Chef-restaurateur Mark Sargeant believes in serving the classic dishes that diners love, and he has followed this philosophy in his new restaurant at the reopened Great Northern hotel in London
The recession may have been a disaster for the economy, but, according to Mark Sargeant, it has done wonders for restaurants offering simpler, more approachable food.
And now at Plum & Spilt Milk, the 90-seat restaurant for which he is responsible at the recently reopened Great Northern hotel adjacent to London's King's Cross station, he is continuing to focus on providing recognisable, straightforward food.
Hence, the dishes that get star billing include perennial favourites such as prawn cocktail (£9.50), Caesar salad (£7.25), steak tartare - small, with toast (£12.50) or large, with fries and salad (£18.50), fish pie and braised peas (£14.75) and salt marsh lamb shank hotpot (£18.50).
"The point of serving these classic dishes is that guests love them," says Sargeant. "We source the very best ingredients and prepare them so that they are as good as they can possibly be.
"The recession has shaken things up - in a good way - and concentrated restaurateurs' minds on providing the whole package: the decor and the service as well as the food."
At Plum & Spilt Milk - the name originates from the livery colours of the dining cars pulled by the Flying Scotsman - Sargeant says he has been inspired to produce a timeless menu by the history of the hotel, which originally opened for patrons of the Great Northern Railway in 1854.
The all-day menu kicks off with a selection of appetisers (all £3), which provide something to nibble on over a cocktail. Always seasonal, they currently include broad beans with mint sea salt, radishes with anchovy sauce, and the taramosalata which has proved such a hit at Rocksalt. "It has the consistency of a mayonnaise," says Sargeant of the taramosalata. "We use really good smoked cod's roe and lots of garlic and lemon."
Starters include a dish which Sargeant describes as the ultimate comfort food: creamed smoked haddock, poached hen's egg (£7.50), as well as a selection of artisan cooked meats made by John Doig at Moons Green Charcuterie in East Sussex and served with celeriac coleslaw and pickles (£9.25).
With the restaurant open throughout the day, the "on toast" selection with a variety of toppings - including potted King's Lynn shrimps (£9.50), sardines and tomatoes (£8.25), devilled lamb's kidney (£8) and broad beans and Caerphilly (£7.50) - provides an ideal snack.
Meanwhile, the Inka charcoal grill is the focus for the majority of the main-course meat dishes such as the grilled pork chop with Kentish apple sauce (£17.50) and the best-selling 32-day-aged Angus porterhouse steak and beer-battered onions (£70 for two).
Also popular is the monkfish curry with pilaf rice (£19.50). The dense fish is initially steeped and cooked in a broth of coconut milk for sweetness, with a hint of tamarind providing a sour note, while a green curry paste incorporating root coriander, ginger and chilli is added to thicken the sauce. Individual portions of the fish are vacuum packed to be reheated at point of service. "The menu is very British, which these days has got to include a curry," explains Sargeant.
Puddings include a favourite from the 1970s, baked Alaska (£13.50 for two), providing an element of theatre with its meringue topping flambéd at the table.
Sargeant writes the menus for Plum & Spilt Milk as well as those for the 100-seat GNH Bar and the Kiosk, which opens on to the street and sells hot roast meat sandwiches. Their execution is undertaken by the 16-strong brigade headed by executive chef Mike Denman, formerly executive chef at Hix Soho, and head chef Matt Laville, ex-senior sous chef at Pollen Street Social.
With the train from Folkestone to King's Cross taking just over an hour, Sargeant can keep a close eye on the operation of Plum & Spilt Milk, but he doesn't cook at the hotel. Instead, his focus is on developing more restaurants, with his next venture, Oxwell & Co, opening in Singapore next month.
â" Plum & Spilt Milk, Great Northern Hotel, King's Cross St Pancras, London N1C 4TB
020 3388 0800
Sample dishes from the menu
Starters Roast beets, walnuts and Cashel Blue £6.75
Pressed chicken with herb mayonnaise £7.25
Inka-roasted tomato soup £6
Main courses Red mullet with braised â¨fennel £19
Barnsley chop with grilled kidney, mint jelly £18.50
Bubble and squeak, fried duck's egg £11.50
Desserts Cold chocolate and blackcurrant fondant £7.50
Lemon posset with fresh raspberries £6.75
Mixed berry and elderflower jelly, clotted cream ice-creamâ¨ £7