Tuesday, 6 May 2014
Pullman fine dining coach and Night Riviera sleeper, First Great Western
I admit, the first time I peered inside the Pullman fine dining carriage as it waited at the platform at Paddington station, I was a little disappointed. I suppose I was expecting plush velvet upholstery, walnut details in the carriage interior, staff in white gloves serving customers from the set of a British wartime melodrama. Instead, this was just the normal 1st class carriage with some paper tablecloths and wine glasses; the staff, though, were smart and our welcome was sufficiently well-organised and friendly to go some way to making up for the lack of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.
The food's a damn sight better than it would have been during rationing, too. In charge of the revamped menu is chef Mitch Tonks, who worked with the Hawksmoor guys when they were boosting their seafood expertise ahead of the Air street branch opening, and whose own restaurant the Seahorse, in Dartmouth, is famous for its way with fish. He's designed a short, comfortably retro (or should that be "classic"?) menu, with ingredients picked up along the route from London to the West Country, and an equally impressive wine list by Tim McLaughlin-Green cleverly tailored towards solo diners (quite a few half bottles).
Best of the starters was the fish soup, but perhaps that's inevitable given the pedigree of the chef. A lovely rich tomato and fennel broth, with huge chunks of fresh fish hiding in it, this would be an impressive bit of cooking from any kitchen never mind one the size of a broom cupboard rattling towards Cornwall at 90 miles an hour. Smoked salmon with cream cheese and rye bread, and the other starter of chopped beets with Laverstoke Farm burrata, were a little more straightforward but still enjoyable - certainly still restaurant quality.
Fillet steaks were cooked required done-ness, were seasoned well and came drenched in a very nice butter sauce, so to that end you couldn't really complain. Sides of baked potatoes and steamed veg were slightly unambitious perhaps but with a limited space for a larger menu the Pullman team presumably have to think very hard about whether to just do some familiar dishes well enough to please the greatest number of potential customers, or go a bit more experimental and risk the whole operation going under.
But sometimes, a classic, or crowd-pleasing dish, done well, is all you could ever want. Lemon sole was a huge, beautifully fresh piece of fish, with a flesh that came away from the bones in satisfying solid chunks, topped with enough bouncy brown shrimp to make another meal in themselves. As with the beef, neither the quality of ingredients or the way they were treated would have been out of place in many high-end restaurants, and the solidly old-school British theme made perfect sense as we made our stately way west.
Annoyingly, and fairly unforgivably given the nature of my "work" on this train (take pictures of the food, then talk about it) I can't remember what any of the cheeses we had were. I do have this picture though, and I vaguely remember the word "Devon Blue" being mentioned at some point so that's probably one of them. Another might have been some kind of posh cheddar like Westcombe or Montgomery's, and perhaps that triangular one is a bit of Cornish Yarg? Maybe? Anyway, they were enjoyed, as was a little chocolate orange mousse thing I forgot to take a picture of.
The journey flew by. By the time the last bit of food had been cleared away we were already watching the sun go down over the sea at Dawlish, and leftover wine and port kept us going until the Pullman staff alighted with all their kit, glasses and tableware at Plymouth. It's honestly a fantastic way to travel; we loved every minute of it, and I can thoroughly recommend it if - and here I fear I may lose a few of you - you have the budget. The meal and service provided by the Pullman teams is on top of the first class ticket you need to buy separately from First Great Western, and while I hope you can see the food and wine is obviously of a high standard, forking out for dinner (there were four of us had the bill above) no matter how good may not be within most people's means once they've paid - what, £200 return? Ish? - for your ticket west.
The same caveat re: finances applies to the final stage of our journey, the Night Riviera sleeper train from Penzance back to London. I'd never been on a sleeper train before, here or anywhere else in the world, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Fellow blogger Danny (Food Urchin) attempted to dampen his fellow companions' giddy excitement at the prospect by doing a brief impression of what it looks like to attempt sleep horizontally on a moving train - he looked like someone having a seizure in a coffin - but in the end, actually, the experience was quite wonderful. A nightcap in the seating area before retiring to our cozy individual cabins, an incredibly restful night's sleep as the train made its way to London, and even a little bowl of cornflakes in the morning while the train sat at the platform. Great fun.
So, you have to decide yourself whether you think the benefits overweigh the outlay, and as exactly how much it's going to cost you depends on so many factors, I'll just leave you, at the end of this post, a paragraph or two from my contact at First Great Western who should be able to explain the complexities far better than I could. All I can comment on is that I really, really want to do all of it, from the meal out to the sleeper back, many times again in the future. And as long as it doesn't completely break the bank, I think I will.
Mitch Tonks Pullman fine dining 8/10
First Great Western Night Riviera, Penzance - London 7/10
I was a guest of First Great Western, who say:
The sleeper goes from Paddington-Penzance but you can get on/off at selected other stops.
Flexible tickets can be upgraded from a seat to Sleeper berth by paying £50 per cabin for a Solo (exclusive use) cabin and £35 per person for a berth in a 2 berth cabin. A super Off Peak Single London - Penzance is £60.50 + the £50 supplement = £110.50. Super Off Peak tickets are always valid on the Sleeper.
For the Pullman: you buy a ticket then pay for the food; if you travel standard you can also dine in the Pullman without paying to upgrade (of course you pay for the food) BUT you can’t book a table in advance unless you are travelling 1st class.