Unlike some people, I can’t profess to having dined in many places with a hallowed Michelin star. Jamie and I have been to a few – always as a special treat – and while we enjoy the experience, we’re acutely aware that unlike some genuine food lovers who can tell their Maillard reaction from their mise en place, we’re just normal punters who like to enjoy nice food and sometimes even get dressed up for the occasion.
The first time we went together to a restaurant with a Michelin star, we had a less-than-fabulous time. The stiff white linen made us feel somehow crumpled, the painful silence only punctuated by nervous, hushed tones and the occasional accidental scraping of a fork on a plate, and the wine list was weighty and inaccessible to anyone with an average level of knowledge of wine, and indeed an average bank balance. It was awkward, uncomfortable and reminded us that yes, we didn’t belong there.
Fast forward about a decade and things have changed. The establishments that hold stars range from places like that to a newer generation of restaurants and pubs who are recognised for their quality and yet also manage to remember that, yes, hospitality is about the guests as much as its about the chef finding some kind of personal culinary nirvana and the Michelin inspectors and their sought-after awards.
I suppose you can add the fact that being a bit older means we’re more comfortable in our own skin and happy to admit that while I might write about food, I will never be hailed by chefs and important people in the food scene as some kind of trailblazer or knowledgeable rogue who breaks boundaries with my descriptions of flavours and textures, or impresses with my knowledge of cookery techniques. That means we choose places based on what we like and an atmosphere where we can relax and enjoy the experience.
It’s for that reason that when we were deciding on where to celebrate our 8th wedding anniversary (any excuse for a meal, you see), we didn’t ‘tick another top 10 in restaurants in the world’ place off the list, or message a chef friend (of which I have none) to tell them we were coming back to see them, but instead quietly booked a table at The Cross in Kenilworth.
Between us, we’ve been to The Cross a few times. Me once as a treat for my blog, once in a group for a friend’s birthday, and another time just after our cat died which saw me sobbing into a glass of wine halfway through the main course and us having to leave the car in the car park overnight so I could drown my sorrows. But that’s another story.
Tucked away in the old part of Kenilworth, The Cross used to be a pub and Jamie remembers playing pool there as a teen. It still has that feel – perhaps that’s why we like it, and there was a sense of homeliness when we returned, despite the subtle presence of visors and measures to reassure everyone that this isn’t quite business as usual.
Like every other restaurant, they’ve had a tough time in 2020 and alongside their sister restaurant Simpsons, pivoted to offer an ‘at home’ dining experience that we haven’t tried, but still may as it’s continuing.
Despite the challenges, they’re well and truly back and thanks to the popularity of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, were so busy on the day I booked that we could only get a table at 9pm. Fortunately another string to Kenilworth’s bow is The Kenilworth Hotel and its excellent cocktail lounge, so we started the evening there before heading over.
Chef Adam Bennett is no newbie to the scene. Coventry born, he spent eight years as head chef at Simpsons before becoming chef director at The Cross in 2013. He’s been a finalist in National Chef of the Year UK, won Midlands Chef of the Year and competed in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or on behalf of Britain in 2012. Need I say more.
During a quick chat with him on our visit, he told us that while lockdown was horrendous, there had been some positives. At The Cross, it’s allowed them to hone the menu, keeping it small but excellent. There’s a seven-course tasting menu for £85 a head, or you can choose from an a la carte menu with a choice of three starters, mains or desserts, with three courses for £65 or two for £55. Intimidating and prohibitively expensive it is not. Appealing and clearly excellent it is.
We start with bread and butter that Jamie may or may not have scraped the remnants off and eaten with no accompaniment, followed by little cheese croquettes that I would happily eat by the dozen if I could.
To start, Jamie opted for a Devon crab soup, which is possibly the least Jamie decision I’ve ever seen and one that he is still very, very proud of. Clearly the product of hours, if not days, of work the soup was poured on to a saffron rouille – a thick, enriched sauce from Provence that was both pleasing to the eye and to his mouth. The whole dish apparently rivalled the Porthilly Oyster sauce he tried on another rare special occasion at Nathan Outlaw’s restaurant in Port Isaac, yet handily is far closer to home.
