Some things are occasionally worth paying for. One such treat may be to eat in and marvel at one of my favourite buildings of all time, Sir George Gilbert Scott‘s Victorian Gothic revival fairy palace, AKA the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station in London, now fully restored and renamed the St Pancras Renaissance London by the Marriott Group. The words are from the St Pancras website:
Sir John Betjeman called this Gothic treasure “too beautiful and too romantic to survive” in a world of tower blocks and concrete. Its survival against the odds will cause wonder; the building itself will take your breath away. After years of devoted restoration, the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel is being hailed as London’s most romantic building. Its glorious Gothic Revival metalwork, gold leaf ceilings, hand-stencilled wall designs and a jaw-dropping grand staircase are as dazzling as the day Queen Victoria opened the hotel in 1873.
It is hard to argue with any superlatives about the building, and, once you move past the pomp and circumstance of the facade, where better to enjoy the view than from The Booking Office, which was once, as the name suggests, the ticket office for the old St Pancras station, gothic pointy arches and all, updated in the current vogue with modern lighting. Not to all tastes but to my eyes attractively done.
In some other life this might be the venue for an upmarket version of Brief Encounter, middle-class fusspots with tea and rock cakes replaced by well-heeled travellers quaffing champagne cocktails while enjoying a fine view of the station concourse, for the Booking Office is now a classy cocktail bar and restaurant. Nowadays the hoi polloi, those eating and drinking on the hoof, must make do with chain snack bars found stations. On this occasion my companion and I had a celebration, for which I booked a table for two in advance.
Worth noting that the cocktails listed on the BO website menu are substantially different to those in the current menu, though the food seems pretty much identical.
Once you get past the glorious interior, fitted with a champagne bar fashioned from the old ticket booths, you find lavishly furnished tables, perhaps a touch too close to the neighbours for comfort (even I could overhear the conversations.) Given the booming acoustics perhaps the piped music was not the best choice either, but the ambience is sedate and relaxing.
Staff seem at first sight to be on hand in droves, though they have acquired a knack of never being in the right place at the right time. Whenever we wanted anything it took several minutes of waving and beckoning before a waiter came to our vicinity. I can’t imagine it was a deliberate sleight so we shall graciously assume that we were slightly inconspicuous. That said, we did manage to get in our orders in turn, the first being for a pair of cocktails called Ring o’Roses:
Belvedere Vodka, raspberry & rose cordial, lemon oils, lavender essence, Veuve Clicquot Champagne
This mini-marvel proved a masterpiece in the art of cocktail-making, right down to the granules of dried lavender scattered on the surface. What nuance they added I’m not quite sure, but the drink itself, sparkling with finest non-vintage essence of the widow Cliquot, hit the spot – as it surely should to justify its premium. I also chose a bottle of Meantime Pale Ale, which at £6 was well over three times the cost of the self-same brew at supermarket prices, but we weren’t counting the cost on this occasion.
Second time round was for food. The menu is a slightly curious assembly, to be sure. In the modern British culinary vernacular, it nibbles around the edges of global cuisine in search of gourmet bits and pieces to tempt snacking diners, before returning home for fish and chips, Aberdeen Angus, pork belly, liver and bacon (a subject I promised to my companion not to mention, so keep it to yourself!), Welsh lamb and even a “braised venison steamed pudding” – which I take to be a variant of the good old steak and kidney pudding my mother used to make, all rather closer to how the menu might have looked at St Pancras in the good old days before the old hotel was mothballed.
Choice was “Catch of the day,” which turned out to be char-grilled mackerel with a potato salad. The mackerel certainly contributed a heady whiff of charcoal, from the taste I was given, though I will have to take it as read that the accompanying salad was a beautiful complement.
For the sake of curiosity as much as anything else I went for what was at once the most clichéd item, yet served with a dollop of diversity:
Yorkshire Wagyu Beef Burger 16.5 West Country Ogleshield cheddar, dry cured bacon, smoked bacon relish, gherkin
Full marks for providing a fascinating concept, given that Wagyu beef is traditionally Japanese, but like Japanese manufacturing techniques seems to have been borrowed extensively around the world as cattle farmers sense a ready market and a high margin. It appeared in Australia, the US, Canada, Scotland, and now seems to have surfaced in Yorkshire, of all places. The technique, you will recall, is a combination of genetics (cross-bred cattle), then diet (including beer) and massaging – all to encourage perfect marbling of fat. You wouldn’t be surprised if the cattle were put to bed on memory foam mattresses and read bedtime stories too if it made for happy cows, but the end result is said to justify the means: tender and tasty steaks.
Whether the same benefits conferred upon the humble burger was the key test, since by definition hashing your steak breaks down the structure and fibre that was there, hopefully to include the optimum proportion of fat to lean from the Nippon-Tyke cattle. First good sign was that I was asked how I wanted it served (rare, not blue, not medium-rare), followed by a second good sign in that it arrived exactly how I wanted. The brioche bun branded with the name of the restaurant might be a little OTT, but no mistaking the fact that the burger and toppings were splendid, the fries ok (I’d have preferred crisper) and the home-pickled gherkin top hole. Companion and I agreed the Wagyu was indeed tender and tasty, though arguably no more tender and tasty than other gourmet burgers I’ve eaten recently (eg. Honest Burgers, Five Guys.)
We stopped short of desserts and paid the bill just as soon as I could catch the eye of a distant member of staff. By common consent the Booking Office is a restaurant that will turn heads, and certainly helped to create memories. If you can enjoy your evening then travelling home afterwards is made all the more pleasurable, and in that sense the mission was completed successfully – but I still don’t think you can divorce the restaurant from its moorings. You could open a hot dog stall at the site of the Booking Office and the grand surroundings would make it feel special, though credit at least to Marriott’s design crew for trying to create something worthy of the old place.