Prawn cocktail. Potted shrimps. Dressed crab. Three classic dishes that get changed more times than Kim Kardashian preparing to go out. Not long ago I had a prawn cocktail (at swank Balthazar) where the crustaceans lay overchilled on a bed of chipped ice, there was no lettuce in sight, but there were little tubs of salsa and pink sauce – neither of which were the traditional Marie Rose. Harrumph.
It is with this in mind that I and my guests order all three of the above at Plum + Spilt Milk. This is a test of both the direction of the restaurant and the attentiveness of the chef, Mark Sargeant. Mr Sargeant opened Rocksalt in Folkestone a couple of years ago, right on the harbour and in celebration of all things fishy.
At Rocksalt, the fish was marvellous but the service wasn't (happily, things have settled well there). At P+SM, those dishes (between £9.50 and £12.50) are exemplary, despite the nearest sea being quite a train ride away.
The restaurant (named for the colours of the livery of old LNWR trains' dining cars) is located within the Great Northern Hotel, in London's King's Cross. The entire area is being aggressively revamped and already has The Gilbert Scott, Shrimpy's and Grain Store within wine-spitting distance. Behind luggage trolleys and a new entrance to the train station is the rather austere hotel, which has a fashionably cave-like bar and blink-and-you'll-miss-them stairs up to the restaurant.
It has all the prerequisites for a "2013" restaurant (mismatched mirror decoration, exposed filament lights and a bangin' aural backdrop) but once settled into a banquette with an Aperol spritz, menu and snacks, one could be on the sofa with a Breaking Bad box set, such is the comfort. The room is cleverly arranged so that even if you're not in a prime corner seat, you're cossetted and (if such things are important to you), you can see and be seen.
Because we're gluttons, the crisp, puffy Yorkshire pudding with pleasantly claggy roasted-garlic purée snack is almost inhaled; as are broad beans with infused salt crystals (although the beans could have done with losing their tough little jackets). Both are £3.
The shrimp, with a luscious granular butter and nutmeg tang, is lovely, and I'm happy that a romaine lettuce didn't die in vain under my sweet, spankingly fresh prawn cocktail.
From a menu that reads like the Oscars guest list (all stars, no seat-fillers), Mr M has a Barnsley chop that's crisp outside and blushing within, with a wobbly mint jelly (£17.50), and I have monkfish curry (£19.50). It is a very nice thing, with generous amounts of soft fish, burnished onion shards and curry leaves, and a rich yellow sauce, all gently spiced. It takes me back to Sri Lanka (a destination out of King's Cross's reach, sadly). Miss M has come over all veggie and has potato dumplings with a sweet tomato and tangy Harbourne Blue cheese accompaniment (£12). It's good, but not quite gnocchi on heaven's door (groan).
The service is just as I like it – informed, discreet and, if you want it, fun. The maître 'd notices we're puzzling over a song and Shazams it for us. The rest of the time we're left alone to chatter over our Fleurie. And a note on the tableware: it's plain white, which is surprisingly un-designery, but very welcome. I've grown accustomed to the scrape of knife on hand-thrown pottery, but that doesn't mean I've grown to love it.
Puddings – a great strength of the nearby Gilbert Scott – are, if not quite in Marcus Wareing's ballpark, pretty darned good: we share a sugary Kentish gypsy tart and a tart gooseberry pie (around £7).
This is P+SM's second act: it launched in April and almost instantly changed chefs. My esteemed colleague Tracey Macleod went in the first phase and thought it decent if somewhat over-designed by committee. Not much appears to have changed appearance-wise, but Sargeant's commanding presence (although he's not a constant in the kitchen) makes this an amenable place to spend an evening (or any other time; it's open from breakfast all day). It's a less dramatic but more welcoming room than the Gilbert Scott or Grain Store, a less trendy but more relaxing room than Shrimpy's. Don't wait till you've got a train to catch to try it out.
Plum + Spilt Milk, Great Northern Hotel, Pancras Road, London N1, tel: 020 3388 0815. £100 for two, with drinks
Three more railway dinners
40 Maltby Street
This wine bar, hidden under railway arches, offers amazing seasonal food and a splendid range of biodynamic wines.London SE1, 020 7237 92
The Monsal Head Hotel
Overlooking a huge railway viaduct, this former coaching inn offers very good local produce, well prepared. Near Bakewell, Derbyshire, 01629 640 250
Hearty dishes come in huge portions at this former railway shed overlooking a farmers' market below. Station Road West, Canterbury, Kent, 01227 459 153
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013', www.hardens.comReuse content