Restaurant Review: The Cross Keys, Leeds

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I famously don’t like cities. I lived in one for too long and escaped as soon as I found the courage. I now live in a crumbling, draughty hovel on the Pennines and sometimes when it properly wuthers I wish I was back where there are streetlights and sanitation. I might be joking about the last bit.

In the past, I’ve had to drag my sorry bones to Leeds, but of late I’ve fallen for Holbeck. I wrote glowingly last autumn about the Engine House Café which is just round the corner from the Cross Keys: the area in general has a real heart beat and most of the development feels appropriate – witness the amazing work being undertaken at historic Marshall’s Mill (written about recently in this paper).

The Cross Keys is a rare beast: a proper boozer serving fabulous food. Not a gastropub, though doubtless that’s its category if there needs to be one. I’ve declared a moratorium on the term. For me it’s redundant, an anachronism. It’s just a good pub with good food and good beer. Let’s leave it there, shall we?

A handsome early 19th century building, it echoes with the sound of foundry workers being fed and watered. The careful renovation has retained tons of features: stone floors, exposed brick walls and beams.

Welcome heat belts out of a wood stove on a sub-zero night and there are books and games should you run out of chat. Ephemera of various sorts is scattered around, there are great old photos and vintage mirrors hung on the walls plus one or two nice retro touches like the frills on the lampshades.

It looks as if it’s been like this for decades – I mean this in a good way; accretion of age rather than bought as a job lot in the “ubiquitous pub interior” warehouse.

The welcome. This isn’t hard to get right, but how many places do? Here, it’s cheery, twinkly and feels genuine. Service is spot on: informed, efficient and just the right side of relaxed. The menu’s printed with suggestions for beer under the main courses.

I should mention the beer: there are a number of local brews plus a couple from Sheffield including Abbeydale Brewery’s Daily Bread. I’m not a beer drinker but I like the sound of this. As in “give us this day our daily bread”. Or probably more aptly for me, a pint of Nick Stafford’s Nightmare please.

A gloriously short menu starts with the likes of haggis, neeps & tatties and Shetland mussels with celery, bacon and ale cream sauce which is pronounced over-salted by its eater but perfect by me (the usual disagreement about seasoning). My smoked trout and pickled cucumber salad had sweet, mellow notes, the trout nicely oakey and the cucumber properly pickled ie not gherkins from Lidl. Potted goose arrived in a dinky Kilner jar and benefited from the kick of the plum and blackberry chutney.

At this point, Irene mentions the music: regular readers will know that it’s one of my bug bears. Here it’s sufficiently low-key as not to be intrusive but interesting enough to make you cock an ear from time to time: Bo Diddly. Muddy Waters. Hendrix. Class!

On to mains, and Diana’s rib eye steak looks great and tastes even better. But how in tarnation are you supposed to pour the red wine sauce onto it when it comes on a slate?

You might as well chuck it straight in your lap and cut out the middle man. Sheena’s sea bream arrives on the top of a big dish bursting with mussels, fennel, baby potatoes and tomato broth – full of flavour, rustic and colourful (recommended beer: Brewdog Punk IPA).

But dish of the night is mine. I rarely order pork (so many disappointments so many times) but I’m drawn to the fillet with sticky pearl barley stew. What a belter. Tasty, tender meat sitting perkily on the earthy, wholesome, toothsome barley. Pearl barley is an under-used grain – let’s start a campaign. It made it a proper retro supper, simply presented: faultless.

Not everyone in the pub’s eating – there are men of a certain age sitting around just, you know, drinking beer and chatting. As if it’s a proper pub or something. This is a heart-warming sight for a cynic like me who from time to time gets fed up seeing so much seating in what’s supposed to be a boozer there’s no room for drinkers.

Our hawk-eyed waitress spots that we’re prevaricating about pudding and comes up with the perfect solution: a shared rhubarb platter. It’s a work of art. There’s a shot (like a smoothie, with a kick of ginger), a little mound of buttery crumble with a tiny jug of custard, layers of rhubarb and shortbread and a pile of caramelised sticks sitting on tiny shards that explode in your mouth. Amazing! No, you’re not having a stroke.

We four fall on it and it disappears in no time. So much for “oh I’m as full as an egg, I couldn’t eat another thing ...”

The prospect of a city pub just got a whole lot more appealing. My kind of place: warm welcome, happy vibe, honest food with no pointless faffing and beer with quixotic names. What’s not to like?

A meal for two (two courses each plus a shared pudding) with a bottle of Levin Sauvignon Blanc at £18: £70.

The Cross Keys, 107 Water Lane, Holbeck, Leeds. LS11 5WD. Tel: 0113 243 3711.