The Gilbert Scott
Google Maps has no idea where The Pancras Renaissance Hotel is. It finds the right city, London, and the right road, Euston, but beyond that it doesn’t care much about being precise. As far as it’s concerned, anywhere along that road will do.
The clue, of course, is in the name ‘Pancras’ – something that hadn’t quite clicked in my head until we arrived. And so, after enduring a thoroughly unpleasant hike and tube journey from Regent’s Park (where Google thought it was located) to St Pancras, which almost made me leap in front of traffic out of frustration, I vowed never to rely solely on Google to direct me to a restaurant again.
The restaurant in question was the newly opened The Gilbert Scott, backed by Marcus Wareing and managed by someone called Chantelle Nicholson. Chantelle actually appeared several times during our meal (I recognised her from a photograph online), striding affirmatively back and forth, presumably seeing to various management tasks, such as telling people what to do and counting money.
Regardless, the restaurant was indeed located in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and the building in which the hotel and station are located is indeed bloody impressive. I had read beforehand that Sir John Betjeman, supposedly a poet of some renown, had campaigned vigorously against calls for the building’s demolition. I can appreciate why. This is a building with spires and grand arches, large windows and so on – something to stand and stare at for a full minute at least before you have lunch.
Since we were already twenty minutes late for our reservation however, lunch could not wait, so standing and staring were postponed. We proceeded through the main entrance to the hotel, spotted a sign directing us to The Gilbert Scott, and followed it, as you do. Sadly this was where the management had made its first mistake, by hiring a moronic oaf to guard the hotel. Rudely, and with an almost incomprehensible foreign accent, he instructed us to about turn and find a separate entrance.
Though we protested (in a state of sheer disbelief at this point), he remained, bouncer-like, insisting that we move along. I was on the verge of whipping out my rapier and challenging the man to a duel when brother, seeing the mad rage in my eyes, swiftly wheeled the party (mother had also joined us for the day, making it a party rather than a duo) out the door.
Round we went to another corner of the building, and found the staff on this side infinitely more welcoming. A charming lady escorted us through to the dining hall, an obviously grandiose place, with high ceilings, enormous paintings and gold leaf decoration.
Continuing the string of annoyances, we were seated in perhaps the worst position in the hall – scarcely two metres distant from the counter on which the waiters and waitresses carried out all their clumsy tasks: shuffling through cutlery, cracking open bottles of wine, processing payments on their register machine with touch interface, the usual. None of these are things I want to see during my lunch hour. A simple screen erected between our table and their workstation would’ve been a straightforward solution.
From start to finish the service was pretty poor. Our menus and still water took an unusually long time to arrive, despite the fact that we were among the first diners to be seated and there were young waiters and waitresses standing to attention, seemingly with nothing to do, at the counter.
A peculiar blunder took place with our wine, when after having requested it, we waited a full five minutes only to have two glasses (one absent) with wine already poured into them (strange) hurriedly placed on our table. This task had clearly been entrusted to a simpleton, who returned a few seconds thereafter and apologised.
Eventually I was presented with the bottle in the manner I’m accustomed to. It was a Chardonnay from Tuscany called Al Poggio. The wine was poor value for money at £60 – satisfying and suitable for our fish courses, but in no way remarkable.
We all chose a la carte options, and all picked the same starter: a crab salad containing pear slices and hazelnuts. This was a decent course—the nuts and crab a fine match—but I was reminded of the similarly styled, and unquestionably superior, asparagus salad I had at Pied a Terre. The quality of food continued in much the same vein: pleasing, but not extraordinary.
Next was an excellently poached piece of Scottish halibut with mussels (these lacked somewhat in flavour) drowned in a tasty Camel Valley Brut sauce. I liked the texture of the fish, which was soft and chunky.
I scavenged from mother and brother’s vegetable side-dishes of asparagus (lovely – I’m a real fan of asparagus) and spinach. The spinach was perfect for the halibut. Again, everything in this dish was cooked with above average competence, but none of it surprised me or made me hum with pleasure.
Brother had Cornish sea bass, with something called Cullenskink, and seemed mostly happy. Mother’s ‘Soles in coffins’ came not in coffins, but in a bowl, and were also judged as “ok” overall, although the so called crispy potatoes, in fact very creamy, were remembered fondly.
From the extensive dessert menu I picked the ‘Orange marmalade Jaffa cake’, which was impressive looking (very orange) and accompanied by a scoop of earl grey ice cream. At least it was meant to be earl grey ice cream – I could not detect even a hint of tea in it. The cake itself was rather dry, but this was counter-acted sufficiently by a glob of chocolate sauce hidden within. ‘You can’t go wrong with chocolate’ as they say. At least, I think that’s a saying. People say it. I say it.
Mother’s strawberries, served in a glass with clotted cream, meringue and some weird cider called Polgoon, were not appreciated at all. The strawberries were reported as overly sharp in flavour, and the other ingredients lacklustre.
Brother partook of a baked apple sponge—something I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole if you paid me—crowned with yet more meringue and accompanied by a nice bit of clotted cream. Apart from the presentation, which he considered crude, he liked it a lot.