For me – the lady currently obsessed with scotch eggs – a crispy duck egg complete with oozy yolk that spilled out of the crispy crumbed exterior and served with a rich, savoury wild mushroom fricassee hit the spot and proved that yes, sometimes the simple ones are the best.
As a little extra treat, we had a taste of the heritage beetroot salad with Windrush Valley goat’s cheese. That perfect example of a few simple flavours, working together in harmony, and also a heads-up that even if you think you don’t like quinoa, when a top chef fiddles with it they’ll probably come up with a way to make sure you do.
There may have been only three mains to choose from, but it was a tough call. As a monkfish fan, I nearly went for a fillet with wild rice, Romesco sauce, pine kernels and chorizo, but couldn’t resist the loin of Cornish lamb.
Another dish where simplicity is allowed to shine. Lamb, cooked pink, served naked and next to – rather than doused in – a rich but piquant jus studded with capers. Fondant potatoes, grilled onion, a gentle addition of herbs. And no, I don’t know what they are, but rather than dissect the flavours, I happily assembled each forkful with a bit of each element, shovelling it in with the gusto of a girl who loves her food rather than a critic that I most definitely am not.
For Jamie, the joy of somewhere like The Cross lies in the fact that there is no shame at all in them serving, and therefore him ordering, steak and chips. A 10oz Hereford ribeye, complete with a jenga-style pile of triple-cooked chips, some onion rings and a handful of salad so he can pretend he’s had one of his five a day. Of course it was good – how could it not be – especially with a delicious bottle of wine and the company of his fabulous wife.
While I can’t tell you about the intricate skill that lies in making a lamb jus or preparing a saffron rouille, what I can tell you is that despite your plans to have only one bottle of wine during a meal, it is fairly certain that when you are in a place that makes you feel as relaxed as The Cross does, you are likely to order a second. This is probably not a wise choice, but it’s a simple inevitability that you shouldn’t give yourself too much of a hard time over.
Another inevitability is that once you’ve moved on to the second bottle (especially if you’ve had cocktails before), you will undoubtedly order dessert whether you need it or not. In this case the hazelnut praline souffle, that comes with a 20-minute wait worth every second, and a drool-inducing moment as you watch chocolate sauce poured from a height and allowed to seep down into it.
Again, I don’t know enough about souffles to tell you how it should have been, but it tasted bloody good. And of course there was cheese – how could there not be? A selection of British cheeses that I can’t really remember much about due to the hefty alcohol consumption, but the perfect way to round off a meal.
Of course, the food was brilliant. Nobody needs me to write anything to know that. If the Michelin people say so, then obviously it is and there’s nothing an amateur like me can add to their esteemed views.
But as I harp on about all the time, it’s not the food that put our meal at The Cross up there with some of my all-time favourite restaurant experiences. It’s the little card that came delivered to our table. It’s the fact the menu is accessible, welcoming and without any of the snobbery designed to make normal people – people like you and me – feel that we somehow don’t deserve to be there.
It’s the smiles of the staff and their enthusiasm for what they do. Their ability and eagerness to have a conversation beyond the script of taking orders from those they serve. It’s the sommelier’s confidence to ask openly how much you want to spend on a bottle of wine, without a hint of judgement and with an understanding that yes, while some of us like exceptional food and drink, our bank balances are nowhere near exceptional.
It’s all those things and more. The open kitchen, the casual linen-free tables, the fact that Adam takes time to pop out and have a chat and speak honestly about how difficult things have been. It’s being able to take home the third of the bottle of wine you just couldn’t finish without any hint of judgement or shame.
It’s for those reasons that The Cross has cemented itself as a great restaurant in my view. It’s a place where you can be comfortable, no matter who you are. Where someone like me can enjoy great food without worrying that I don’t know what ingredients are what, or what technique has been used to cook them. It’s a place that would impress people who are far more important than me – and yet it doesn’t make me or my husband feel like we’re any less valuable as diners. For me that’s what counts.
Of course, I know nothing about this stuff. So go where you like. I’ll be at The Cross having a good time.
[We paid in full at The Cross – though they are doing Eat Out to Help Out and continuing it in September on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday]