London’s dining scene is one of the world’s most dynamic, with new restaurants opening faster than we can visit them. With so much hype around the newcomers, it’s easy to forget the stalwarts, but there’s something to be said for those restaurants that have managed to stand the test of time. It was with this in mind that my dining partner and I decided to visit RSJ, a hidden gem of a restaurant with a strong French focus that has been plying its trade just off the Southbank since 1980. Located in a converted house, and with minimal signage to indicate its presence, from the outside RSJ looks a little underwhelming. Venturing inside, we found ourselves in a spacious hallway which appeared to serve as cloakroom, bar and till point. A friendly maitre d’ showed us to our table in the upstairs dining room. Here, the décor was on the bland side – the walls could have done with a fresh lick of paint, and the overhead lighting was a touch unforgiving – but the sleek wine bottle displays at either end of the room showed a bit more of the restaurant’s personality. Given its location, RSJ is a favourite with the pre-theatre crowd, so the dining room was packed with people polishing off their puddings as we took our seats (fresh from a matinee showing at the National) at 6.30pm. With the room full, the atmosphere was pleasant, gently buzzing with the hum of conversation and clink of cutlery, and we didn’t really notice the absence of background music. Once the pre-theatre tables emptied out, there was a bit of a lull before the standard dinner rush began around 8.00pm. Throughout all this, there was just one unflappable waitress taking orders and answering questions – from what we could see, always with a smile on her face. She also did most of the serving, although she was helped at times by a couple of runners – an impressive job, in view of the number of tables.
Perusing RSJ’s menu, my dining partner and I encountered a problem we don’t come across terribly often – we wanted more than one of the dishes on offer at every course. To save our waistlines and our wallets though, we forced ourselves to choose just one. For his starter, my dining partner went for the sautéed chicken livers with soft polenta and parmesan crisp. A generous bowlful, the livers were tender, rich, and unctuously flavourful. The creaminess of the soft polenta took the bitter edge off the livers, while the parmesan crisp provided a great contrast in terms of texture, and a hit of salt to cut through the richness of the rest of the dish. My own starter of warm goat’s cheese, mixed artichokes and truffle dressing was a much lighter affair. The goat’s cheese was a very smooth, mild variety, without that acrid tang that comes from stronger chevres. It complemented the earthiness of the artichokes brilliantly, while the truffle dressing was subtly alluring and a garnish of a few rocket leaves added a pleasing touch of pepper flavour. Moving on to main course, my dining partner chose the roast rump of lamb, with potato gratin, chantenay carrots and lamb jus. This was sheer brilliance on a plate. The lamb was cooked perfectly, wonderfully succulent and still pink in the centre. The potato gratin was fabulously creamy, the nuttiness of the gruyere in the sauce really coming through in every bite. The carrots brought a lovely sweetness to the dish, while the lamb jus wrapped everything up in wonderful meatiness. With such fantastic fare on my dining partner’s plate, it’s a wonder I didn’t have food envy, but my main course of roast duck breast, spiced red cabbage, parsnip puree and juniper jus was more than a match for my dining partner’s lamb dish. The duck, cooked pink, was thinly sliced, stunningly tender, and had perfectly rendered skin. The spiced red cabbage had a perfectly pitched sweet/sour flavour, while the parsnip puree had a velvety texture and comforting rooty taste. The juniper jus had a subtle sharpness, and some accompanying parsnip crisps topped the dish off with a delightfully delicate crunch.
When it came to dessert, we were both torn between the same two dishes, so decided to order one of each and share. The buttered brazil nut tart with malted milk chocolate ice cream was extremely enjoyable – the chunky cut nuts sat atop a sweet, buttery paste that lined a thin, crisp pastry, and the ice-cream tasted like cold, liquefied Maltesers. But the real star was the baked peanut butter cheesecake with bananas and toffee sauce. A crunchy, crushed biscuit base and outer crust framed the decadent, nutty cheesecake which was so impossibly smooth we couldn’t believe it had been baked. Unlike many baked cheesecakes, this one hadn’t been over-sweetened, so it actually had a hint of cheesiness running through the background. The gleaming pool of accompanying toffee sauce, with its intensely sweet, dulce de leche flavour and syrupy consistency, could easily have overwhelmed, but somehow it stayed just the right side of that sweet / over-sweet line. Finished off with simple sliced banana, this was pure heaven on a plate, and quite possibly the best dessert either of us has ever eaten.
In terms of drinks, RSJ is famed for its wines as much as its food – and it’s easy to see why. The wine list is a massive tome, offering over 250 different wines, all from France and mostly from the Loire valley and surrounding areas. They range in price from around the £20 mark into the hundreds, and are grouped by colour and by region, which may seem daunting at first. However, the brief descriptions given for each wine provide useful guidance on flavour notes and tannins, so we felt relatively comfortable selecting a bottle for ourselves. We opted for a Jerome Billard 2012 Chinon, from Domaine de la Noblaie (£24.95) – made primarily with Cabernet Franc grapes, this was a deliciously fruity, rounded wine with very subtle tannins, that was easy to drink and went well with each of our three courses. We finished our meal thoroughly satisfied with every element – service, wine and food had all impressed – so the price tag of £50 per head (including service), although substantial, actually felt entirely fair. The surroundings might be a bit unprepossessing, but we simply couldn’t fault anything else at RSJ. The final verdict? A well-deserved five Forks-Up.RSJ
33 Coin Street
T: 0207 928 4554