We ended with coffees. My cappuccino was very well done, and we speculated that there must be someone with an interest in coffee exerting their influence behind the scenes, picking some quality beans and such.
I certainly don’t regret dining at The Gilbert Scott. It’s just being let down at the moment by poorly trained staff and a lack of flair in the presentation. I won’t say I’ll never eat there again, but if I do it will only be to check in and see if they’ve improved things. It’s not a place I desperately want to revisit.
With seats booked to see Thor later in the afternoon, we decided to sample just one watering hole. Montgomery Place was en route, in the Notting Hill area, and well spoken of on the web. Kensington Park Road was alive with activity, with tables lining the pavement and people sipping their cocktails and digging into chocolate tart. It’s possible the locals were celebrating something.
There’s a squirrel climbing along the trellis in my garden right now. Totally irrelevant.
The bar itself was not at all busy. We, a couple of chaps and a vaguely oriental bunch were the only bodies there, but that wasn’t off-putting. The place felt very casual, almost pub-like, but unlike a pub, clean. You have to come here just for the toilets – they have music playing in there and the sinks are filled to the brim with pebbles. This was a welcome change from the Gilbert Scott, where the toilets were stupidly designed, and also crap.
As for drinks, I was on the brink of breaking a sweat and picked ‘Thrilla in Vanilla’, a special take on the mojito with vanilla infused rum and cherries. It hit the spot, exhibiting the refreshing mintiness I expect from a mojito, but its flavour vanished as I reached the bottom of the glass. This was only slightly better than a variant I make at home.
Brother’s ‘Thai Flower Cooler’, a vodka, elderflower and bitters mix served in a tall glass, and mother’s ‘Dark and Stormy’, a blend of rum, lime juice and ginger beer, were both well received.
I voted to relocate to a second bar at this point, but was overruled. Instead we picked second cocktails. Mother had, like a bird of prey, spied two ladies outside with iced coffees, so she had one of those. An iced coffee, I mean, not one of the ladies. The waitress mumbled something under her breath about the bartender not liking this choice, which I thought was a tad out of order.
I resigned myself to a ‘Missionary’s Downfall’ which was a great deal more impressive than the mojito thingy, not least because it was served in a thick glass goblet with a design on one side that seemed to be a fat man’s grinning face. The drink was made of rum, honey, peach liqueur, pineapple and mint, and was delicious.
Brother had a classic daiquiri, which—and again I flatter myself—was about is good a daiquiri as I can make. This isn’t to say it was badly made, you understand, just not spectacular.
With little time to spare, we hastened to the Westfield Shopping Centre, which mother was very excited about. I was only excited about seeing the film, and found the shopping centre an abysmal minefield of cretinous children and other assorted ingrates. There was even a tarot card and palm reading session going on. Sadly we lingered for far too long around the shops after the feature, against my express wishes I might add, which once more submerged me into a suicidal malaise.
The Vue cinema is a big one, adjacent to a slimy tapas restaurant and some other hell hole specialising in serving beef. I should say I had promised myself a long time ago, soon after seeing The Dark Knight in fact, that I would never go to a cinema that didn’t have an IMAX screen again, so the decision to come here was not taken lightly. As expected the foyer was crowded with fat people, more children, and general pestilence, so I grabbed our tickets and bottled water as quickly as I could.
Once we passed the ticket checkpoint though, the ambient temperature dropped and a soothing quiet descended upon us. This was much better. The screen itself was slightly below average in size, and the sound setup was underwhelming, but we had nice VIP seats in a perfect central position, and no one else was sat anywhere near us.
Thor was better than I had expected it to be. But I had expected it to be a major screw-up for the Marvel superhero film franchise, with Iron Man and its sequel being as superb as they are. What you get with Thor is solid entertainment, an enormous whack of special effects on a galactic scale, and something unforeseen and totally indispensable: comic relief.
The first twenty minutes consist of an extremely dry mix of high fantasy, deadly serious dialogue between the gods and demigods of Asgard, and thumping battle sequences. This is worth watching, and provides needed context for the rest of the story to proceed, but would, if prolonged, ultimately bore any audience.
After that twenty minute mark you’re brought crashing (literally) back down to Earth, and repeatedly treated to joyous and highly poignant moments of contrast, between Thor’s world of good versus evil in the heavens, and the messy, smelly, frequently amusing world of modern day America.
Kat Dennings is cleverly cast in the role of a dopey, impulsive research assistant, working under Natalie Portman’s higher ranking physicist. Portman’s character is of course the romantic interest, which might have been acceptable were it not that she suffers from being totally besotted with Thor (played adequately by Chris Hensworth) from the moment she meets him, which was a bit hard to believe.
Without its humorous core, Thor would’ve been a huge train-wreck. As it is, I’d recommend it to any fan of what one can I believe now call the superhero ‘genre’. Also it’s a must see for anyone who wants to follow the entire story leading up to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Now I wait for Captain America to reach the bar set by Thor, or better yet, exceed it.