Surely the whole point of a gastro-pub is that there is some, erm, gastro – you know, eating and drinking.
For a while, however, when we turned up at The Cross Keys, we were worried we wouldn’t be doing much of either.
And it had all started so well. We arrived late on a Friday lunchtime and were lucky enough to bag an on-street parking spot just a few doors from this Water Lane hostelry in the heart of Holbeck Urban Village.
When we opened the front door, we were hit by a welcome blast of heat from real coal fires blazing in the hearths. The air, too, was fragranced with the scent of burning logs, making for a lovely cosy atmosphere.
There are really three parts to the downstairs of this old foundry inn which dates back to the early 1800s. There’s the sort of overgrown snug to the left, complete with shelves of books and boardgames, encouraging you to hunker down for the whole afternoon.
There’s a main bar area, with its own fire, and a section to the rear which has a (very slightly) more modern feel with fashionable forest-style wallpaper, leading out on to an outdoor eating area for those more balmy days.
The bare-brick walls of the bar are complemented by a wash of muted olive green paint and the stripped floors are topped with old wooden tables and chairs.
It’s higgledy-piggledy in a deliberate but quite delightful way.
If only it could have lived up to its initial promise.
While we were treated to a friendly welcome, it was to be some time before we could even place an order, never mind begin our repast.
When we approached the bar, the young barman assured us someone would be over to our table take our order soon. My definition of ‘soon’ and his, however, clearly differed and we began what felt like rather a long wait.
As the menu is somewhat limited (not in itself a bad thing), we’d made our choices within a couple of minutes. It was to be many more before we’d actually be seeing our order.
While we were waiting, said barman offered to fetch us some drinks. Grateful for this interlude, we selected a nice-sounding chardonnay from the wine board.
To our delight, he returned quickly. Albeit with the wrong wine. Off he went again, only to return with bad news. There was none of our chosen wine left.
Instead, he went on to suggest a series of about four alternatives – all of which turned out to be sauvignon blanc, not really anything like the wine we’d originally wanted. Instead, we settled on a Milbrook chenin blanc (£16.35), which, thankfully, was in stock.
As it turned out, our ordering problems were not to be confined to food. At lunchtime, of seven mains, two are available as starters: the plum tomato and basil tart with honey and goats’ cheese cream (£5.05 as a starter, £9.95 as a main) and the Shetland mussels with tarragon, leek and white wine cream (again £5.05 as a starter, £9.95 as a main).
But, and I think you’ve seen this coming, both were sold out (or off – we never did get to the bottom of it), which left us with a choice of, well, soup or soup. We went for the soup.
In fairness, the cream of celeriac dish (a bit steep at £5.95 perhaps) was very nice indeed. Lovely and thick and topped with a drizzle of truffle oil, it came served with a fresh hunk of wholemeal bread. I did however, have to ask for butter, which, when it came, was fridge cold and unspreadable. No big deal, but it’s these little details, when got right, that can leave a great impression. The portion, too, especially at that price and bearing in mind it was not technically a starter, could have been a little bit bigger.
With two options already off and the soup already consumed, that left us with a choice of just four mains: venison sausage with mash and onion gravy (£9.95); wild mushroom and shallot cottage pie (£9.95); Kirkstall Brewery beer-battered pollack, chips, crushed peas and tartar sauce (£9.95); and Gloucester Old Spot Pork Belly with mustard mash and red wine sauce (£10.50).
I went for the pork belly and was not disappointed. The meat had been laboriously-slow cooked and simply melted in the mouth. The chef had worked minor miracles, too, in managing to keep the crackling perfectly crunchy.
The mash had just the right hit of wholegrain mustard and the sauce was nothing short of delicious.
It was lacking in just one area – without any veg on the plate, or in this case, dish, it was rather stark and would definitely have benefited from another flavour. Only later did I see the cabbage and bacon side dish (£3) on the menu and wish I had ordered that too – my mistake, though, not theirs.
My partner went for the venison sausage, which was also something of a triumph – the sausages being rich and gamey but not too overpowering, and the mash being perfectly smooth.
The onion gravy was thick and flavoursome. All in all, two pretty faultless mains and at just around the £10 mark each, good value, too.
It took some time for the staff to notice we had finished and they seemed in no hurry to sell us dessert.
Eventually, though, the plates were cleared – though we still had to ask if we could order puddings. No fear of up-selling here, it seems.
There were four afters to choose from in all, all priced at £5.50: apple and raisin crumble with cinnamon custard; Yorkshire blackberry Eton mess; warm chocolate brownie with clotted cream and Christmas pudding with brandy cream.
The Eton mess came as a giant serving, though, not very well-presented, being dished up in the same sort of bowl we’d earlier eaten soup from. Not the prettiest of desserts at the best of times, it would have been more appetising in a glass.
The chef was also a little heavy-handed with the meringue and cream and I felt a little short-changed on the blackberries which would have cut through some of the cloying cream and sugar. All right, but I couldn’t finish it.
My companion’s chocolate brownie was good, but not remotely warm as advertised.
The clotted cream was a delicious accompaniment, though, and made for a change from the ubiquitous vanilla ice-cream often served alongside this chocolately treat.
In all, the bill came to £59.70, not including service, which feels about average for three courses and a bottle of wine on the edge of Leeds city centre.
You would hope, however, that the owners of The Cross Keys are aiming for a little better than average.
On the evidence of our visit, they still have a bit of work to do.
The Cross Keys, 107 Water Lane, Leeds, LS11 5WD
Opening hours: Lunch is served Monday to Saturday from noon to 4pm and dinner from 6pm to 10pm. Sunday roasts are served 12pm to 5pm.
Tel. 0113 243 3711
SERVICE ............................. **
***** EXCELLENT **** VERY GOOD *** GOOD ** AVERAGE * POOR