london 920

Isla

King's Cross, WC1H

The Standard in King’s Cross – one of London’s most anticipated new luxury hotels – finally opened in July. Diagonally opposite the far more attractive St Pancras and Great Northern Hotels, this former Camden Council sticklebrick has recovered from its leaks and has a new lease of life. At the time of writing only the ground floor restaurant Isla and Double Standard bar are open. The top floor will house a restaurant by Bristol’s Peter Sanchez-Iglesias in due course, and will be accessible by its own lift.

In the week running up to its grand opening the hotel was only open to bloggers, industry folk and the like. This ploy to get the Instagram stories flowing ahead of time clearly worked as the restaurant was heaving on its first Saturday when I visited. Anticipating such a flurry of excitement I both called and emailed in the week before to ask if it was possible to reserve a table. I got a flat no from a man called Francisco. At least for the foreseeable future, he said, Isla is only open for walk-ins. OK, so this is like Dishoom, Gloria or Pastaio. I hate not being able to book but queuing is no major drama when there are plenty of contingency options in King’s Cross now (a sentence you wouldn’t think was possible just 15 years ago).

[The Standard] honours the past whilst being very now

On arrival I asked for a table. “Oh, sorry sir, we’re fully booked tonight.” Now hang on just one cotton-picking minute, I thought: you said it wasn’t possible to book. How come there are reserved signs on the tables and your little iPad thingy shows a floor diagram with both vacant and booked tables? (In another life I could’ve been a detective). “You can always eat in the Double Standard bar instead.” Wrong answer. “I don’t want a bar snack,” I said with disappointed puppy dog eyes. “I came for the restaurant.” “Not to worry sir, just wait in the bar and we’ll get you a table, if you don’t mind waiting for a little bit.”

It seems there are two classes of customer: those with special privileges who can indeed book a table, and the rest of us. As an anonymous consumer journalist (if you can pardon such a conceited description), this is what we uncover. Double standards indeed.

The bar and restaurant have a small al fresco area at the back of the hotel and there I sat with a serviceable Negroni (having thrown two of its superfluous ice cubes into a flower pot). I admired the ‘view’ – the back of a primary school – whilst feeling slightly uncomfortable under the glare of security guards on each corner (presumably there to dissuade approaches by members of the local ‘medicinal community’). A troubling thought then occurred: ‘hang on, they’ve said they’ll let me know when a table frees up, but don’t know where I am sitting, haven’t written down my (assumed) name and the waiter on the outside terrace doesn’t know me from Adam.’ At least Dishoom has a system. After 15 minutes my worst fears were beginning to be realised. I had to go back into the restaurant and remind them of my existence. For all their headsets and iPads the staff might as well be communicating by carrier pigeon.

Calming down from my internalized rage, I did at least take a few moments to take in the surroundings. I’m actually impressed by the interior design of the hotel. I remember the Camden Council’s old library on the ground floor – indeed borrowed books from it! – and the bar area plays homage to that, with bookshelves, armchairs, plenty of internal foliage and a DJ booth. It has a touch of Spiritland about it whilst the tiny mosaic tiles around the bar are reminiscent of a 1970s swimming pool. It honours the past whilst being very now.

I had high hopes for Adam Rawson’s cuisine, a graduate of Nuno Mendes’ Chiltern Firehouse. To be fair, most of the food, with one shameful exception, was OK. The duck rillettes (£5) were standard issue and pleasant enough though there wasn’t enough of the crispy bread to accompany the rillettes. The sea bass ceviche (£13) – clearly channelling Rawson’s stint at Peruvian restaurant Pachamama – was so sharp and acidic it could take the enamel off a bath. The iberico pork with chimichurri and the ubiquitous daikon (that panacea for all our ills) was actually quite delicious, though pricey at £21 for a relatively small portion.

Isla isn’t somewhere you want to linger

But in the month I’ve had to reflect on the meal I still don’t know what the hell they were thinking with the dessert, let alone the waiter’s defence of it. I’m a sucker for a tarte tatin and so when I saw this on the menu – a fig one, no less – I had to go for it. (Besides, the sea buckthorn sorbet just wasn’t doing it for me). “Excellent choice sir,” the waiter patronised me. Also the most expensive dessert, at £8.50, which partly explains the faux enthusiasm. Imagine then my crushing disappointment when I was served with a bowl of soggy figs, ice cream and a sprinkling of speculoos as if someone had driven over a packet of Hobnobs in a Renault Clio and added them as an afterthought. There was no ‘tarte’ to speak of. Just a lazy assemblage of figs, ice cream and crunchy bits. It’s a strong candidate for worst dish of the year.

And the service also needs a kick up the derriere. Aside from the aforementioned no-booking fiasco, the wine order had to be chased twice and side orders (leaves drowned in shiso vinegar) were forgotten.

Isla isn’t somewhere you want to linger (though if you like loud, brash restaurants with only passable food in a former condemned council office, knock yourself out). You might have a better time but I regretted leaving the restaurant £90 worse off than when I entered it.

I just hope the top floor restaurant opening this autumn is a vast improvement. I hate to say it but unless they pull their socks up The Standard will remain a blot on the King’s Cross landscape, both architecturally and gastronomically.

Isla
9/20
Food & Drink36
Service36
Ambience26
Value12
about our grading system

The Standard
10 Argyle Street
London
WC1H 8EG

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