Starter envy, it’s the pits.
It is not unusual to grow insanely jealous of a fellow guest’s plate of food at any point during a meal, but when it happens at the get-go it is torture. It usually sets the tone – the “I’ve-screwed-this-up-badly” tone – for the entire dining experience.
And that is particularly hard to bear when you have looked forward to dining at a restaurant for some time (in this case, a year) and you admire the chef’s cooking.
I don’t know why I didn’t pick it. It was there, among the starters at The Cross in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. It wasn’t as if it was hiding. The menu said “Soft Poached Egg” – wild mushrooms, salsify and smoked onions, Berkswell cheese, wholemeal crumbs.
It was cold outside and I had the misfortune of sitting next to food jockey Paul Fulford. An egg with rich mushrooms and a lightly smokey sauce would make everything right.
So I had the salmon.
It was good, a rillette of fresh and smoked salmon with dinky discs of cucumber that had had clever things done to them to make them more cucumbery than normal cucumber, kissed with flavours of bergamot and lovage.
But then the egg arrived and it looked delicious, so delicious that I feigned a complete lack of interest until Fulford offered me his virtually cleared plate and I virtually licked it (the plate). Wow, that Adam Bennet knows how to knock out a masterful, classic sauce. I felt like I was in Lyon, which, funnily enough, is where Bennett, chef director at The Cross, will be next month competing in the Bocuse d’Or.
Bennett is representing the UK in the world’s most prestigious, maddest cooking competition this side of Bloxwich. How he is preparing for it while running The Cross, and picking up a Michelin star within two minutes of opening, beggars belief. Is he immortal? No, he isn’t. He supports Coventry City.
I hadn’t made it over to Bennett’s sensitively renovated pub in Kenilworth until now because it takes five hours to get there on a train from Birmingham. Luckily, I hitched a ride with the Midlands’ oldest restaurant pundit and some hospitality types and pretty much loved everything about The Cross, barring the fact it’s not in Birmingham, where a place like this would clean up. Not that it doesn’t appear to be cleaning up in Warwickshire.
The Cross is part of the Simpsons family of restaurants so it was unlikely to be a failure, impossible frankly with Bennett at the helm. But it’s not always that way. A steak restaurant that boss Andreas Antona launched in Kenilworth came and went. I’m still baffled why Beef was launched in north Warwickshire rather than the heart of Birmingham where good steak isn’t that easy to come by, not for a city of one million people. There’s Andersons, Fiesta del Asado, Opus and… and now I’m struggling. Anyway, I’m going off topic.
I should say that the most popular starter among our group, by order size, was Bennett’s new take on beef tartare. (I won’t mention it was spelt wrong on the menu.)
It was the first night on for the dish and I liked the lighter approach with wasabi, a radish salad and quinoa. It’s probably not the dish for testosterone-fuelled City traders but I admire the experimentation, in this case.
There were eight choices for main courses and the accent was on some clever reworkings, or simply very good unadulterated versions, of pub classics.
Bennett’s braised beef cheek and tongue is a delicious dish, the melty meat bathed in a powerful red wine sauce. It’s great British rootsy cooking, with a bow to France.
The dish, oddly, delivered the only real blip of the night – beef fat mash, which tasted like beef fat. Buttery mash is a delight. Please can we have it back?
My heart dropped when my veal steak arrived. I was so excited. A 10oz hunk of veal on the bone, just like it should be, medium rare, juicy, milky.
You see veal steaks so rarely, at least in Birmingham. I would have thought the lighter flavour would be popular with diners who love the idea of a steak but are put off by the meatiness.
The scare came over the chips. They were big. They were finger-fat. They were piled on top of each other like bricks. They were Jenga chips!!
[Enter, centre stage, Panic, Horror and Outrage.]
I have never, in my life, had a decent Jenga chip. Typically, there are either wet, or unpleasantly sweet, or undercooked, or a combination of the three.
These Jenga chips were crisp, light and fluffy. They were wolf-in-Jenga-clothing chips. Like they say: OMG. My life will never be the same again.
With tearing flowing down my little button cheeks, I have to say I can’t remember much about the rest of the meal. I know I had a beautiful pineapple carpaccio dessert with a coconut sorbet and a ship’s sail of a snappy coconut tuile.
Other members of the group had crème caramel (with golden sultanas, Muscat wine, spiced Madeleine) and a battleship-scale baked brioche pudding with quince compote and nutmeg custard.
What I can remember is that this was excellent cooking. It raises the question: is Birmingham’s best chef no longer in Birmingham? Answers on a postcard, please.
I should also say the waitress, whose name, I’m sorry, I do not know, was brilliant. She should run masterclasses in effective, efficient, unflappable service. It’s a rare gift in hospitality in this country.
Big applause all round.
Dinner, with several heavy drinkers, and some rum, worked out at about £75-a-head.
- The Cross, 16 New Street, Kenilworth CV8 2EZ
- 01926 853 840