The Gilbert Scott is the most glamorous dining room in NW1. Discuss. Other contenders? York & Albany, St Pancras Grand, Odette’s, Gilgamesh (if you like that kinda thing). Or perhaps even Meribel Brasserie. But, architecturally-speaking, there’s nothing to match the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and its flagship.
Scott was the lucky bugger who, in 1866, won the competition to design the 150-bed Midland Grand Hotel, which finally opened in 1873 alongside the new St Pancras station. And the eponymous restaurant was once the ‘Coffee Room’, pillars of gleaming polished limestone lining its splendid walls.
You can indeed feel the history, taking a seat in the room, with its hushed grandeur, and formal (but very friendly) service. This is classical in the grand European tradition: oil paintings of stormy seas, banquettes, penguin waiters. A heavenly place to tinkle the ice in a Negroni.
The menu could be called heritage British, with its cobblers, corned beef and turnips (we were reminded of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal). Sommelier advised we select a Domaine de L’Hortus to accompany a rather simple courgette flower and heirloom tomato salad; whilst the floral, appley notes of a Touraine Chenin Blanc matched a superior starter of finely sliced pork belly (left),its earthiness made piquant by Yorkshire rhubarb.
There was a little wait between starters and mains, but it allowed time to people-watch, as the rain pelted down beyond the big windows, exuding a sense of place and time: who was the lone woman in a suit, swilling a glass of white wine, staring straight ahead? The big table of ten, emitting guffaws and congratulations?
I was excited about a lightly smoked pollock with soft egg and mustard – one of my all-time favourite comfort food combinations. Cooked sous vide at 50 degrees for 20 mins, its moist flavour was translucently luxurious, reinventing what can often be a disappointingly bland fish. And it was complemented by a bread-dippingly velvety mustard sauce.
A smoky VDP Collines Rhodaniennes syrah accentuated the caramelised turnip with a breast of duck (main pic) that, although tender and sweet, didn’t have quite the same power, but its presentation was pleasingly school dinner-style. And as we finished our mains, a rainbow appeared, lighting up St Pancras and north London beyond.
But we soldiered on (not difficult, it has to be said). A rich 10 year old Marsala accompanied fruity eccles cake with more-ish cheddar cheese ice cream (left), whilst the spicy Xmas flavours of a pear and walnut ice cream sandwich with salted caramel were swollen by the peachinesss of a Sicilian Kabir.
About to leave, the restaurant manager offered us a tour and the opportunity to sample more cocktails at the bar. Who were we to argue? The basement kitchen was vast, spacious, and brightly lit, and we paused at the obligatory chef’s table to survey its silent choreography.
Back up in the bar, under ornate ceilings and bell chandeliers, blind dates, old friends and high-fiving suits were tucking into fairly esoteric libations. We tried a Yupanqui – a smoky Negroni made with with Antica Formula, Campari, orange, chocolate bitters and a slow hit of Makers Mark that clung to the palate. More refreshing was a Parisian(Martini Rosato and orange Amer Picon) with its pinball citrus flavours of grapefruit and honey. These are grown-up drinks that encourage lounging; conversation. It was a shame we had to leave.
‘It’s a hell of a long way to the loo,’ we heard one silver-haired American say as she plonked herself down next to her grinning friend. Little did she probably realize that the same complaint eventually closed the original hotel in 1935. Why? Its lack of ensuite bedrooms required a crippling army of servants to ferry around chamber pots, tubs, bowls and spittoons.