Location: 25 Prince’s Island
I finally got the chance to try this place. For as long as I could remember, River Cafe has been on my list of places to try. I had perused its menu many times, but the price had always “scared” me away.
Usually when I make a reservation through OpenTable, one has already been selected for us and we are simply just seated. However, here, they asked if we preferred to sit inside or outside on the patio. While it wasn’t super sunny and warm, we still chose to sit outside. Since it was a cooler evening, there were blanket available as well as some heat lamps.
We made a reservation here for 5:00 p.m., meaning we had just made the cut off for the afternoon menu. The afternoon menu is significantly cheaper than their dinner menu and can be thought of almost as a happy hour menu, but not quite. Each of the dishes on this menu can stand on its own as a full entree.
We both got drinks. Carmen with her white wine (I’m really bad at wines, so I have no idea which one she got) and I tried the black currant spritz. The spritz wasn’t sweet at all, which was unexpected for me and it had a bit of a weird flavour. I had expected something more like ribena, which I quite enjoy mixed with club soda, which was essentially what this was, but it really wasn’t. I didn’t get much of the black currant flavour, there was just something else there that somewhat masked the taste.
Carmen and I decided on our own dishes, the Jungle Farms Spinach and Mushroom Tart and the Berkshire Chorizo & Giant Pacific Octopus Flatbread, respectively, as well as getting the Selection of Artisan Cheese to share. We asked for the cheese to be served as an appetizer. I would like to preface this with the fact that I grew up in an Asian (Chinese) household, so cheese wasn’t something that was commonplace in our house. If we had cheese, it was the store bought bricks of cheddar, mozzarella, or what have you. This household wasn’t exactly one for artisan cheeses. So, I’d have to say, my tastes in this area are not as cultured. The cheeses featured were the Grizzly Gouda from Red Deer (Alberta), the Caerphilly from Fort Macleod (Alberta), the Comox Brie from Vancouver Island (BC), the Aged Gouda from Picture Butte (Alberta), and the Tiger Blue from Penticton (BC). While I had heard of all these types of cheeses, I had never actually had any of them before. I mean, I’ve had blue cheeses, but nothing like the Tiger Blue. To be honest, I’m not one for blue cheese and this one was an especially strong one. That’s not to say I couldn’t learn to appreciate the flavour, but eating this cheese straight was a little much for me. It had a great texture and creaminess though. The brie was another cheese I was familiar with, but have always been too “scared” to try because I’ve always been worried that it’ll be too creamy and rich for me. However, I didn’t find that to be the case. This cheese paired perfectly with the peach preserve and was my favourite of the five cheeses. The remaining three cheeses were hard cheeses and again, not a fan. I think the only hard cheeses I actually like are Parmesan and Grana Padano and even with those, I can only eat them in small quantities. Say, grated over pasta? The Grizzly Gouda was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was beautiful rich yellow colour with a mild nutty flavour, not something I’m used to in my cheeses. It was good, but it would take some getting used to and I was unable to have more than one piece. The other gouda is said to have flavours of burnt caramel and I did get a little bit of that. It really fascinates me that these cheese can taste like this. The last of the cheeses, the Caerphilly, isn’t one I’ve ever heard of. I had no idea what to expect. This cheese technically isn’t a hard cheese, it’s a semi-firm cheese that has a mild, salty buttermilk flavour. I didn’t like or dislike this one. I just didn’t really have an opinion, really. The cheese was served with blackberries, a peach preserve and canola seed crackers. Honestly, I could’ve done with a ton more of that preserve; it was so delicious and those canola seed crackers were something else. They reminded me a little of the sesame crisps at Goro+Gun, but these were neutral flavoured, as to not overpower some of the more delicate cheeses. I loved the combination of the cracker, preserve and brie. I could eat that for a meal and not even be mad.
Amazingly enough, it took us nearly an hour to “finish” the cheese plate. The waiter actually asked us if we were ready for our “mains” and if we were in any rush to be out of there, which I found to be extremely considerate.
Then came the “mains.” I had actually had my eye on the spinach and mushroom tart and when I arrived started eying the burger. Ultimately, I decided on the chorizo and octopus flatbread and I feel like I chose wrong. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t horrible, but I feel like the tart was significantly better than my flatbread and that the burger, as messy as it was (and the fact that I was gonna just eat it with a fork and knife) might’ve been better options. The flatbread consisted of a base of chèvre topped with ash baked potato, chorizo, and octopus, “drizzled” with grainy mustard and garnished with microgreens and pickled onions. Separate, I like all of these things, except for maybe the chèvre because it’s a little bit of a gamier cheese. I think it varies for me with cheeses made from goat’s milk. Sometimes I love them, sometimes I can’t stand them. I had expected the potato to be more of a side, so it was a little odd to see it on the flatbread. I know I’m always saying I will eat carbs with carbs, but not like this! I felt like this flatbread was very under-seasoned, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I just like my food with a little more of a punch or kick to it. The tart was actually fantastic and I really should’ve just gone for that. The tart was garnished with pickled and roasted radishes, microgreens, and drizzled with a goat cheese yogurt. The yogurt didn’t have that overwhelming gamey flavour, which was nice. My only complaint about the tart was that it was a little hard to cut.
I actually only ended up eating a quarter of my flatbread in order to have room for dessert. In this instance, I chose wrong…again. Originally, Carmen was going to go with the Blueberry and Camelina Custard Tart, but shortly after ordering it, was informed that it and all the desserts except for the ice cream contained soy. Ever since I had my first panna cotta, I’ve been obsessed, so of course I went for that. I should’ve gone with the blueberry tart or the strawberry shortcake. I was, however, not disappointed with the presentation of my Garden Sorrel Panna Cotta. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried sorrel before, but it is a very green, leafy taste. In small quantities, it’s fine, but i accidentally got a giant dollop and that was a bit much for me. It was kinda reminiscent of pennywort, but in this instance I would’ve preferred the pennywort. It was a fun experience breaking through the white chocolate pyramid encasing the panna cotta, but white chocolate isn’t exactly the nicest flavour, in my opinion. The honey “caviar” wasn’t what I expected and it didn’t taste like much since it was honey (it was just sweet). This dish as a whole provided a lot of different textures, which I liked, but no stand out flavours. Carmen ended up getting the lemon verbena ice cream and it appeared as though she really enjoyed it.
Also, Carmen informed me that everything on their menu is made from scratch in house. I think this is really great because it allows the chef to control every aspect of the dish, but also, it’s really great for people with allergies and sensitivities. In fact, the wait staff was equally knowledgable about the ingredients in their dishes, which I was very impressed with. Another thing that’s impressive is that all their ingredients are sourced locally and that’s something I can get on board with.
Plating-wise, I’d have to say these are some of the prettiest/most artistic plates I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, presentation isn’t everything. It has to be backed up with taste too and for me, it fell flat on some/most of the elements of my dishes tonight.
In terms of accessibility, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to get into, but it would certainly be difficult. I can’t remember with certainty whether the front entry way had stairs or not, but I do remember the thresholds were kinda high. There’s definitely stairs on the patio though.
After reading this I’m sure you must be thinking, oh my God, you are so picky. In a sense, maybe I am, but also consider, these are not the flavours I grew up with and they aren’t the flavours I naturally gravitate towards.
Would I come here again? Maybe to try their brunch or dinner, but because of its location and the fact that everything is handcrafted, it is a little on the expensive side, so I’d have to be careful. However, despite some of my hiccups with my meal this evening, I had a really enjoyable experience. I would rate this a 3/5.
Correction: In a previous version of this review, I mistakenly wrote ribena bourbon ice cream when it ought to have been lemon verbena.