The Cross, 16 New Street, Kenilworth. 01926 853 840; www.thecrosskenilworth.co.uk
Setting out to the new restaurant of the former head chef of Simpsons I’m trying to keep an open mind.
But, like everyone else, I’m wondering whether Adam Bennett will manage to sprinkle some of Simpsons’ golddust over Kenilworth.
The Coventrian chef has handed over the reins of the Simpsons kitchen after returning from the Olympics of the culinary world.
For anyone who hasn’t been following the story of this rising star, Adam represented the UK in the last Bocuse D’Or, a global contest named after legendary three Michelin-star French chef Paul Bocuse, and pitting the best chefs from 24 countries around the world against one another.
Such was the importance of the competition, Bennett took a four-month sabbatical to train.
In the qualifying European round his meat dish of truffled blue legged chicken with mushrooms and tarragon was marked best in class.
At the world final in Lyon he achieved Britain’s best ever result by finishing fourth, with the best meat platter in the competition and subsequently received the Chairman’s Award from the British Culinary Federation.
(He’s kind of a big deal.)
The move to Kenilworth marks a return for the chef who cooked here under Andreas Antona (owner of Simpsons and now The Cross) 18 months before the Michelin-starred restaurant moved from the town to Edgbaston.
Along with his arrival The Cross, which had been running as a restaurant for several years after previous owners converted it from a traditional pub, has had a substantial face-lift.
The front door now leads into a bar with an adjoining snug, complete with cosy chairs and log burner.
Looking out over a neat walled garden is a dining room with a view right into the kitchen, and next door is the red-bricked Old School Room with new wooden flooring, beams and panelling.
This is where we’re seated, and where boozy football fans once yelled at a big screen there are now crisp whites and fresh light greys teamed with warm wood and rich burgundy.
Certificates, menus and pictures on the walls feel homely and there are charmingly mismatched wooden chairs, with deep red and tartan furnishing.
Leather-backed bench seating along one side is convivial and encourages talk between tables.
After mulling over the menu with some of the best sourdough I’ve ever tasted, I opt for the crispy duck egg starter (£7) having heard rave reviews.
It’s like a less stodgy, more classy version of a Scotch egg. Smaller than a hen’s egg and delicately dusted with Panko breadcrumbs, it has perfectly runny yolk that spills out over little chunks of streaky bacon, fried potato and salad leaves. A real triumph.
My dinner date plumps for the ham hock terrine (£7), which sees satisfying chunks of meat set in jelly, served with a refreshing celeriac remoulade. Rich and delicious. Our only qualm was that it was served a touch too cold, slightly stifling the full flavour.
A young, enthusiastic sommelier has recommended accompanying wines and the pinot grigio he has matched with the terrine works perfectly.
For mains we want to put Bennett’s meat dishes to the test.
I go for the venison (£19.50) and my friend goes for the pork belly (£17).
Confidence comes with the standard cutlery (no need for super-serrated knives here) and this really is top quality meat, perfectly cooked.
Both dishes are indulgent, with the venison served on earthy haggis with roasted root veg and a serving of Brussels sprouts, tied together with a rich gravy of gloriously peaty Laphroaig whisky.
The venison is so knock-your-socks-off sumptuous that the fact the delicately creamed sprouts and a little potato pave also stand out for compliments is testament to a brilliantly balanced dish.
You can taste the chef’s complete confidence in his ingredients.
The pork belly is meltingly soft, with the perfect crispy crackling, served with chunks of butternut squash, cabbage, mash, capers and sage sauce.
The addition of prunes is reminiscent of French bistro pork and prunes or a traditional dish of central Portugal with the pureed dried fruit poured over medallions of Porco Preto.
But this is the first time I’ve seen it paired with belly pork and it’s a magical combination.
The sommelier has matched the pork with an “elegant and refined” pinot noir and the venison with a “bold and boisterous” Argentinian shiraz.
We find the pork belly needs something more robust, while the venison is so rich it would benefit from something less punchy. So we swap.
Perhaps because our satisfaction levels with the sourdough and the first two courses are so high I’m not expecting much from the dessert menu, but it’s enticingly original.
There are no obvious chocolatey options but a grown-up range of puddings including caramelised pears, Black Forest gateau and prune and Armagnac parfait.
My hollow legs are too full of crispy egg and venison but my companion gallantly loosens his belt for the apple and blackberry compote (£6.50).
It’s creative and beautifully presented, with three delicate little doughnuts, each with a different filling, matched with the tangy compote on top of a bay leaf pannacotta, with a touch of spice from the gingerbread ice cream.
It’s a touch of genius to end the meal.
From the cutlery and wine glasses to the crockery and serviettes, nothing at The Cross makes a showy statement or gives a frivolous frill.
Everything about this place is soulful, inviting and relaxing and there’s a total focus on quality and the diners’ satisfaction.
The portions are generous and it’s a sign of an excellent menu that having ordered your top two choices you regret not being able to sample a third.
We leave wanting to return for the beef broth, the cod, the sea bass, and every one of the puddings we couldn’t manage.
My harshest criticism of The Cross was the sound track of cheesy Christmas jingles, including the unappetising Jackson Five, the rarely palatable Mariah Carey and the utterly nauseating Cliff Richard.
But at £40-a-head (including drinks) for a meal this good from beginning to end, I’m prepared to sit through Mistletoe and Wine.
This is dining out at an Olympic standard and Kenilworth has got its gold back.