20 September 2011
St. Pancras International station is probably one of my favourite places. William Barlow’s arch spans 240 feet and upon its completion in 1868, became the largest enclosed space in the world. Inside, urbanites travel to-and-fro, couples relax and drink coffee while others wander the famed construction that epitomises the glamorous.
The sense of grandeur is still evident today. The Gothic red brick Grade 1 listed façade, sculptures to honour of poets and lovers, and the five-colour rings of the Olympiad welcoming every national and international.
Sir George Gilbert Scott designed and built the Midland Grand Hotel after winning a competition run by the Midland Railway Company. The east wing opened in 1873 with completion of the entire building finished in Spring 1876.
In 1935 the hotel was closed making way for railway offices, shutting doors again in 1985; vacant, home only to the vermin. Twenty-six years later, the Gilbert Scott restaurant has opened under Marcus Wareing.
Wareing holds two Michelin stars and is what you could call a lavish chef. He’s particular, appears punctional and proud, serious about his craft. To take on the kitchen and dining room here requires all of these elements. The task is grandiose and the expectation immense.
There’s complimentary popcorn from the bar. It’s smokey (bacon-esc rather than fag ash), which is rather charming. It’s also rather commonplace now however, with the likes of Texture and Spuntino doing the same. I’m also told by a knowledgeable source that Wareing’s own Petrus offers complimentary popcorn.
The bar is smaller than I’d imagined given the expanse of the building and the length of the hallway you navigate to get there – which is lined with spectacular antiquarian wardrobes for hats, cloaks and brollies and is, I expect, also a portal to Narnia and other fairytale worlds.
The dining wing curves around to the kitchen at the far end. A staff service station separates two dining spaces: the tables at the front – close to the entrance – are oddly scattered while further down, tables appear too close in proximity and it’s an elbow-to-elbow experience.
The room could – and should – be vibrant with regulars and travellers. This is, afterall, one of London’s busiest gateways. Sadly, the room is lacking an identity, which given the scope of the space and surrounding history is a grand shame. It’s table and chairs in a corridor. A corridor lacking warmth and welcome, no thanks surely to the oil paintings of bleak winter trees and polar seascapes.
When you have strong first impressions of a restaurant and its design, thoughts naturally shift to the food and whether it can live up to the surroundings and your own expectations. My starter of duck egg on sippets was good; a fine sized egg with glowing, runny yolk sat on sippets (just overblown wording for bread) with duck hearts and devilled sauce, while ‘potted shrimp’ was in fact potless and average.
Mains are all upwards of £16 and there’s a £55 ‘Lake District rib of beef for two with bone marrow’ that the couple next to us were enjoying.
‘Kentish pigeon in a pot’ is mixed with mushrooms, thyme and prunes. It arrived in a bowl rather than ‘pot’ along with a plate. I assumed this was it and began to transfer the contents from one piece of crockery to another (a waste of a good bowl), before realising what a simple portion this was: pigeon breast and mushrooms for £18.
I’m sure this is all deliberate so you’ll jump to the £4.50 accompaniments section, and foolish me, I did, increasing my main from £18 to £22.50 in one cursory swoop. ‘Cauliflower pudding’ was baked with cream and nutmeg and arrived rich and bubbling.
‘Dorset snail and chicken pie’ was another plate that failed to impress. Bereft of even middling presentation the pie was lukewarm containing a mixture of cold garlic and parsley mingled with chicken skin, grey, thick and rubbery. We signalled a waiter bringing this to their attention. “It’s supposed to be in there” he replied. When we questioned this further he took the plate to the kitchen, returning several minutes later, “the chef agrees that the skin is too big and tough.” Then, rightly, withdrew it from our bill.
I’ve spent some considerable time since researching chicken pie recipes and speaking with chefs, all of whom suggest ‘discarding the bones and skin.’ Well it seems obvious, doesn’t it? Not at The Gilbert Scott.
I had been looking forward to desserts after hearing about ‘Kendal mint cake choc ice’ and ‘orange marmalade Jaffa cake’, so why I choose ‘Mrs Beeton’s Snow eggs’, I don’t know? I think it must have been the phrase ‘Snow eggs’, a mystifying description with imagery of fluffy gooeyness. What it was in fact was softly poached meringue with an Everton toffee core, sprinkled with salted peanuts, resting on ‘burnt honey custard’ or rather, crème anglaise – the highlight of the meal.
Wareing has a knack for getting desserts right and here he’s on the money, it’s just a shame that the afore courses fell short, and as popular as I think the desserts here are going to be, they’re not so good as having to wade through two-courses of sheer disappointment in a dining room that doesn’t feel at ease with itself.