Last year I arrived at the Gard du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London. I checked the timetable, and reckoned I had just over an hour before I had to board the train. Allowing time for checking in, passport control, security checks and all the other palaver that makes contemporary travel such a life-enhancing experience, I wondered if I had time to grab a quick mouthful at the Brasserie du Nord just opposite the station? It’s a splendid place of gastronomic pilgrimage, with that Art Deco grandeur, crisp professionalism and cheery bourgeois food of the great French railway brasseries.
For a moment I havered. But only for a moment. Yes, dammit, I would. Across the road I dashed. ‘Can you serve me a dozen Belon oysters and a pichet of Sancerre in 20 minutes?’ I asked the waiter. ‘Mais, bien sur, monsieur,’ the man replied without a moment’s hesitation. Forty minutes later I settled myself into my seat on the train with a fine sense of well being, and promptly slipped into a quiet stupor.
Would it ever be possible to duplicate such an experience in Britain? Until the other day, I think not. We have shamefully neglected our own railway palaces, monuments to grander, more confident, more expansive times. However, Gilbert Scott’s majestic St Pancras Hotel, the grandest, most expansive, most confident railway palace of them all, a leaping, vaulting, towered and pinnacled hymn to Victorian ideals in red brick, has reopened after years of painstaking renovation, with a restaurant, the Gilbert Scott, named after the architect, at it’s metaphorical centre, with Marcus Wareing, the Michelin-starred maestro of the Berkley Hotel, and his team, cooking the food.
Restaurant did I say? No, it’s a very British railway brasserie. The platform is as natural an adjunct to it as it is to the Gare du Nord or Le Train Bleu in Paris. Only the Gilbert Scott is more fabulous, more splendid, and more fun. It has higher ceilings, bigger windows and more opulent fittings. It’s a riot of plaster moldings, marble pilasters, Corinthian capitals and gold leaf. The long, curved room has the flamboyance of Versailles crossed with a Victorian sense of purpose.
And what do you make of baked onions stuffed with almonds, Mulligatawny, Tweed Kettle, rabbit and prawn pie, Kendal mint cake choc ice and the Lord Mayor’s trifle? They’re as English as plateau de fruits de mer, choucroute alsascienne, soupe a l’oignon, terrine du porc and ouefs a la neige are French, and do not suffer by comparison.
To be honest, the first time I went to the Gilbert Scott, I had some difficulty in working out what it was all about, but now, having tried Harrogate loaf, fried sprats, Kentish pigeon in a pot, Dorset jugged steak over to visits and Manchester tart over two visits, I think I’ve got the hang of it. It’s like eating in a well-to-do household with a decent cook in about 1870, a reminder that there was an age before seared tuna, salsas, carpaccios of kohl rabi, balsamic vinegar, rocket and tiramisu, and that age had its very marked virtues. They’re virtues of the decent, kindly, honest, solid, straight-forward kind. There’s no messing, but bags of flavour and plenty of pleasure.
A generation reared on the eye candy of daintily plated food may find the dishes at the Gilbert Scott visually a bit on the undemonstrative side. Ah, when it comes to eating, then it’s another matter. Take the Queen’s Potage for example. To be absolutely honest, it lacks dash and dash to the eye. There’s a chicken breast with a dun thatch sitting in a brown puddle of juice with a couple of beige meatballs, mushroom-coloured mushrooms and the rather subdued glitter of a few pomegranate seeds.
But then I ate it. The chicken was muscular and meaty. The pistachio crust was satisfyingly crunchy and mellow. The puddle of juice picked up the meatiness of the breast, amplifying it. The meatballs – chicken leg or thighs I think – were robust and sweetly charming, and the pomegranate seeds provided proper bursts of acidity. All in all, it was a technically assured bit of cooking, and very, very pleasing to eat.
There were one or two minor lapses. The Harrogate loaf was a bit underpowered. Certainly, it had less clout than the piccalilli that came with it. And the finger of Manchester tart looked as if it had been lifted from the counter of a superior cake shop rather than a wedge of tart from the kitchen table. But these are not major flaws, just minor quibbles.
As I said, the Gilbert Scott is a British railway brasserie. For me it has much of the romance that rail travel had once upon a time – the hiss of steam, the clouds of smoke, the smooth power of pistons, the clank of wheels, the smell of damp coal, those signs that said ‘Paris, Milan, St Petersburg, Wigan’, the sense of adventure, the excitement of gathering momentum, faster, faster.
So why not a quick dish of Dorset crab or Suffolk stew before leaping on the 14.02 to Paris? Or how about bacon olives with endive salad or apple amber with clotted cream having just arrived on the 19.03 from Brussels? Or any time, come to that. Oh yes please.
The Gilbert Scott, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, London NW1 2AR. Tel: 0207 278 3888.