The dining car might be tragically dead, but Plum + Spilt Milk at King’s Cross can still revive some of its pleasures, writes Christopher Jackson
It has been rightly said that one of the low points of civilisation was the scrapping of the dining car. In-transit dining was to many an important buffer against the advent of barbarianism: it represented the crucial alliance of adventure with the essential stability of good food. But just as Concorde’s withdrawal from service in 2003 coincided with the Iraq war and the decline of all common sense, so too the end of dining cars will probably signal the ruin of civilisation. Certainly we’d be mad to pretend that the typical aeroplane meal is a just alternative.
However help is at hand – or at least to some extent. Since 2013, Plump + Spilt Milk has installed itself in the Great Northern Hotel just next to King’s Cross. It is a place for the traveller to pause and plan their next move – or perhaps to sit alone and consider Jon McAslan’s impressive concourse at King’s Cross. Directed by Michelin-starred chef Mark Sargeant – who cooks here seldom – the success of this venture nevertheless seems a suitable reward for his having endured being shouted at by Gordon Ramsay for 13 years at the outset of his career.
The kitchen, according to its bumf, ‘showcases contemporary and classic British cooking’. One is presented with a pleasant menu where the promise seems to be strong flavours as opposed to anything forbiddingly complex: a menu to read and immediately point at. Doing just this, I ordered the creamed smoked haddock with hollandaise and poached hen’s egg – there wasn’t a sommelier and so I played it safe with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc 2016: its freshness and tang amounts to a liquid skeleton-key capable of unlocking all flavours.
The food when it came looked like a gigantic soufflé: to eat it was to embark on a sort of treasure hunt – albeit one where the treasure was always haddock. Meanwhile, my companion opted for the creamed woodland mushrooms, tarragon, poached egg and parmesan crumb. Initially, he seemed slightly dismayed by the lack of salt, but this was easily remedied in the end by adding it himself.
For mains, we opted for the 28-day aged Mey Selections’ Beef Wellington. This mighty hulk of meat was served with hispi cabbage – a sweeter, pointier version of that vegetable – together with a collapsible mountain range of roast new potatoes, neighbouring an autumnal lowlands of carrots and coriander. This was one of those occasions when the staff wheel out a special wheelie table to cut the meat so that all your neighbours can look on you with the same mix of amusement and respect as they do when a restaurant somehow ends up singing you ‘Happy Birthday’. But the meat was tender and the pastry flaked beautifully in the mouth.
I had hoped for a good red wine with this, and I was not to be disappointed. Having just returned from Tuscany, I pointed with a finger that thought it was still on holiday at the Brunello Di Montalcino, Marchesi de Frescobaldi, 2010. As I tried the wine, King’s Cross was cheerfully swapped for the Tuscan hills, and skies of Piero-ish light. Its glug in the glass was a voice saying that Italy is the finest country in the world.
After that, a spiced toffee apple cake, with cinnamon ice cream, found its way into a secret corner of hunger that one would have thought the Beef Wellington might have taken care of. But the stomach of this restaurant reviewer seems to be learning elasticity in exact proportion to the pace at which he is getting fat. Soon I was frowning at a clear plate, and telling myself that although yoga was still absolutely out of the question, it might be about time to splash out on a personal trainer.
This is a good restaurant. If one is to admit that it falls short of greatness then one must add in the same breath that many things do, and that if the very good is to be denigrated, then we would always be gasping with a pleasure that would probably be intolerable. That in turn would be to make us forget what really is unbearable: and that, as I said at the beginning, was the scrapping of the dining car.