The Riding House Café is achingly cool. From the shabby-chic New York-inspired dining room with its sweeping bar, shared tables and bare brickwork down to the distressed metal covers on Dyson airblades in the toilets (seriously…), it’s a lesson in laid-back luxe for a twenty-first century crowd. In amongst the glamorous set of Soho after-work media types typical of a Tuesday evening, you might encounter some more unusual dining companions; a stuffed squirrel, a blue plastic Smurf or a pigeon frozen mid-flight, a light bulb clutched in its beak like an olive branch. A little pretentious perhaps, but somehow the overall effect is on-trend and very enticing; you definitely want to eat in this restaurant.
So what about the food? Does it stand up to the quirky, contemporary design or is this restaurant a matter of style over substance?
A lot has been written about the small plate phenomenon so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, The Riding House Café has embraced this modish style of eating whole-heartedly, offering dishes at £3, £4 and £5 in addition to ten or more mains around the £14 mark. If you’re feeling traditional you can start small and move onto a main, but this menu also allows you the option to pick and choose, feasting on a wide variety of lovely little plates packed with different flavours and textures.
On an after-work visit last Tuesday, my friend and I decided to go with the latter option, but I’d definitely like to return and try the the full menu; large portions of meat and chips in various guises carried past our table looked and smelled delicious. However, while these larger dishes might have more substance – some of the small plates do live up to their name, especially those in the £3 bracket – our choice definitely won through in the variety stakes. We kicked off with freshly baked bread, fruity olive oil and an artichoke purée that was rich, smooth, salty and divine. Atlantic prawns with lemon and mayo were cool, creamy and fresh, sea bass ceviche light and bright with a kick of chilli, while salt cod fritters packed a weightier fishy punch, beautifully battered in bite-sized nuggets.
A salad of squid and chorizo was nothing new but nicely executed, the spicy sausage strong against tender strips of gummy squid, while a creamy chopped salad of palm heart, avocado and sweetcorn felt very fitting with the restaurant’s American vibe. The only slight disappointment was a plate of grilled hanger (skirt or onglet to you or me) steak with white bean purée, truffle oil and shallots which we probably should have eaten straight away. Ruby-red mouthfuls of meat were tasty and tender with a rich truffle aroma, but the purée had gone completely cold, developing a thick, unpleasant crust. It was one of the last dishes we tucked into and I’m sure it would have tasted delicious when it first emerged from the kitchen; we’ll just have to put it down as a casualty to the cause of small plate dining.
For pudding I opted for the chocolate praline semifreddo which arrived in puddle of raspberry sauce and scattered with fresh fruit. The chocolate sponge base (not advertised on the menu) was slightly dry but the overall taste was still chocolatey and good. Other options include a button-busting hot fudge sundae decorated with macaroons, and spiced gingerbread with grilled figs and caramel ice cream which is definitely on my list to try next time. The wine list is reasonably priced with options by the glass, carafe and bottle, making it easy to match the various different dishes and flavours on offer. There’s also beer by the bottle and on draught, and some amazing sounding cocktails that I’ll certainly be sampling alongside that spicy gingerbread on my next visit.
For me, one of the joys of small plate dining is that you get the chance to eat in a way you might not otherwise do at home. It’s not so much the content of these dishes – all well-executed but nothing entirely new or revolutionary – but the variety and excitement of tasting lots of little plates. Indeed a lot of dishes on this menu are exactly the kinds of things I like to eat at home, which is why I just had to get the recipe for that artichoke purée. How? I posted a request on Twitter. In keeping with their modern approach to cooking and ‘of-the-minute’ restaurant design, the team behind The Riding House Café are absolutlely au fait with social media, and twenty four hours after I requested the recipe, they popped it up on their blog. The power of the internet. Love it.
My overall verdict on The Riding House Café? With customer service like this, they’ll go far. Great design, good food and friendly faces behind the brand. It’s bustling and buzzy without being pretentious, and a fun place to relax with friends. The food may not be the most memorable in London, but it’s the kind of food you want to eat again and again. I’ll definitely be going back.
The recipe below is slightly adapted from what the RHC team posted. I have a feeling the artichokes used in their kitchen are of a larger and superior variety to those I found in my local deli, so I’ve cut down the anchovy content; they should provide a rich, salty undertone rather than a strong flavour of fish. This purée is a lighter alternative to hummus, perfect mopped up with lots of warm crusty bread or dipped with crunchy vegetables.
Artichoke Purée (barely adapted from The Riding House Café‘s own recipe)1 x 280g jar artichoke hearts in oil, drained and oil reserved 2 anchovy fillets in oil 2 tsp Dijon mustard 1/2 tsp pinch cayenne pepper 1/2 tsp white pepper Squeeze of lemon juice 50ml olive oil 50ml rapeseed oil or the oil from the artichokes
Roughly chop the artichoke hearts. Stick everything but the oils in a blender and blitz ’til it’s smooth. Keeping the blender running, add the oils in a slow stream until it all binds together. Scrape into a bowl and serve with lots of warm crusty bread or a selection of raw vegetables.