Thursday, 11 August 2011
The Gilbert Scott, Kings Cross
Although I try to never approach a restaurant expecting it to be brilliant - there's only the inevitable can happen when you set your prospects too high - there was a part of me really hoping my meal at the Gilbert Scott was great. Then I could lead this review with the subtitle "Great Scott!" and go on to draw many tortured parallels between the painstakingly researched retro menu and the Back to the Future films. Actually, on second thoughts, perhaps it's a good thing it wasn't great after all.
That's not to say there wasn't just about enough to enjoy. Worth a journey almost in its own right is a mooch around the fantastic and lavishly restored Midland Grand Hotel (sorry, I should say the St. Pancras Renaissance), the intricately painted high ceilings and gothic carved stone pillars making you wonder if this is what it might be like having lunch at Hogwarts. The first room you find yourself in is the bar, which produces cocktails every bit as impressive as the room - my Bloody Mary was powerful and tomato-y, and garnished with some kind of preserved or marinated cherry tomato on a metal cocktail stick shaped into a flying swan. Nice touch.
And then through we went to the vast dining hall, stretching into the far distance in a gentle curve, framed by even more lavish gothic detail and 20ft high windows. It was a bit of a surprise in fact, given the huge space the restaurant architects had to work with, that so many of the tables seemed squashed so close together; we were sat in-between two other couples barely two feet away on either side, and the table to our right had their chairs arranged onto one side as if our meal was part of the afternoon's entertainment. I munched with practiced nonchalance on the (nice) house bread, all the time acutely aware I were being watched silently from the corner and trying desperately not to catch their eye.
Starters were as good as you might find in a half decent gastropub, though not really worth the price tag. "Mushrooms on sippets" (£8) despite the eye-catching title was in fact just mushrooms on toast, edible but surprisingly bland for something containing huge chunks of bone marrow. "Dorset crab, brown and white crab, pear, hazelnuts" (£10.50) was better, the crab in particular being brilliantly fresh and sweet and with a generous scattering of shrimp, but although we liked the addition of pear and hazelnut the huge pile of unseasoned rabbit food dumped on top needed dressing and seasoning. Even a squeeze of lemon would have lifted it.
I enjoyed my chicken and snail pie (£17.50) although, again, you have to wonder about the price. It's a nice space to eat in and I'm sure the billions of pounds spent on this huge listed building need to be clawed back somehow, but really, this was a pretty small pie, only half filled with presumably cheap ingredients, and although having plenty of flavour and nice tasty pastry it didn't exactly feel like value. "Soles in coffins" (£22) was good, perfectly cooked, meaty lemon sole wrapped into little parcels (maybe these were the aforementioned "coffins") and with more very tasty brown shrimps and crunchy samphire. We couldn't taste any vermouth in the cream though, and despite the trendy retro title this was in the end a fairly straightforward dish.
We had heard lots of good reports on the desserts at the Gilbert Scott, not least the "Mrs Beeton's Snow Egg" (£7), a sort of an Ille Flottante topped with crunchy toffee bits and containing a hidden cache of liquid caramel inside. It was pleasant enough, not a great deal more than the sum of its parts, but there's still plenty to like even in a by-the-numbers Ille Flottante and the addition of the hidden caramel was a nice touch. Much better, in fact enough to push the overall experience up another mark out of ten, was a hilarious deconstructed "Jaffa Cake" (£7), with sharp slices of whole orange marmalade pressed onto a chocolate and biscuit dome and accompanied by a delicate scoop of Earl Grey ice cream. It was at once familiar to anyone who had scoffed Jaffa Cakes in their past (and I imagine very few British people haven't) and also fresh and inventive, a genuinely inspired dessert and one that had also presumably taken a bit of time to get right, and in contrast to the savoury courses, then, a remarkable bit of value.
With a bottle of sharp £35 Austrian Grüner Veltliner and a single Armagnac taking place of a coffee or cheese course, the bill came to £154.75 for two. It's (sadly) not a fortune by central London standards and nowhere near as violatingly expensive as some other hotel restaurants (hang your head in shame Apsleys), but it still felt (with the exception of that Jaffa Cake dessert) like an unremarkable gastropub lunch taking advantage of its location to bump up the prices by 50%. Also, the bill included an item guaranteed to make my blood boil, a cover charge of £2/head which "covered" no more than two slices of OK bread and butter each. Service was haphazard, too - the staff seemed to congregate in nervous groups from time to time, furtively whispering amongst themselves, before splitting and dashing off into the corners of the room, all the while cleverly avoiding eye contact with any guests. It took a great deal of time to track one down and pay the bill, although they were pleasant with it. I'd write it off as opening period nerves although the place has been opened over a month now and I can't see it improving a great deal further.
The Gilbert Scott is not a bad restaurant, and given the choice between this and any number of other horrible chains lurking up the road at Euston station, I know which one I'd prefer to have welcome people into London, or indeed sent happily on their way. And I did notice an "Early Supper" menu served between 5:30-6:30 which at £24 for 3 courses is a slightly cheaper way of getting your fill. So maybe I'm just picking fault because I can, and because the mistakes are easier to notice than anything else, and not because there's anything here that would really put most diners off. In this glorious old building, in an area of London not blessed with much else worth spending your money on, it's doing a pretty good job. Not quite great, then, but perhaps good enough.