The general wisdom is that hotels, outside the super posh ones, don’t have good restaurants. Or at least restaurants you would seek out if you weren’t bedding down in a room above them. But The Albion Rooms below (and beside) the Novotel Hotel on Nicholas Street, serves food and drink and good times, and is a drawing card in its own right. What helps is its separate, street entrance – a rare treat for a hotel dining room. You can access the rooms through the lobby, but you can also enter via an outdoor staircase to the right of the main hotel doors. This entrance is carpeted, trellised, and seductively lit. A wall of windows at the bottom of the stairs shows off a handsome, busy bar with a come-hither look about it. Very clever, that.
With the recent addition of a large new room, The Albion Rooms are now a warren of spaces, including a lounge, bar, café, and two differently-vibed, split-level dining rooms. The wing that is the oldest part of the hotel, the stately red brick (since 1844) with segmented arch windows that was once the Albion Hotel, has been renovated and dubbed the Heritage Room. It’s big, comfortable and – on our weekend nights – confidently loud. Part of it feels old school hotel (burgundy velvet, dark walls, library sconces) while the kitchen end of the room is more steampunk meets brasserie – brighter, busier, with a long chef’s table on a pretty tiled floor.
My first encounter with the (new-to-me) executive chef of The Albion Rooms was watching him frantically readying that chef’s table. A group of 18 had arrived, unannounced and hungry, and the team – including chef Jesse Bell – was scrambling to accommodate them. It was a fine sight: the top toque of a hotel moving chairs and laying tables.
Bell was sous chef under The Albion Rooms opening chef, Stephen LaSalle, and was promoted last year when LaSalle left to open the Andaz Hotel. Bell has grown the menu, fleshing out the main dishes a little, while wisely leaving the signature plates (Scotch eggs, fish and chips, the elk burger) to shine on.
The menu mixes up a few delicate dishes (tuna crudo with sea asparagus and olive dust, carrots with spiced yogurt and rosewood honey) with solid heart-attack grub (Scotch eggs, fish and chips, Shepherd’s pie with cheese curds) and with an ample list of cheese and charcuterie.
Standouts among the charcuterie sampled include the pastrami duck breast with pickled cranberries, the (ugly looking but utterly delicious) smoked wild boar rillettes with pickled blueberries, and the foie gras torchon, slightly sweet with scorched honey. The platters are handsomely presented, escorted with house pickles, mustards, jellies, nuts, seeds and dried fruit, and a brown bag of snappy-thin crostini. Less good was the gravlax – too cured and too salty – though we did appreciate its pretty presentation.
The Scotch eggs remain must-haves (and damn the consequences!), served with a sweet mustard sauce. Excellent too are the roasted Brussels sprouts. They’ve been doused and glazed with verjus and teamed up with smoked feta, pickled onion, and lean bacon. Full marks for the tuna crudo, with its interesting mates: a ginger-cucumber relish and the briny black powder of olive ‘dust’, crème fraiche, sea asparagus, and chunks of avocado, lightly charred.
Of the mains, we liked just about everything. Starting with the housemade pappardelle, yellowed with squash and tossed with a mix of roasted mushrooms, toasted pepitas, and the sharp juicy bites of pickled baby garlic, all crowned with shards of melting Allegretto cheese. The short rib with rosti potato piqued with old cheddar was a fine, wintry plate, though the Yorkshire pudding could have been a whole lot warmer. The battered up cod fish and fat, fabulous chippies were splendid, served with an oyster remoulade. Those same good fries can come with the elk cheeseburger (topped with Seed to Sausage bacon), or you can opt for a lightly torched iceberg wedge tarted up with blue cheese. The only disappointment (other than the chilly Yorkshire) was the lamb curry, wherein the lentils and meat didn’t really speak with the curry sauce; I suspect the two were cooked separately and united at the end.
The crème brulée was more comfort-pudding than custard, but it did the trick. Better was the olive oil and orange cake with cream and candied fruit.
This is a good place to sample cocktails — they take great care with them. There’s a healthy craft beer list, with a rotating selection on tap, and the wine list, while short and overpriced (this is still, after all, a hotel) is nevertheless thoughtfully assembled with enough choice by the glass to match the good food.