It's no news that London is now among the first tier of eating cities in the world. Not as romantic as Paris or as frenzied as Rome, perhaps, and considerably less vertical than Manhattan, London's last twenty years or so have brought forth a new generation of chefs and people wise enough to back them financially. We ended up a recent trip to England with a few nights in London, all devoted to dining rather than theater, and found three winners.It's rare that we start a restaurant review talking about architecture, but The Gilbert Scott's setting demands it. One thing this trip did was give us a renewed appreciation of Victorian architecture, and the venue for TGS is a vivid example. Located in the 1868 St. Pancras railroad station, now the St. Pancras International and home to the Eurostar and the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, the building is nothing short of stunning whether you're outside or in the interior.
Using the Dining Room and Coffee Room of the old St. Pancras Hotel, part of the station from its inception, one gets the feeling, perhaps, of a Venetian fantasy.The arc-shaped dining room, with plenty of light, even during dinner at this latitude, charms, but draws a crowd that's more interested in the food and each other than in wearing their jackets and ties. Not much beer with this crowd, but bottles of wine, and larger groups arriving as the evening wore on. Servers flew.
We opened with a half-dozen Maldon oysters, from the Essex town where the famous sea salt is made. Summer isn't an optimal time for oysters, to be sure, but you wouldn't have known it with these fat boys, full of the taste of the sea, mineral-y and yet somehow creamy at the same time. They needed nothing else, although a mignonette sauce came alongside, as well as some lemon jam. Why it isn't referred to as marmalade is a puzzle. Bittersweet, chewy, it was delicious, but we didn't find it a good pair with the oysters. After we'd ordered potted shrimp and a crab salad, we realized we were on a seafood theme. The potted shrimp, poached and served with a mace-laced mayonnaise, were sided with a little cucumber and small slices of fresh gooseberry, a nice tartness to go with the sweet meat of the shrimps. But the triumph was the salad of Dorset crab, a generous serving of both brown and white crabmeat gently tossed with slivered almonds and halves of fresh cherries, a strange and wonderful combination.
Cornish sea bass pan-sauteed with its juices arrived with some razor clams and devil's apron seaweed, both giving up their liquids, too, everything succulent, the slightly chewy seaweed a good contrast to the tender fish. Not quite seafood, though, was a pie of Devon snails and chicken, and to judge by what we saw around us, a popular item it was, too, a golden pastry crust atop an oval casserole, all above a parsley-and-garlic-blessed mixture of unctuous dark meat of chicken and the snails, a smidge of onion here and there, but basically protein and gravy. Colcannon, an old Irish dish, was mashed potatoes, very buttery, with shredded cooked cabbage and a little leek. Not enough cabbage was Joe's verdict; Ann thought the low-level cabbage flavor was fine because the potatoes were so good. However, we had to wait more than 30 minutes between our first courses and our mains. An inquiry brought an embarassed apology from the server, another from someone else, and a third from a manager type who said that the large parties had slammed the kitchen. Our orders had been placed before the groups of 8 and 10 arrived; who knows what had really happened?
Dessert began with demitasse-cup sized servngs of raspberry Eton mess. Forget the funny name; Eton mess is a layered dessert of fresh fruit, traditionally strawberries, whipped cream and crushed meringues, the crunchy cookie meringue, not the one found on lemon pies. These small versions were the kitchen's apology for the delay, and the raspberry version was delicious, the meringues individual chocolate-chip-sized ones, a nice visual. One of our choices was an Eccles cake with cheddar cheese ice cream. Eccles cake, another traditional dessert, is a small, flat pastry whose crust conceals a filling of currants and spice, tasting to the American palate like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The cheddar ice cream, however, was wan, seeming to offer no cheese flavor at all. An individual coconut cherry trifle had lots of good fruit, a light coconut flavor, and was properly moist with its sponge cake.
Other than the gap between courses, we were more than pleased with the service at The Gilbert Scott. Still, we were surprised to find an optional 12 1/ 2 percent “discretionary gratuity” added to the bill. It seemed odd for just a party of two, but we've since learned that this isn't uncommon and definitely is something diners may cancel if they wish. (We don't know if this goes to servers or the management, however.) The other, perhaps more annoying, surprise was a 2-pound-per-head cover charge (about $3.20). We haven't come across a restaurant cover charge since the 1970's, when high-end New York restaurants disguised it on guest checks as “b & b” - bread and butter.
But this isn't our turf, and that's how they do it at The Gilbert Scott, which is nevertheless worth a visit, if only to try the early supper menu or enjoy a drink at the bar.
St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel
Euston Rd., London
+44 207 278 3888
www thegilbertscott co uk
Tube: Kings Cross
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Difficult
Entrees: 17-23 pounds