London is beginning to feel, frankly, a total shag. A friend of mine dates a famous chef. When we go out to dinner in town, we usually try to book with Open Table, like Joe Punter, only to be told that seats are only available for the 6.30 sitting, or that there are no reservations until June. My friend then sighs, redials, drops the name and a table magically appears. Nice trick if you can pull it off, but it reflects the fact that going anywhere in the city right now is a stressful business. Ubiquitous chains aside, there are surprisingly few places where one can drop in at a civilised hour and just, like, have dinner. No fuss with guest lists and table bumping, no impossibly expensive Michelin-primped food, no anxiety. The street food craze has provided an alternative of sorts, but who wants to stand in line for 40 minutes for a bite of greasy burger? No-reservations might sound all fabulous and spontaneous and urban, but starting my evening in a queue is something I prefer to do at Gatwick.

Meeting in Marylebone recently, my friend and I decided not to play the sleb card. Then we tried six places for an 8pm table without success. We couldn’t even get in at the Chiltern Firehouse, which was a lowering experience, as the cast of The Only Way is Essex apparently can. As she put it, “What do people do in this town if they’re not an effing celebrity?” Her home city of New York now offers a phone app where for a considerable monthly fee clients are guaranteed the table of their choice with a same-day reservation, but short of actual bribery (effectively what the app provides), organising an evening with friends requires just too much commitment. “I only want some sushi,” I wanted to plead to the iron-eyed booker at Roka Mayfair, “not to invade Poland.” It shouldn’t have to be this hard. Sometimes I feel like George Orwell, who, in his 1946 essay on his favourite pub, “The Moon Under Water”, described its attributes before admitting ruefully that it didn’t exist.

There are “local” restaurants in London, with calm service and food that one might regularly want to eat—the offerings of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King at the Wolseley, the Delaunay, Café Colbert and most recently the Beaumont and Fischer’s are consistently pretty perfect, but so much so that you have to be famous to get into them, which rather misses the point. In its heyday the Ivy was another such place, until it became too full of gawking secretaries prepared to book six months in advance for a chance of glimpsing Joan Collins, and the regulars decamped to the Ivy Club next door, a grim fake gentlemens’ club for fake gentlemen. The Ivy is currently undergoing a centennial makeover, so perhaps it may rise again. Meanwhile, where to have dinner?

We took a cab over the river to Barnes. By central standards, Riva is, in many ways, a non-restaurant. It is situated in the middle of an unprepossessing row of shops in an affluent suburb, its décor, while pleasant,  is entirely unmemorable, there is no music, no garden and no officious black-clad characters with clipboards at the door. A call from the taxi confirmed that there was indeed space; moreover, the encouragement to “pop by any time” actually made us feel welcome, an odd sensation in the metropolis, where customers are so often treated as an irritating inconvenience.

The food at Riva appears to be conventional Italian, but the owner, Como-native Andrea Riva, has created a beautifully balanced menu, incorporating standards from across the country, but where every ingredient simply sings. The simplicity of Italian cuisine is one of its much-vaunted qualities, but unless those ingredients are perfect, brimming with their own flavour, it can easily fall flat. We began with puntarelle, the twisty bright-green chicory tips seen everywhere in Italian markets from November until February, coated in a zingy anchovy and caper sauce, and gnarled braised artichokes, dense and earthy, alive with lemon and herbs. Then langoustines, just halved and grilled, sweet, soft and ozone-fragrant.  Tagliata, sliced rare steak, lay in salty juice next to fresh spaghetti with a little chilli and garlic, while I chose the Lombardy classic cotoletta a la Milanese, a breaded veal chop, often a doughy and dreary dish, but here, again simply served with lemon, truly surprising, the meat flavourful and chewy, the crust crisp and light, so good that I wanted to chew the bone. We passed on pudding, since this was a ladies’ excursion, but we did manage a very jolly bottle of Barolo, and a teeny grappa, for health.

“London needs more Rivas,” pronounced my friend, and I couldn’t agree more. The correlation between food and status is perhaps inevitable, but the result is poisonous. Patrick Bateman doesn’t want to go to Dorsia for the menu, he needs to be seen there. No one goes to Barnes to be seen, which is probably why the food at Riva remains so delicious, and equally why the restaurant is a secret caff for chefs, critics and celebrities alike. Go for the food, but if you’re feeling a bit Bateman-like, Jeremy Clarkson is a regular. 

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