Wednesday, 29 August 2012
Caravan, Kings Cross
Much has been made of the "transformation" of Kings Cross over the last few years. The stunning redevelopment of the St Pancras Renaissance hotel, the new Eurostar terminal, the remodelling of Kings Cross station itself and now the opening of the Granary building and a new wing of St Martins College are all evidence of the vast sums of money that have poured into the area, and of course these are all for the good. But actually, plenty of the "old" Kings Cross still exists and is just as grotty as it ever was. Instead of turning out of the station towards the smart Regents Canal developments, for example, head over to Argyll Street and see how many seedy hotels are still lurking around. And based on the alarming signs on the doors of the kebab shops on Euston Road, pickpockets still operate at very much pre-regeneration levels there.
So perhaps the "transformation" isn't so much about cleansing NW1 of petty criminals and grotty tenants than it is just giving people something else to associate with the words Kings Cross. And there are certainly plenty of nice new things - not least the vast dancing fountain outside the Granary building, which I spent a good twenty minutes transfixed by as I waited for my lunch companions to turn up. This incredible piece of water art is worth the journey alone, and despite my empty stomach it was very difficult to drag myself away from it and into the queue for food at Caravan. I'm glad I did, though.
You can (apparently) book a table at Caravan in the evenings but not during the day, and I was worried the first-week hype (and some good reviews) would mean a long and hungry wait. In the end though we were seated in around five minutes - or perhaps it just felt like five minutes once I'd knocked back a couple of house cocktails (the Cherry Gimlet I can recommend; a horrible Bloody Mary with about half a pound of grated horseradish in it I can't).
Food continues the Australasian brunchy theme from the original outpost on Exmouth Market. There were lots of things involving eggs and bacon, and (this not being a complaint at all) lots of things fried. My own choice - a "Raclette" (of sorts) French toast with spinach and bacon was everything you'd want in a hangover-cure breakfast, with plenty of crunchy melted cheese, a good slab of excellent bacon and just enough spinach to make you believe you might be doing yourself some good.
Jalapeno corn bread also played a clever game in combining ingredients alternatively tasty/filthy and tasty/healthy. There was a surprising punch of chilli in the fried bread, and the egg had plenty of good runny yolk, but our favourite bit was the chunks of green tomato on top which had an extraordinary amount of flavour and a lovely bouncy texture. It's a shame you don't see more green tomato on menus.
Best of all, though, was a salt beef "bubble" (sort of a fried potato fritter) which would have been worth the £9 even without the two perfectly-poached eggs perched on top, covered in hollandaise. The chunks of beef were thick and fatty (this is a good thing, in case you were wondering) and the deep-fryer had added crunchiness without greasiness. In fact it was a laudable feature of all three dishes mentioned so far that the combination of textures and cooking ability had produced some pretty impressive results.
Which is why the "Fried chicken and waffles" was all the more baffling in its utter ineptitude. It must be pretty difficult to cock up waffles, but these were thick and bland and bready, like slabs of pressed sand. Pickled chilli did absolutely nothing other than make you wish it wasn't there, and even the maple syrup was strangely thin, like it had been diluted with water. But the chicken itself was disastrous - a huge, square slab of desperately dry chicken paste, coated in greasy unseasoned breadcrumbs. It was a dish so out of place with the delicate touch shown elsewhere that, for once, we felt compelled to mention it to the staff.
It turns out that the "paste" was chicken leg meat, removed from the bone, shredded, pressed into a brick, coated, then deep-fried. "Why don't you just serve a breaded, deep-fried chicken leg?" was our obvious question. "Yes we might do that, now you mention it." was the disarmingly honest response. And to their endless credit, the Chicken Brick was removed from the bill and no more was said. Still, it makes you wonder what was going through the chef's head in the first place.
I will give Caravan the benefit of the doubt and assume the rather, er, rustic toilet arrangements won't last - I have nothing against unisex cubicles per se, I just would rather the two pretty girls doing their makeup at the bathroom mirror didn't have to raise the volume of their conversation over the sound of me taking a piss. But there is still enough to like about Caravan Kings Cross. The staff are energetic and attentive (just as well in a large room that sees so many customers during the course of a day), the room, with its high ceilings and exposed brickwork, is a gorgeous space to spend time in, and if you're into that kind of thing I'm reliably informed they take their coffee very seriously, with a huge roaster at the back of the room being pressed into service very shortly.
Most of all about Caravan, I liked the feeling that these were people doing things differently. I know there may be those of you who could reel off a list of Australasian brunch spots in London but I've never been to places like Lantana or even the original Exmouth Market Caravan and I was genuinely surprised how well it was all (well, most of it) done. Brunch has never been a native British preoccupation, and yet neither were burgers or hot dogs or any number of current foodie obsessions until certain people just started doing them well. And Caravan, for the most part, is doing what it does very well indeed.