IN SEPTEMBER 1981, when my daughter was just a few months old, I had a job interview in the downstairs bar of the Great Northern Hotel on Kings Cross Station.
We were staying at the Great Northern as guests of British Rail because I was writing a feature about the trials and tribulations of travelling to London with a small child. It wasn’t the greatest feature idea, but it got me to London for that job interview - and I got the job, which changed our lives forever.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about the hotel, except that we met in the nondescript downstairs bar and drank tea.
Thirty-seven years ago, the Great Northern was a classic British Rail hotel: comfortable and bland in a cream and peach sort of way.
Today - and here’s the long-drop coincidence you’ve been waiting for - it is owned by a pal of mine, Jeremy Robson, and it is anything but bland.
Since Jeremy gutted the curved 1854 Lewis Cubitt building, and restyled it as a luxury boutique hotel six years ago it has won a place in Condé Nast Traveller’s 2014 Hot List, made it into the Daily Telegraph’s top ten hotels and Tatler’s top 300 UK restaurants and has been awarded a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence.
So, now you know why I chose the downstairs bar of the Great Northern to meet a friend down from Norfolk for a night out - it’s an iconic place in my life, and there was just a chance that I’d bump into Jezza.
In fact, we were leaving the hotel and heading out in search of supper when Jeremy called me back. As usual he was in a business meeting, although unusually this one was at a table outside the hotel, facing St Pancras Station.
He asked what we were up to, and then flatly insisted that we eat at Plum & Spilt Milk, the hotel’s elegant British restaurant. Unfailingly generous, he left his business meeting and ushered us back into the hotel and upstairs to Anthracite, the hotel’s recently opened martini lounge - a sumptuous space looking down on the new vaulted glass ceiling of Kings Cross station.
Head bartender Balazs Nagy offered us martinis - this really is the place to try the classic Vesper martini (£14) featured in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, and there are many more. But I still haven’t recovered from the time an elderly journalist with a ‘little problem’ poured gin and French into half pint mugs while telling ludicrous tales of life on Fleet Street in the 1970s - I was still a kid, and that night I grew to understand the term ‘wide eyed and legless’ and developed a deep respect for the silver stuff. Gin is not my drink.
Anthracite, in case you were wondering, is a particularly hard form of coal found in Wales, which is where Jeremy was born. It was used to fuel steam trains like the Flying Scotsman and the name of the restaurant - Plum & Spilt Milk - comes from the nicknames for the red and cream dining cars the Flying Scotsman hauled. There are subtle railway references throughout the hotel, often in the typography, and it’s fun to go looking for them.
Like the coal, Anthracite is wonderfully dark and warm, a place in which to sip espresso martinis with someone you like, or would like to like you.
That said, me and my old friend Dr Harris - a commercial property researcher in his 50s - didn’t feel out of place, even if we had turned up wearing matching dark grey M&S jackets. That wasn’t embarrassing, no not at all … even when we were propped up at the bar like a pair of old grey bookends. At least we matched the decor.
Before leaving Anthracite, I should mention the collection of art on the walls. Jeremy has a good eye, and the upstairs bars are full of really good works of art - it’s like drinking in a first class gallery.
Plum & Spilt Milk is one of my favourite restaurants in London (the breakfasts are wonderful). It is so beautifully designed, with cream leather banquettes and pendant lights that look like an art installation - and, if I remember rightly, they were Jeremy’s doing. He must have driven the designer crazy.
I’ve written elsewhere about the tough time restaurants are going through - in the UK they’re closing at the rate of ten a week - but on a Tuesday night (often challenging for restaurants) Plum & Spilt Milk was really busy, and there was that happy buzz of conversation that restaurateurs work so hard to get.
And so to the food. Dr Harris settled for spiced Cornish fish soup, red pepper rouille and croutons (£9) for his starter. I chose the creamed smoked haddock ‘en-cocotte’, poached egg, hollandaise sauce and sea purslane (£9.50), although I would have happily had any first course on the menu. I especially liked the sound of the seared Loch Fyne scallops, roasted cauliflower, samphire & sherry vinegar caramel (£17), but I didn’t want to be a rapacious guest.
And anyway the creamed smoked haddock was delicious, baked in its own little dish and - I think - modelled on a Sussex smokie, although if it was it would have been a very superior Sussex smokie. It was delicate and light with the flaked smoked fish and an egg that managed to come as a surprise, despite being mentioned in the name of the dish.
Dr Harris smiled over his fish soup, even if he is from Devon and not Cornwall. He said it was wonderful.
We ordered Sauvignon Blanc, and sidled into the mains: Yorkshire flat-iron steak, smoked bone marrow, grilled asparagus and a morel sauce (£26) for me, and miso glazed free range pork loin with green mango and fresh herb salad and pulled pork wonton for Dr Harris (£19).
Red meat is a rare treat for me these days, but since I’m from Yorkshire it had to be the steak. And what a good choice it was: sliced, pink, succulent and tender and with a flavour I’d almost forgotten. Loved it. I first had roast bone marrow in a restaurant in Geneva called simply Fleisch (flesh), and will almost always have it if it’s on the menu, and I would walk a long way too for the earthy flavour of morels.
Even the obligatory debate about Brexit - we are between us one remainer and one leaver - did nothing to mask the powerful flavours on that plate: British cooking at its very best.
Jeremy is so proud of this restaurant, in fact, and so very into sourcing the finest British ingredients, that he and I have a plan to one day write what could only be a book about the farmers and fishermen who produce the food served up in Plum & Spilt Milk.
The idea is that we would go to see the asparagus being harvested on the Isle of Wight, the hand-dived scallops being landed at Loch Fyne and the lamb being reared in the Cotswolds.
It will never happen, of course. Jeremy will always be too busy for that, but we do occasionally revisit the dream and I would still love to do it. (Are you listening Jezza?)
For the moment, Dr Harris and I can only offer up a silent word of thanks that places like Plum & Spilt Milk actually exist.
What a great night out.
(Click on the image below to take a virtual tour of GNH).