For all the cuddly Thomas the Tank Engine nostalgia that surrounds Britain's railway history, it should never be forgotten that this was the story of capitalism in the raw. In the 19th century, fortunes were made but more typically lost and the winners were only too keen to signal their grand ambitions to the world.
Such thoughts sprung readily to mind stepping through the fine oak doorway of the baroque revival masterpiece of what used to be the headquarters of the North East Railway (NER) in York. Conceived and built in the Edwardian dreamland before the First Word War, this cathedral of the Fat Controllers was intended as a monument to the glory of the permanent way wrought in marble, stone and hardwood panelling.
Since the NER's post-privatisation successor GNER was stripped of its ruinously expensive east coast franchise in 2006, lights are once again burning in the old headquarters re-born as the Cedar Court Grand, a five-star hotel with spa, following a painstaking restoration job.
Its Grill Room promises to uphold noble dining traditions laid down by the Savoy and the Dorchester. On a rainy Sunday night there was no shortage of old-time, Grade II-listed atmosphere. Opposite is York's old railway station (now the council offices) which was decommissioned in 1877 to facilitate the passage of the non-stop mainline link to Scotland.
Cheerfully welcomed at the entrance, our dripping coats stowed, we were soon snug in the bar, sinking into leather wingback armchairs and clutching goldfish-bowls of gin and tonic.
The menus were brought to ponder over the drinks. Head chef Martin Henley, who has won two AA rosettes since setting out his stall here 18 months ago, contrasts a classic array of grills with a more adventurous à la carte offering.
There are steaks including a mighty 14oz rib eye as well as rack of lamb and chicken breast served with traditional sauces, hand-cut chips, Portobello mushrooms and confit tomato. But the other side of the menu offered an all together more daring proposition of game, fish and smoked fillet steak.
Choices made, we were taken to the comfortably unassuming dining room, pleasantly abuzz for a Sunday evening in January. There were couples, young and old, and the odd group. People even talked over the tables to each other. There might have been a touch of the JB Priestley about some of the overheard conversation, but the mood was informal and relaxed.
The shellfish bisque, a deep amber sensation of pure crustacean, was served with poached lobster and vegetable spaghetti. The seared king scallops simply popped in the mouth, pitching up alongside a nugget of pork cheek, a smearing of butternut squash and a veal jus.
A main course of rabbit saw the animal taken apart with surgical precision. There was a tiny roast rack, smoked loin, leg stuffed with foie gras and sweetmeats, served alongside artichokes and a miniature leek. On the plate the dish rose up like a tiny futuristic city. Demolishing the towers of meticulously-prepared meat was a joy, especially after being steered artfully towards a robust new world malbec by the friendly sommelier.
The pan-fried turbot was superbly seasoned and this time there was a chunk of belly pork alongside cepes of quite extraordinary deep mushroominess. As an alternative, there was halibut with ox tail and smoked fillet steak with shallot, egg yolk and foie gras.
A side portion of the dinkiest baby vegetables provided the necessary extra without engulfing the artistry of the original dishes. The cheese trolley had been perambulating the room at intervals, announcing itself with an inviting waft of farmyard each time, but the deconstructed tiramisu and poached pear and hazelnut prevailed.
The ubiquitous gloopy Italian dessert was a revelation, stripped to its constituent parts with its bitter cubes of coffee jelly and amaretto sauce, while the tiny poached pear with sorbet, Poire William and cream lined up equally strongly.
Clearly this is not just a place for well-heeled puffer-nutters looking to drink in the atmosphere of the private railway barons in their pre-nationalisation pomp. Nor – at nearly £75 a head with a cocktail and wine – is this is your everyday commuting food experience.
Rather, it offers a first-class luxury dining journey to anyone looking for food lovingly and precisely realised in a fantastic heritage setting by friendly and informed staff – and one that beckons the booking of a return very soon.
The Grill Room at the Grand, Station Rise, York, North Yorkshire (01904 380038). Around £150 for two, with cocktails and wine
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