William Sitwell reviews Baptist Grill, London: 'It's worth ploughing through women and children to get to the wine'

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Baptist Grill, London
Our critic tucks into 
a rather fine steak dinner 
in this converted chapel Credit: Jasper Fry

Southampton Row, in London’s Bloomsbury district, has been witness to some transformative moments over the years. The most staggering occurred on 12 September 1933, when the idea of a nuclear chain reaction occurred to the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard as he crossed that very road. His thinking led to the development of the atom bomb. The moment is best captured in the words of US historian Richard Rhodes, who wrote that, ‘as he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw the way to the future, death into the world and all our woes, the shape of things to come’.

As I crossed the street the other evening, I witnessed merely the transformation of a building, from religious HQ to hotel. From the Gothic confines of the Baptist Union of Great Britain has risen L’oscar hotel, within which you’ll find the Baptist Grill and an opportunity to get a rather good steak. This is a more positive story for the street. And what might have been gloomy, creepy architecture for council and committee rooms and a chapel becomes richly eccentric as a hotel, bar and restaurant.

Its original architect, Arthur Keen, had a penchant for austere gloom, which he put into effect in various private houses in Surrey and Dulwich, as well as a couple of churches. The Baptist Union of Great Britain, who must have felt they’d rather landed on their feet when they moved here in 1903, left in the late 1980s and it’s been virtually derelict ever since. It takes commendable vision and perseverance to develop such a building into a place of hospitality, so if you’re passing, you should definitely pop in and have a poke about.

Everything is dressed in black and gold, from gothic pillar to waiter. Which, depending on your persuasion, gives it possibilities for either glitz or masonic perversion. We sought the 
former. The journey to the grill took 
us past two empty bars; one, a bar/café off the hall by the entrance, and the other set beneath the dome-ceilinged restaurant.

You rise up a circular staircase to reach the old former chapel, now an altar to maroon. There are swirling gold and black motifs on everything from staff jackets (which made our waiter look like some Victorian magician) to crockery, all amid deep purple seats and cushions and curtains.

We sat down, that’s me and my two teenage kids, and decided it was all rather theatrically splendid. As is the menu. Words like foie gras and oysters and scallops jumped out from the starters. I actually chose octopus carpaccio and suffered massive order envy as Albert chose crab and Alice the agnolotti.

In my dish, little chunks of sweet watermelon fought with tart slices of olives, their battle a clever diversion from the soulless thin slivers of octopus. The crab, meanwhile, was neat and cake-like, an inspired mix of the flavours of coronation (a light curry sauce with actual pieces of sweet, fresh mango), with thinly sliced chives on top that tempered the rich crabmeat; a really wonderful dish, as was the agnolotti (little ravioli parcels). Al dente, with a stuffing of broccoli, they delivered a crunch of almonds and the rich tartness of preserved lemon.

We then shared a ‘40oz Mini Axe’ (like a tomahawk or large rib-eye). This was a fabulous piece of meat and with the trimmings arrived like a sultan and his entourage. It was carved for us by the magician and served with bone marrow – perfectly oily, unctuous and oyster-like. We ate it (pink and full of flavour) with a bordelaise sauce, ravioli stuffed with snails and a rich truffle-flavoured mashed potato and fries.

The 40oz Mini Axe (and trimmings) Credit: Jasper Fry

I spotted a rare treat on the wine list: a red wine from Ventoux (a lesser-known area of the Rhône valley) called Château Unang, a classic blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault. It seems flavoured by the oak forest and cherry trees, with a splash of the blackcurrant that grow near the vines, and at amazing value (£11 a glass). If you see a bottle it’s worth ploughing through women and children to get to.

A perfect match for the meat, it also suited the puds we shared: a reimagined rhubarb and custard whose cream was light and dreamy and hid small chunks of not-too-sweet rhubarb. There was a less good chocolate mousse, a rather dry number on chocolate ‘soil’, which just made things drier. It came with a maroon-coloured blackberry sorbet, the room interpreted as food perhaps.

As we ate, incongruous rave music pumped through the speakers, music created for the vibey bar downstairs. They need more maroon music. Some religious harmony, perhaps, to settle you further into the deep, deep purple…