I’ll have the Toblerone | Riding House Café, Fitzrovia

Seeing as the Riding House Café first shot onto my radar as a tidy place to go for some breakfast with my colleagues (we ended up at Starbucks instead, obviously), I’m not sure how this rustic little brasserie, near Broadcasting House, turned into another round of Battle of the Cocktails with the dashing Miss E…

Before I make sense of that, howsabout a little background.  It starts off with Village London, a collection of standalone restaurants which, according to their blog,

“…try to be important to and cherished by creative London communities in which they live”

So what is sounding off for you first – the bullshitometer or just general alarm bells of condescending bunk that sadly, for many restaurants about town, translates into ‘marketing’?  Or maybe, just maybe, could Village London be onto something here?

Village London began as The Garrison, a pub in Bermondsey which was opened in 2003 by Clive Watson and Adam White, two relatively unassuming blokes who “…were enjoying their work in hospitality more than the careers they had originally set out to pursue” – so as a Human Resourcer in hotels, I am on their side immediately.  One became two, and soon The Garrison was joined by a brasserie, Village East, in Bermondsey also.  Then, in 2011, came the Riding House Café.  What’s in a name?  Not sure, but I assume that it refers to a place on the site where those travelling by coach and horse would gather to eat, drink and be merry and not, say, a brothel.

Riding House Café (R.H.C.) is a self-styled modern all-day brasserie, and of course the day starts with breakfast.  R.H.C.’s brekkie menu looks great – it’s why my office were looking at going here in the first place – an extensive selection of simple staples like porridge or pancakes, thorough to the Full English and on to classics like an Arnold Bennett omelette or Eggs Hussard.  It’s all very thoughtful, like someone has taken care to consider what to offer the masses.  This approach is time well spent really, as this place can, and does, get very busy, occupying a prime site on the corner of two roads heading to the most central part of Central London, in the heart of Fitzrovia.  A place needs to stake its claim to remain competitive around these parts.

So what does R.H.C. do to differentiate?  Well, let’s start with what it does to appeal to London’s fashionable foodivores.  It calls itself a ‘café’.  In much the same way that Berners Tavern, a couple of blocks East is not a tavern (Jay Rayner has written a wonderfully sarcy piece about the current bollocks of restaurant etymology), R.H.C. is definitely not a café.  I have never been to a café where you are given a tag for your coats and scarves, a café where, if you have a party of six or more – or simply want to mingle – are ushered towards a ‘sharing table’, a candelabra-lit lengthy slab straight outta Game of Thrones, or a café where the typical breakfast drink is less builders tea and more Morning Rooster – made with tequila, triple sec, agave, grapefruit and marmalade.

Yes… it is a little pretentious.  It’s another restaurant – and I am losing count of them now – which seems to buy its furnishings from Steptoe and Son, where we sit on rickety chairs and the fire exit behind us blows a chilly draft until it’s clumsily kicked and punched shut by the waiter.  Your napkin is a tea towel, and face it, that became tired when Jamie started to relentlessly open his Italians.  There comes a time though when a diner in London needs to turn a blind eye to this type of decor, for the time being, this is clearly what people like Kevin McCloud are telling us to immerse ourselves in.  There were at least three Kevin McCloud lookalikes in R.H.C. that evening.  So my advice to you is grab the cocktail menu and indulge.  Soon the scrubbed wood and aged-effect metalwork becomes a warm backdrop to an inevitably fantastic evening.

You could simply use R.H.C. as a bar, its drinks are that good. Plus, I guess that substituting food with fruity, rum-based beverages is a handy little diet that so far scythes under the radar of likes of the Atkins, tapeworms and such like.  All along the length of the far wall was the bar, full of people – and they all looked as happy as the eaters.  We smashed the cocktail menu – simple in its presentation – where each of the sections throws up a special drink or two.  A Begroni, from the ‘Negroni’ section, was made with Innis & Gunn beer, maple syrup, Campari and Dubonnet, and soundly kicked E’s Ginger Bee (from the ‘Horticultural’ corner) into touch, though the Bee, with vodka, ginger wine and apple juice, was still spesh.  It came with a chunk of gingery as garnish.  Cue “let’s eat the raw ginger” game.  A drink, whose name I forget, was similar to a Zombie, laced with rum and lengthened with citrus – and it rocked out.  A Honey Berry Sour, thickened with egg white and essentially berry and booze done six ways – was rich, sugary and fabulous.

