It is 2010 and someone tells me I will get an outstanding lunch if I go to Coventry.
And it doesn’t end there. I am informed that the culinary delights will be complemented by wines that would make a Mayfair sommelier weep into his ridiculously oversized decanter.
What do I tell this gastronomic soothsayer? I tell him the only thing that makes sense: that he is delusional and should go home, shut the door and stay there for a very long time.
For years, Birmingham was the butt of jokes when it came to restaurants. But Coventry? Cooking in the birthplace of the Godcake appeared to be beyond redemption.
Spin forward to 2016 and I don’t need anyone to tell me to hop on a train to Coventry for great cooking. Because I know that a few miles from the city that chefs forgot is The Cross at Kenilworth, a pub where the kitchen is in the safe hands of Adam Bennett, who quite simply is one of the finest cooks to hail from the West Midlands since forever.
The lucky, well upholstered folk of Kenilworth know a good thing when they see it. When we arrive at The Cross at 12.15pm a group of immaculately coiffed ladies are already into the day’s first sizeable glass of white wine. And wine, and fine cooking, is what today is all about.
The pub (well, it’s not really a pub – there’s no dart board, for a start) is preparing to host a wine dinner showcasing Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné on Thursday, April 14. Bennett’s five-course dinner will be accompanied by five wines, introduced by Charlotte Buisson Dackow, Paul Jaboulet Aîné’s sommelier. Top tipples will include the big-hitting Crozes Hermitages “La Chapelle,” one of the world’s top drawer wines, for which you will pay north of £300-£400 a bottle in a restaurant.
I join an intrepid advance party to ensure everything is in order for the good people of Kenilworth next month. I expect there may be minor tweaks with the menu before Bennett rings his bell to start service but it is shaping up to be a fabulous night.
A starter of sweet Portland crab is subtly pimped with cumin and cut back with citrusy pomelo. A couple of splashes of avocado provide green, creamy palate emulsion.
The dish is paired with Crozes Hermitage Blanc Les Jalets, which is fresh and a little peachy. It’s a great marriage of wine and shellfish.
Bennett excels at big flavours, reining in the temptation to overblow robust ingredients thanks to classically-informed refinement. If you want a faultless demonstration of the essence of modern British cooking, here it is:
Slow-cooked pig’s cheek gets a crown of Roscoff onion (cooked sous vide and seared on a brisk heat for caramel sweetness), wild garlic, mash and crunchy “blood” bread for texture. It’s pub-food-meets-French-paysanne-meets-cheffy-spin-up. And it works very well, especially with a glass of syrah-packed Crozes Hermitage Rouge Les Jalets, a super smooth berry-tinged, liquoricey drink.
The main course of Highland venison is terrific. The perfectly cooked pink meat gets a peppery, comforting cushion of haggis, which has been cooked down with a veal stock to boost the flavour. The flesh and offal bedfellows are lifted by sweet pear and a simply delicious celeriac purée that has been folded through with brown butter. I’d happily eat a bowl of the latter, one of the nicest vegetables I have eaten this year.
Interestingly, the venison is paired with Hermitage La Petite Chapelle. La Petite’s superstar big sister, the Hermitage La Chapelle, is reserved for the cheese course in the hope of delivering a purer tasting experience for guests. I like the ballsiness of The Cross’s decision although I happen to think La Chapelle is better suited to the pomp of the venison. Maybe there will be a rethink before April 14. There is such complexity to La Chapelle that I think it would be interesting to see how it plays off the different elements of the venison dish. Either way, it is terrific drinking.
La Chapelle, aged in oak for 15-18 months, delivers a big mouthful of dense, purple fruit, a taste of rarified high living. It is great to see wine like this liberated from the sterile cellars of Russian billionaires, hedge fund managers and Google executives and given a wider exposure in Coventry’s environs.
There is general agreement that the lychee-tinged Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, served with Bennett’s mango “crumble” and Acacia honey ice cream, is a knock out. The sweetness is restrained, refreshing rather than cloying, to give pure expression to this indulgent grape.
The Jaboulet Aîné dinner is one of a series of gourmet events at The Cross, which have been introduced by restaurant manager Giuseppe Longobardi.
The wines have been selected in partnership with Jaboulet’s UK distributor Bibendum PLB Group, whose informed team knows its stuff.
The dinner with wines costs £100 per head. It is a great opportunity to try some terrific wines which, let’s face it, would usually be beyond the reach of many of us. When you factor in Bennett’s Michelin-starred cooking, it represents good value for a special occasion gastro splurge.
To book, email email@example.com or call The Cross on 01926 853 840.