Art and food have always had a special relationship. Restaurants located in museums have a loyal client base — patrons of the arts typically appreciate fine cuisine. I have always had a special affinity for the London Museum and this particular room.
The River Room, inside Museum London,has banks of tinted windows with panoramic views overlooking artist Ron Benner’s garden installation project, “As the Crow Flies,” as well as the Forks of the Thames and old courthouse. The River Room is a superb lunch spot that has put Museum London back on the local culinary map.
First and foremost, Jess Jazey-Spoelstra is a culinary dynamo and the city’s reigning caterer of choice. When Jazey-Spoelstra was offered the restaurant space at Museum London, she was initially reluctant. However, the room and the facilities at Museum London are a natural fit for a caterer with Jazey-Spoelstra’s flair, vision and experience. Jazey-Spoelstra has built a reputation quickly as the city’s premiere caterer, almost entirely on word-of-mouth from a glittering retinue of well-heeled clients. Like any successful caterer/restaurateur, she has a particular je ne sais quoiand an innate talent for picking and mentoring professional staff who can communicate her vision and deliver it with aplomb and finesse. Hers is an impressive achievement.
The venue has been refurbished (including the old curved ceiling) and elegantly tailored and renewed to host special events. The setting is stylish and relaxed, the colour scheme is warm and inviting, the textural elements are glass, leather and linen, and the glassware is Reidel. The dining room has seating for 85 patrons (comfortable chairs purchased at Kingsmills — Jazey-Spoelstra believes in supporting local businesses) and has an attractive curved bar with faux white leather stools at the entrance. The walls are lined with beautiful photos that pay homage to Jazey-Spoelstra’s days in New York. The photographs may have stirred a bit of controversy with the old guard (American photos in a Canadian Art Gallery), but add to the ambience and authenticity of what Jazey-Spoelstra has created and showcase her skill as a photographer of the Big Apple. The River Room’s inspiration, as with most things related to Jazey-Spoelstra’s culinary endeavours, harkens back to the time (2001-2007) when she worked in Tribeca in Manhattan.
The restaurant is conveniently located in Museum London and just steps away from the Budweiser Gardens, Covent Garden Market, and the downtown dining and shopping district. It is already attracting the local who’s who, lawyers and judges, the ladies who lunch, and the culinary set, despite some of its less conventional attributes. It has quickly become a brunch hot spot. Yes, there are glass ketchup bottles and high-quality jars of hot mustard.
Meeting and interviewing Jazey-Spoelstra for the first time was like talking to an old friend who speaks “culinary” fluently. She has plenty of verve and vitality and is a natural raconteur, taking me on a culinary tour of the menu and New York City. After moving to New York City on September 10, 2001, the day before 9/11, she worked at Walkers in Tribeca, at the corner of North Moore and Varick (7th Ave) Streets. It was her “university of the food world.” Walker’s remains a culinary landmark and draws legions of regulars and semi-regulars (jurors).
Walker’s in Tribeca, a “regular guy” place serving great food at reasonable prices, is where Jazey-Spoelstra learned about food quality, freshness, and exceptional service. “It all came with the NYC attitude” — something she says she has had to unlearn. “Customers loved being abused in New York. The more you abuse them, the bigger the tip. Here — not so much. I owe Walker’s owners Gerry Walker and Scott Perez a lot. They taught me so much while working there. I wouldn’t have what I have today if it wasn’t for them and for New York, teaching me and toughening me up, thickening my skin, so to say.”
She continues, “Most restaurants in NYC are open until one a.m., some (like Blue Ribbon) even until four a.m., which works well when you’re in the industry and want to go out for food and drink after your shift. Regular haunts were Nobu, Mr. Chow, Momofuku, Balthazar, Pastis, The Frying Pan, Supper, Joe’s Shanghai, Raoul’s, Peter Luger’s, Souths, The Ear Inn, Walker’s, Bubby’s, Brandy Library, KGB Bar, Pravda, Centrico, and Landmarc. Then you have just the best food shops on earth: Russ & Daughters, Joe’s Dairy, Murray’s Cheese, Fiaccos, Katz’s Deli, and Raffetto’s. I was spoiled. I worked hard and played hard — that was New York. You didn’t dare serve bad food in New York — if you did, you were chewed up and spit out, and the restaurant would be closed in no time.”
Jazey-Spoelstra’s culinary philosophy is to create exceptional food at reasonable prices. She tells me, “The rest is more theory— taste the ingredients, don’t muddle too many flavours, use excellent quality ingredients, and let the food speak for itself. She serves American beef and swears by its superior taste. I don’t like “stuffy” snooty places. I love regular-guy joints where the server is professional but fun and witty, and the food is exceptional, something you remember fondly. Great food, great ambience, great service — and always push the envelope, never get comfortable, continue to learn new flavours, tastes and techniques.”
Getting back to the River Room, Chef Jeff Fortner has over a dozen dishes on offer on the brunch prix fixe menu ($21.00), including sublime Eggs Benedict with perfectly poached eggs and delicious hollandaise; classic Cobb Salad with grilled chicken, crisp bacon, blue cheese, hard-boiled egg, chopped tomato and cucumbers; Brioche French Toast of the Day; and Prime Rib Beef Hash, with peppers, onions, potatoes and prime rib, topped with two soft-boiled eggs and accompanied by signature greens.
Brunch is served with a generous basket of warm mini-muffins and fresh-baked, melt-in-the-mouth cheddar scones, as well as coffee or tea and your choice of a glass of red or white wine, mimosa, Caesar, bloody Mary, screwdriver or domestic beer.
Everything on the lunch menu is in the $10 to $13 range, and prepared in-house from scratch. Fortner is on top of his game. Features include handmade pasta, such as gnocchi, pumpkin ravioli, and hand-pressed tagliatelle. I have had the opportunity to sample all three: perfectly executed ricotta gnocchi with gorgonzola and porcini (not on the menu) was other worldly, tagliatelle with lemon was deliciously understated, and pumpkin ravioli with chestnut sage cream was sublimely delicate. Seafood Crêpes, with crab, shrimp, scallops and cognac cream, Quiche (Jess’s mother’s recipe with Michele Lenhardt’s pastry), and New York-style deli sandwiches, all accompanied by a spectacularly composed signature side salad, round out the menu. The Pastrami Reuben sandwich is quintessential New York deli, with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and crispy dills. The Cobb Salad is classic. Pot pie with braised duck, okra and Andouille sausage is a delicious riff on the definitive gumbo preparation
The desserts are prepared by über-pastry chef Michele Lenhardt (former co-owner of Black Walnut Café and pastry chef at the AGO). Lenhardt’s Cherry Tart and Lemon Tart are both classics and works of art. Chocolate Pâté is rave-worthy, as is Semifreddo. The Beignets (deep-fried choux paste) are served hot, with bacon fudge and vanilla cream. If you are a connoisseur of classic pastry and dessert, you have come to the right place — Lenhardt brings dessert offerings to a whole new level.
The black-uniformed servers are welcoming and enthusiastic, as well as being professional, attentive and knowledgeable. The service adds to the experience. The River Room is also open in the evenings for private dining, weddings, dinner parties, cocktail parties, holiday parties, and business dinners.
The River Room at Museum London,
hours of operation
tuesday – friday: 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink magazine’s Writer at Large and Contributing Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org