In-between sucking back the cocktails, we managed to have dinner as well.  The all-day à la carte menu (there are brunch menus, as well as brekkie) could be a textual representation of a man in a suit, leaning back in his chair, feet on the desk.  Smart, yes, professional in appearance, but also a little but naughty and relaxed.  P.S. if my boss is reading this, I have never done that.

Starters come in the form of small plates, this thing now known (by me only) as British Tapas, similar to Duck and Waffle, or Plum + Spilt Milk.  Cod tongues with deep-fried pickles were tasty and crispy, but drew debate as to whether they were actual tongues or fish chunks shaped like tongue (gourmand I ain’t), tuna tartare with pomelo and shallots was damn-near-perfect umami fare, but the star of the show was the veal and pork sausage with lentils, which is, my friends, how sausage should be, apart from a personal yearning for it to be served in greater abundance than appetiser-size.

I struggled to choose from the small plates – a few tastes are not catered for (I would love to see a cheese-based starter or some kind of beef on offer) but the mains are as disparate and inviting as even the most fussy eater will need.  This is a menu where Beef Wellington appears right above a chorizo hash brown, a breakfasty hunk of stodge that sounded a bit rough but potentially tasty – so I’m glad E ordered it because I was dying to see why it was like.  Let’s face it – like the best foods – it arrived looking a mess but tasted damn good, more Spanish than British but rich with the spice of chorizo and balanced just enough to make a good meal.  I was torn between Lobster Lasagne (I read an article which described lasagne as ‘spaghetti-flavoured cake’) and pheasant with bacon lardons and cabbage, but alas, I think the drink was talking and I chickened out with a cheese burger.  However, this burger is worth a mention as…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Possibly one of the best I have had, ever.  Even against the bastions of London patty pushers, The Gun and MEATliquor.  I ordered it medium and it arrived medium-to-rare.  Now, I don’t want to get too slushy but we could retro-analyse Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot photo and say that, in this expanse of space, there is this meagre dot, faint in the background – Earth.   In that whole photo, god knows how many million light years in breadth, we can say that the chef’s decision to undercook that burger is the greatest mistake ever made.  Because that burger was juicy, rich, of unmeasurable quality and just brilliant.

We replaced pudding with another round of cocktails so I couldn’t say what the desserts were like, though as you may expect, Britishisms like chocolate fondant, rhubarb  and cheese (no, not on the same plate) are on offer.  When I return here, I’ll try the Toblerone cocktail – practically a dessert in itself – from the ‘Hard Shakes’ section.  A drink with – and I quote – “Baileys, Frangelico, Kahlúa, honey, chocolate, ice cream, milk and cream” is simply not going to disappoint.  Come on – read that again and try not to cry – it’s more emotionally wrenching than The Bear and the Hare…

So on that heart-warming note I’ll just say that R.H.C. is like a great big hug, a place that you never want to escape from.  Not only because of the food – which hardly skipped a beat, but because of the fun staff and dare I say it… the way the place looks.  Even R.H.C.’s website, with Spotify link to the music they play in-house, recommended reading and general bloggy-ness, suggests a restaurant at ease with what it is – a quality amongst London eateries rarer than tuna tartare.

It’s loveable, familiar and genuinely good here, and the only other place that I can say that about is Browns.  The Riding House is a one-off, feels special and very 2013, and that makes it different to Browns.  And to be different – in the words of Coco Chanel – is to be irreplaceable.  To be cherished.

Cocktails around £nine, small plates around £five to £six, mains from £eleven to £twenty-five

ridinghousecafe.co.uk | @RidingHouseCafe | 0207 927 0840 | 43-51 Gt. Titchfield St., London, W1W 7PQ

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© Mike Dalley, November 2013

© Mike Dalley, November 2013

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