Don’t think of it as a hotel restaurant. Think of it as a piece of fine tailoring…
Cuisine: Gastro-tour of the British Isles
Best for: Traditional lunch with a more-fun-than-expected client/post-Court victory supper, pre-Eurostar to Brussels
Worst for: Leaving parties or rowdy group sessions
Nearest Tube: King’s Cross St Pancras
Walking from King’s Cross, past the grand entrance to the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and on to the smart stone steps of The Gilbert Scott, is a diverting experience. The pavements heave with a heady mix of tourists, eclectically-dressed students and brisk-walking business types. It has always been an inherently diverse part of London in a way that the extensive redevelopments of recent years cannot change.
So, what to expect from Marcus Wareing’s latest? My lunch companion, a demanding City type with country roots, was pleasingly early and was treated to coffee and savoury salt and pepper popcorn whilst waiting in the gleaming splendour of the bar. Interior designer David Collins has worked his magic, making it the kind of place you would want to go, whether in jeans after a Saturday afternoon in town or black tie on your way to somewhere rather special. The warmth and cosiness Collins achieved at J Sheekey is matched by the feel of the bar, but struggles a little in the restaurant itself, a space five times the size.
That the scale of the room is impressive is beyond question. Don’t think of it as a hotel restaurant, more a waiting room of old, with gold, leather and marble providing grandeur and a surprising intimacy given the scale. The lighting is cute, though there’s something about it that doesn’t quite work, and the artwork is incongruous.
Pre-lunch cocktails were the house special ‘1873’, named after the year the Midland Hotel originally opened (architect George Gilbert Scott). I don’t know why this was the first time I had tried gin with rhubarb, but it certainly won’t be the last.
To start the meal I went for the Brixham cuttlefish, served in a herby vinaigrette with preserved lemon, watercress and shallot. The texture was at once melting and firm, without straying anywhere near the dangerous rubberiness which is the fear of any seafood-lover. This was matched with a Torrontes from Argentina – aromatic without being overwhelming. The Demanding One chose the smoked duck salad – served in carpaccio-style slices with meltingly ripe mozzarella and an inventive damson sauce. The combination cried out for something punchy to cut through the cheese and compliment the smokiness of the duck. The sommelier was spot on with his selection of a Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett from Mosel, with the classic Riesling traits of diesel on the nose and a delightfully chewy finish.
From the ‘Main Event’ selection I chose Soles in Coffins, with an unspecified form of sage adding a subtlety of flavour which worked well with a soft vermouth cream sprinkled with mace (perhaps the savoury equivalent of Wareing’s homely favourite nutmeg & custard tart). A crisp curl of potato skin formed the lid of the eponymous potato coffin.
My Country Companion rejected all suggestions of that day’s special of grouse (on the grounds that it couldn’t be as good as the last one he had – cooked and indeed shot by his Mother), choosing instead the Cornish seabass. This came with devil’s apron seaweed and clams, as well as the piquancy of rocky shores and the clean salty scent of rolling surf.
The dessert menu had a comfortingly traditional feel. The puddings we chose displayed Wareing’s trademark lightness of touch, delivering classics which were quirky without being cloying. The now ubiquitious salted caramel popcorn came in lemon form, with an ethereal bavarois-like ice cream and similarly spiritual lemon caramel.
The Fig Amber was served with clotted cream and was paired perfectly with a classic from Jerez – San Emilio Pedro Ximinez Lustau – the likes of which I hadn’t tasted since a trip one summer to an orange farm in Seville. All treacle and burnt marmalade, with legs to die for.
The Gilbert Scott experience is well-measured, with an exquisite seasonal menu that echoes its décor – impressive, without being overindulgent. For all that, there’s something that’s not quite there yet – the result of a battle between the stuffily traditional image it seems to want to project and the more laid-back and memorable delights on offer. It’s like a startlingly handsome man in a slightly ill-fitting suit. Give it a few tweaks and a bit of time and it will grow into its own identity, dazzling all in its path.
Susan Perry, senior associate, Druces Solicitors