Tales of the River Walk

20 January 2003 by
Tales of the River Walk

Poisoned chalice or brimming cup? For executive chef Richard Sawyer and general manager Marc Whiteley, the new tenants of the second floor of London's Oxo Tower, only time will tell.

Last month, they oversaw the opening of River Walk in a space that has claimed two victims in recent years. First, it was Bistro 2, then Richard Neat's eponymous restaurant, which closed just one year after Neat's much-trumpeted return from France. Can Sawyer's modern European cuisine - on show at a brasserie grill as well as fine-dining outlet - buck the trend?

Sawyer's logic is simple. "You've got to make it affordable," he says. "Good food isn't cheap, but we've got to have a happy medium. You can use foie gras and white truffles, but you must be able to afford it."

He still puts luxury on a seven-strong starter list at the fine-dining operation, with a trio of foie gras - hot (seared with warm herb pikelet or, as Sawyer puts it, "English with a little crumpet"), cold (with chilled raisin brioche and black Turkish figs) and warm (cured, with black truffle and a vanilla dressing). But though this starter comes with a hefty £14.50 price tag, Sawyer balances the option with a more accessibly priced dish of seared Temple Anglaise chicken livers at £7.50. "All my chefs are classically trained," he says, "but they've got to be all things to all men - be able to give the public a choice."

It is this approach that he hopes will fill up what is, in total, a 240-cover enterprise. The River Walk Grill & Bar seats 120 in a laid-back atmosphere, and 13 mains means there's always variety. The main restaurant, also with 120 seats, is larger than most posh partners in a two-tier double-act, with comfy deep-red banquettes (inherited from Neat) and soft lilac colouring.

Sawyer, whose CV includes stints with the Gruppo group at London's Admiralty and Atlantic restaurants as well as time at the Connaught, explains: "I am always consciously asking, ‘Are we too fine-dining?' I hate those words ‘fine dining'. In this restaurant, you can come in wearing shorts and a T-shirt."

He says that a big inspiration for him this year has been Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tipping people towards the revival of British produce. A particular best-seller is the roasted Buchan beef porterhouse (£36 for two) served with crisp shallots, marrow root soufflé and béarnaise sauce. "We mature the beef for 48 or 50 days," he says, "so it really melts in your mouth."

Game, too, is drawing attention in a modernised English guise of roast teal breast sweetened by spiced East Anglian quince, succulent breast of partridge with roast maize and bacon, seared saddle of venison with commice pear, plus a delicate celeriac flan (£20). In Sawyer's words: "Four nice tastes on a plate, no bones - just four little treats."

River Walk Restaurant, Bar & Grill, 2nd Floor, Oxo Tower Wharf, Barge House Street, London SE1 9PH. Tel: 020 7928 2884 (Restaurant); 020 7928 2864 (Bar & Grill)

A selection from the River Walk Restaurant menu

South Devon scallops "boudin" with thyme-poached leeks and white truffle infusions, £11.50
Tortellini of red beets and smoked Serrano ham with snow pea cappuccino sauce, £9.50
Mosaic of seared Mont Enebro goats' cheese with roasted Mediterranean vegetables, Slippery Jack mushrooms, celeriac and Pernod-infused fennel confit, £8
Canadian lobster, scallop, seared red mullet and sea bream with rosemary bouillabaisse broth, £19.50
Roasted English quail breasts, foie gras, celeriac fondant and globe artichokes with black truffle port infusion, £18.50
Noisette of basil-roasted Devonshire lamb with Italian tomato fondue and white haricot beans, £17
Crème caramel with Sauterne-steeped Argen prunes and macadamia raisin cookies, £7
Roasted five-spice pear cake with toffee sauce and ginger ice-cream, £5.50
Something sweet "Asian style" served on a sugar glass plate with lychee and saki granite, for sharing, £10.50

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