Before my first trip to London, in the summer when all of Brixton seemed consumed by what seemed like a single, endless, all-night rave, I asked then-colleague Colman Andrews, who seemed to know everything about eating in Europe, to recommend a few restaurants. And at the top of his list, which was dominated by places like Sally Clarke, which took a Alice Waters approach to English ingredients, and Alistair Little, whose rather extreme, nouvelle cuisine approach to Anglo-French cooking brought to mind the earliest days of Michael's in Santa Monica, was the then-new River Café, which he described as an architects' canteen out in Hammersmith, an outlying neighborhood I knew only from the title of a Clash song and a Motorhead live album.
The cooking was Italian, the chefs English, the prices forbiddingly high. When we finally found the restaurant, in a sort of architectural Alphaville dominated by a giant yellow pencil jutting from the ground, we were nearly too late for lunch, and were directed to a table with a diffident jerk of a waitress's head. I was expecting as little of the restaurant as it seemed to be expecting of me. And then the appetizer appeared: a single blob of mozzarella naked on a white saucer; possibly the plainest plate of food I had ever seen, so blank that the three drops of greeny olive oil dripping down one side shone brightly as the sun. When you cut into it, the cheese oozed thick milk, and the flavor was all barns and grass and dusty roads, sensations I had never before experienced from a cheese, not even in Italy. The main course was three meager scraps of boiled meat on a plate, the house version of bollito misto, but whatever the gray stripes of tongue and flank may have lacked in visual appeal - prison food, I imagine, looks a lot like this - they made up for in flavor, which was like the rich, salty, animal essence of meat concentrated into a few small mouthfuls. I've had bollito misto in many of the restaurants in Emilia-Romagna most famous for it, and I love the version served on Tuesdays at the very proper Al Moro in Rome, but I have never had anything approaching that improbable dish I tasted on a sooty London afternoon.
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River Café, of course, went on to become one of the most influential kitchens in Europe, and the mimimalist Italian cookbooks of Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, the self-taught cooks who ran the restaurant, would transform a generation of cooks, including April Bloomfield and Jamie Oliver.
Gray, 71, died Sunday in London. I never got back to River Café, but the indelible memory of that meal will live as long as I do.