Train stations don’t tend to attract the nicest crowds. Wherever you go in the world, the very worst people from that area will naturally gravitate towards the station like asteroids orbiting a filthy planet made of snot and tears; the pimps and the pickpockets and the tourists.
The area around Marseilles’s Gare de Marseille-Saint-Charles is a vivid recreation of Dante’s vision of hell. A few years ago, a group of youths there attempted to unburden me of my luggage. Their manner was so casual it bordered on lazy, like they couldn’t really be bothered rifling through my battered old rucksack but felt they probably should, for appearance’s sake.
Thankfully a taxi-driver was on hand, demanding a small fortune to take me, post-haste, to somewhere with a less immediate air of menace. It was a short journey, consisting of four right turns and a peppering of French swearwords, before he dispatched me right where I’d started, which was, in retrospect, probably the plan from the very beginning. Anyway, the upshot is, I don’t like train stations (actually, that’s not quite true: the stations themselves are fine – who doesn’t appreciate the utilitarian majesty of Brunel’s station in Bristol? It’s the bit around them I don’t have any time for).
King’s Cross doesn’t quite share the same sense of impending doom as Gare de Marseille-Saint-Charles, but it isn’t the kind of place you want to spend your weekends, either. It may be right next to the British Library, home to some of the most important works of literature in the world, but it still feels like its soul has been sucked out with a syringe.
It is into this desolate expanse that Karpo sprang earlier this year. In the spirit of livening the place up a bit, its owners commissioned graffiti artists to give it a paint job, and it now looks like someone has draped a terrifying LSD hallucination over a branch of Barclays.
The interior is less migraine-inducing, falling somewhere between a high-end chain-pub and a low-end wine bar. One nice flourish is the living walls of greenery climbing the main eating area, which I had plenty of time to contemplate as I waited for my starters and my guest, neither of which were in a great hurry to arrive.
Karpo describes itself as an “urban restaurant”, which, despite conjuring images of fox fillets and rat au vin, doesn’t really mean anything. You can’t pin down exactly from where the menu hails, careering as it does from Mediterranean to American to French and up to Scandinavia, depending on what produce they have sourced that day.
My expectations at this point, you may have gathered, were not spectacular. The crab cakes, though, didn’t fall far short of spectacular – fresh, moist, slightly crisp on the outside, with enough of a hint of chili to give them a kick without overpowering the meat. The gazpacho soup, too, was excellent – tangy and moreish. This was proper restaurant food. The wine, too, recommended by a waiter who knew her way around the menu, was superb.
The mains didn’t quite measure up – the lamb was fine, but it wasn’t as tender as you’d hope from a kitchen that puts this much love into a crab cake. The hake, too, was slightly overcooked and far too salty, the skin singed instead of just crisped. They weren’t awful – I didn’t feel a desire to forcibly feed them to the wall plants – but neither were they anything to write home about. Desserts of chocolate fraiche and Eton mess were tasty, if a tad unimaginative.
Quibbles aside, at well under £20 a dish, Karpo has, pound for pound, a very decent little kitchen. It’s not enough to convince me to willingly go to King’s Cross at night, but if I happened to be getting off a train, I’d certainly pop in, if only to catch my breath after running away from the station.
First published in City A.M. on 4 September 2012