It’s still within living memory – say, five prime ministers ago – that the only food and drink options in St Pancras were a pint of Carling and a Ginsters sausage roll before the 19:23 to Nottingham. It was hardly a destination. Now King’s Cross has been croissantified, I have only hazy memories of the Eurostar going from Waterloo, buying train tickets in what is now Booking Office 1869, The Hansom Lounge as a grimy taxi rank and Coal Drops Yard as a dystopian wasteland. But we have two people to thank for kick-starting this regeneration: Sir John Betjeman for saving St Pancras station and the Midland Hotel from suffering the same hideous fate as nearby Euston; and Harry Handelsman, CEO of the Manhattan Loft Corporation, for restoring the derelict hotel and opening the St Pancras Renaissance in 2011.
At the heart of the grandiose hotel was always its dining room. Until 2021, this was Marcus Wareing’s The Gilbert Scott, a British brasserie named after the building’s architect. Now, this is where I have to walk on eggshells (rather than the now luxuriously carpeted floor at The Midland Grand). I was a regular for most of Wareing’s tenure. So much so one cheeky waiter told me I was “part of the furniture” and a friend posted a Christmas card to me there one year as a joke. So, I was in a bit of a quandary: when happy memories are inextricably linked with a place can one be objective? The way I justify putting my critic hat back on is the building may be the same but the restaurant is different (cf 63 Frith Street which has been Arbutus, the ill-fated Flavour Bastard and is currently Sussex). And The Midland Grand is an entirely new business which should be judged on its own merits.
Indeed, it feels like a refreshing new chapter for this historic site rather than a Gilbert Scott 2.0. Handelsman has brought in chef Patrick Powell (from Stratford’s Allegra; he also oversees Booking Office 1869). Combined with the glamorous exclusivity of Handelsman’s Chiltern Firehouse (and certainly its price point) it seems a cunning move to attract devotees of both east and west London to this central location. As for the look and feel, designer Hugo Toro hasn’t expunged the high-end brasserie ambience of David Collins Studio’s 2011 vision but has actually, quite miraculously, enhanced it, now with the aforementioned carpets and plush soft furnishings to dampen what was sometimes an echoey dining hall, and an Eyes Wide Shut vibe in the adjoining Gothic Bar.
The Midland Grand is already on the way to becoming an iconic destination restaurant
Though, if I could reinstate one thing from the Wareing era it would be the gentle piano music in the restaurant. On my first visit the thumping beat in the background seemed incongruous with the venue, though on my second visit this had been softened significantly to something more like shopping centre music (perhaps the playlist depends on the time of day, and music is all personal taste anyway). It was just much more noticeable as on both visits the restaurant was only at 40% capacity (where is everyone?). Otherwise, all aspects of the ambience, and service led by the experienced Emma Underwood, have been excellent.
Powell is clearly a fan of French cuisine and most dishes across two visits were skillfully executed. Parmesan fritters and Comté gougères each oozed satisfyingly; a potato and watercress velouté (with trout tartare) had peppery punch; sides of frites, gratin dauphinois, petits pois à la française and honey madeleines with coffee have all been present and beautifully correct (though if we’re going to be French, would it hurt to be given bread without asking for it?).
A solitary roasted hand-dived scallop with Champagne sauce (£24) was plump and fittingly decadent. Also impressive was the roast lamb with pomme Anna, spiced aubergine and sauce Provençale (£38), each element cooked well and evoking memories of springtime in southern France. For next time I have my eye on the tomato tarte tatin (£27) and the veal sweetbread vol-au-vent (£21).
There have been some minor bumps in the road though. My tough sirloin steak seemed all the more profligate a choice at £40 (perhaps rib eye would be a better cut). A friend reported the chicken with vin jaune sauce and morels (£70 for two), whilst still good, was not as good as Noble Rot Soho’s, and my own crème caramel (£8) could not compete with Bouchon Racine’s, but these are mostly a sign of how great the dining scene is in London now that we can have such culinary yardsticks. And it’s still early days for The Midland Grand.
Brasseries with crowd-pleasing menus don’t really need a signature dish anyway but if there is one that stands out for me it’s the chalk stream trout with sorrel. Powell seems to be channelling the Pierre and Jean Troisgros classic here (see for reference on Netflix Chef’s Table: France (2016)): originally made with salmon, this is an almost timeless dish where the fish is just kissed by the pan. At The Midland Grand the trout bathes in a vermouth beurre blanc bejewelled with caviar and is absolutely delightful.
There is also a pleasing French-leaning wine selection with a few by-the-glass options around £10-12. And I’m so glad there is still a bar. Its Kubrickian secret society feel after dark may not be for everyone (and the DJ’s arrival around 11pm is my cue to take a nightcap elsewhere) but classic cocktails are well-made under Jack Porter’s direction as well as some interesting new house drinks (the Eau de Vie Martinis are inspired).
When no-one really knew what would replace The Gilbert Scott in early 2021 (or indeed if anything would re-open during Covid) I was petrified this would turn into a Wetherspoons. But there was no need to panic. Handelsman clearly has taste and vision; never one to shy away from a challenge, he is careful about who he collaborates with, whether chefs, designers, FOH, sommeliers or bartenders. Subject to a few small refinements here and there, The Midland Grand is already on the way to becoming an iconic destination restaurant – and who knows, I might become a regular here too.
St Pancras Renaissance Hotel
by J A Smith