The Cross, Kenilworth: Restaurant review - the grand dowager has had an expert facelift
Saturday 07 December 2013
It's a tricky decision for a lady of mature years. At what stage do you have work done, if at all? Do you slide into comfortable decrepitude? Or undergo a discreet cosmetic procedure, and run the risk of emerging with a startled, over-shiny face that looks too young for your body?
The Cross, a grand dowager of an inn in the Warwickshire town of Kenilworth, has clearly had her facelift performed by an expert. Everything has been peeled, exfoliated, filled and polished – the full Joan Rivers. Thankfully, the result is pleasingly natural; mature and burnished, rather than expensively startled.
Ancient beams have been exposed and baronial wood-panelling restored. The chunky industrial lights and tin ceiling tiles are very London 2013, the mismatched tweedery and buttoned leather upholstery pure Highland hunting lodge. The effect is like stumbling across the missing link between Soho House and a Victorian roadhouse.
This summer's mid-life makeover nudges The Cross away from its pub roots, and towards the high-end restaurant that spawned it. The new patron is local food hero Andreas Antona, bringer of foodie cred and Michelin glory to the West Midlands since the early 1990s. Returning to the town where his stellar career as a restaurateur took off, he has transferred head chef Adam Bennett across from Simpsons, his Edgbaston redoubt, and given him a new toybox, in the form of this bobby-dazzler of a pub.
It's the Antona/Bennett connection which inspired my journey to The Cross, 15 minutes drive from Coventry. Outside, it looks like your typical smart gastropub, but clearly it aspires to a higher state – a restropub, if you like, in the style of Tom Kerridge's Hand and Flowers in Marlow. The food is as elegantly worked and impeccable as the precision-tooled box hedges in the garden. The front-of-house team know their onions – and can probably point out where they were grown. The oxblood and battleship-grey walls bear trophies from a lifetime of epic dining experiences, with framed menus from The Dorchester and Restaurant Paul Bocuse alongside awards and citations.
In a sun-filled garden room, tall-windowed and smelling of new leather, we settled to a pretty much faultless three courses which reflected the décor in their perfect, mannerly good taste. Tip-top sourdough, baked on the premises, had the authentic tugging consistency of Poilâne. A breakfast-inspired salad balanced a breadcrumbed duck egg on a hunk of black pudding, in a nest of leaves dressed with crumbled pancetta. An indulgent veloute, a hymn to the power of cream and good stock – was delicately flavoured with parsley root, and powered up by a swirl of diced herbs and chanterelles and a tracery of truffle-oil foam.
Pork belly is the gold standard dish of the ambitious pub-restaurant; The Cross's elegant version came with popcorn-sized puffs of crackling and a brace of glossy prunes. The only less-than-dazzling dish was herb-slicked gurnard partnered with a feisty tranche of pissaladière, which seemed to belong on a different plate. Sides of creamed and new potatoes both relied heavily on butter; far too much of it, we agreed, as we cleaned the dishes.
Restropubs (I'm sticking with it) often give up when it comes to desserts, collapsing into lemon tart/chocolate pudding cliché. Not here; both were fantastically elaborate, like tasting plates compiled by a pastry chef keen to demonstrate a full set of skills. Bay leaf panna cotta, gently astringent, came with gingerbread ice-cream and a swoony slice of warm frangipane tart. Peanut butter parfait, introduced by our sweet waitress as an 'architectural Ferrero Rocher', was more than fit for the Ambassador, riffing on childhood favourites like peanut brittle and caramelised banana.
The user-friendly service saves The Cross from feeling formal, even though most guests seemed to be business lunchers. My friend, who invented the format of the TV hit Come Dine With Me and can consequently jaunt off for jolly mid-week lunches, was curious enough about one nearby table to interrogate them when left alone for a moment. "They're business people," she whispered thunderously. "Something to do with the Institute of Directors." Thank God I returned before she had issued them all with score-cards.
Had she done, I imagine The Cross would have got top marks; it's the kind of place you dream will open in your town. There's a proper snug, too, with wood-fired burner. Given the smartness of the place – special occasion, rather than bring the kids for Sunday lunch – I imagine this cosy room will mainly be used to hold waiting diners. But on a quiet lunchtime, it proved the perfect place for us to retire with coffees and salted caramel macarons, a couple of ladies of a certain age, very happy in the company of a proper beauty.
The Cross, Kenilworth,16 New Street Kenilworth Warwickshire (01926 853 840). Around £40 a head for three courses with wine. Set lunch £20 for three courses
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