I enjoyed my first meal at The German Gymnasium next to London's Eurostar terminal at St Pancras while the builders were still fixing the front door, leading to the table of seven women and one man from the legal department of Argent, the developers of the King's Cross site, to describe it as ‘draughty’.
I, however, sat at the large cocktail bar, well away from this inconvenience and ordered a bowl of extremely good goulash soup; a sandwich filled with North Sea brown shrimps coated in a spiced Marie Rose sauce; and a latte. Total cost £12.69 as a 50% discount applies to all the pre-opening food until the restaurant’s official opening next Thursday 12 November.
The German Gymnasium promises to be one of the most significant restaurant openings of the year as it embarks on only its fourth change of use since it was built in 1864 as, yes, a German gym, to a design by Edward Grunning, its entire cost of £6,000 being donated by the German community then based in London. This role carried on until before the Second World War when the building was used as a storage area before Argent used it to show off their model of what King's Cross will look like by 2022*. That came to an end three years ago when D+D restaurants (the old Conran group) won the contract to run the restaurant.
This was a decision I was involved in, as a consultant to Argent, and one that I felt very comfortable with. D+D, I knew, had the financial clout to back their plans; they had the experience that I knew would be necessary to deal with a building that was 170 years old; they had the integrity to offer a menu and wine list that would be utterly compatible with what I was expecting; and in David Loewi, their MD, they had someone prominent in their organisation who shared my enthusiasm for somewhere that would offer fine German food and wine.
The day before my lunch I called in to The German Gymnasium, having spotted Loewi in conversation with Duncan Pitfield, who describes himself on his business card as Senior Manager. I was immediately offered a tour, leaving Loewi in a corner eating something sweet while behind him, Max Renzland, the former restaurateur turned food development director for the group, was undergoing a tea tasting with a young lady from Jing Teas.
We climbed one of the stairways that leads from the Grand Café on the ground floor to a first-floor restaurant that serves a more expansive menu and where all the waitresses wear red and black dresses as opposed to the black and white dresses on the ground floor. There is a separate kitchen up here to deal with all its requirements, for the 45 kitchen staff and 70+ front of house staff that will, at least until the New Year, call this place home. In the far corner is a semi-private space that can seat up to 32.
We came back down the other staircase and I went over to talk to Loewi, who was deep in conversation with Bjoern Wassmuth, formerly kitchen director of the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg, and who has now taken on the role of Executive Chef. On the table in front of him were several bars of German chocolate as well as a sweet box filled with pralines that would be going on sale some time soon.
Loewi went off to talk to Toby Harris, his Chief Financial Officer, having ordered an apple strudel with vanilla sauce. Meanwhile I enjoyed a twice-baked cheesecake with blueberries and the opportunity to ask Wassmuth just why he had taken on this job of not only looking after so many staff but also feeding up to 440 customers at any one time.
Wassmuth smiled, explained how he had met his English future wife while he had been working as the Executive Chef for Seabourn Cruise Line and she had been a receptionist, and they had decided to settle close to her family in Cornwall, a decision reinforced by the arrival 10 months ago of their baby son. Home, he added, is Chesham, straight down the Metropolitan Line where he feels the air feels completely different from that of central London, a sentiment he believes is shared by his two beagles.
Wassmuth then explained that all the bread he would be serving was going to be imported from Germany as well as the veal for the ‘veal schnitzel’ that, at £21 with a warm potato salad and lingonberry compote, will surely be a popular dish. Just then the baker from Kamps, the German bakery/café on Tottenham Court Road, came up to our table and congratulated Wassmuth on the schnitzel he had just enjoyed. A portent of things to come, I hope.
I wish The German Gymnasium every success. It will be interesting to see whether, on the back of the popularity of The Wolseley and Fischer’s, the public appetite for what is predominantly a German menu, and wine list with some unusual wines chosen by sommelier Virgile Degrez, will materialise to the full.
*Visitors to JancisRobinson.com may remember the German Gym as the site of the champagne tasting in December 2010 that celebrated our first decade on one of the snowiest nights London has known – JR
The German Gymnasium 1 King’s Boulevard, London N1C 4BU; tel +44 (0)20 7287 4000