or me this unlikely contender single-handedly symbolizes the regeneration of King’s Cross. Rewind nearly two decades, and I lived at the top of a then-forlorn York Way: at weekends I’d drift down its curved thoroughfare to explore the urban wasteland of railway tracks and dissolute Victorian tenements.
This all started to change in 2008, when the waterside Kings Place building sprung up. The Guardian/Observer newspapers moved in as well as concert hall, gallery and the flagship restaurant Rotunda. Was it all futuristically ambitious or downright crazy?The answer is simple enough. Fast forward ten years and the landscape is unrecognizably changed: there’s Granary Square, Cubitt’s Square, Gasholder Park and Coal Drops Yard; even York Way is all shiny apartment blocks and hip restaurants.
To mark its decade Rotunda closed this summer for a £1.5m refit. On our return after its September reopening, a Friday night, the bar is so busy it’s tricky to scrutinize too closely what the changes actually are: but the semi-enclosed waterside garden terrace seems sturdier, although the breeze is up on the corner of Ice Wharf – so much that we give up on an al fresco negroni and head inside.
It’s in the restaurant that the redesign is most noticeable: an open-to view kitchen, a large meat-ageing cabinet and a 12-seat chef’s counter all now dominate the curving space, with diners able to sit and watch the goings-on (which include on-trend gadgets like a Big Green Egg charcoal grill as well as a Japanese robata barbecue).We choose the chef’s counter for an up-close-and-personal gawp at the goings on. First thoughts? It’s genuinely atmospheric, with the natural drama of the kitchen lending fresh excitement to what was a fairly sedate dining room before. And thanks to the accompanying bar it’s frenetic: there are huge platters being made, one after another, for Friday night after-work team drinks (thankfully separated from the restaurant, although still, ever-increasingly, audible) meaning there’s a slight delay in the kitchen. Still a dry, ruby-red Saumur eases the pain.
The Rotunda does do vegetarian and vegan (there’s pumpkin and cauliflower steak, obvs) but its speciality, due to their 288-acre Corneyside Farm in Northumberland, really is meat. And the new head chef is Jai Parkinson, whose CV spans respected steak-and-seafood joints Wright Brothers and Holborn Dining Room.
We begin with a snack of French breakfast radishes – the oblong variety whose vivid fuchsia-red fades to white – dunked into smoked sea salt aioli, a perfect pre-starter, while the cuttlefish that follows, charred on the Big Green Egg, is tender and perches on marinated heirloom tomatoes, caper berries and smoked paprika.
Lamb tartare is still not especially common on London menus and this proves more divisory: I enjoy the herbal accents, the tussle between rosemary and mint in the marinade, and it feels strangely lighter than its more famous beefy sibling, despite the shouty presence of parmesan; but my partner disagrees, finding the candied mint yoghurt overriding.
There’s no disagreement about the mains: a ribeye is the best I’ve had since raving about the latest Hawksmoor opening in Borough Market. Charred, soft as butter, its carmine flesh deeply savoury, it’s instantly my number one steak in King’s Cross. Not surprising really, with the Rotunda’s “gate to plate” ethos, and the emphasis on dry-ageing beef in the subterranean hanging room, before butchering it onsite.But here’s the twist: the best dish we eat is actually a piece of monkfish, often a tricky bugger to create something special with (we’ve all had dreadful tasteless versions on holidays over the years). Here it’s grilled on the robata with a tangible barbecue edge – and yet cooked so lightly that the flesh winningly hovers between translucent and opaque. Herbs – sage, samphire, sea greens – and an olive dressing lend a briny seasoning: this is, we decide, one of the top fish dishes in recent memory.
But a caveat: our two mains are £27 and £28.50 with sides extra (not even chips are included with the steak), meaning we are in the £30+ main territory. Having said that, there are plenty of cheaper dishes at around £12-15; and a daily set menu before 7pm is £19.50 for two courses.
Sweet of tooth? The quality here extends to desserts, too: a tart perfectly uniting coconut and pistachio (who knew?) jumps next-level with grapefruit segments strewn alongside flakes of white chocolate. Like everything else, it’s bite-size: there’s little fear of over-eating.
King’s Cross continues to dazzle on the food front, and the swathes of new additions – including the arrival of the Barrafina empire – mean that every chef in the neighbourhood will now be upping their game. Rotunda has done just that: the canalside venue at Kings Place finally boasts unquestionably destination cooking.
Main image: Coconut & pistachio tart (PR)