Food review: Quality food and rural charm at The Cross Keys
Rural pubs have to fight to survive. Take the Cross Keys, at Kinnerley, near Oswestry.
It serves the smallest of populations – Kinnerley is home to just over 1,000 people – and must out-gun supermarkets and restaurants, TVs and streaming services if it wishes to attract a crowd.
And yet. And yet. The community is very much on the side of saving rural pubs.
In The Cross Keys’ case, it was saved four years ago from being turned into homes after a local businessman and his wife stepped forward to ensure its future. There was considerable joy across the region and a community group formed to save it was jubilant.
More recently, Matt Tommey and Kay Phasey have stepped up to the plate, taking over a venue that clearly has an important place in the hearts of locals.
Both have considerable experience. Tommey formerly worked for Hobsons Brewery before moving into management and running the Charlton Arms and Church Inn for Claude and Cedric Bosi.
He ran his own pub, Bennetts End, at Knowbury, in south Shropshire, and has now moved north to Oswestry.
His partner has similar experience and the two are looking to settle in the small-but-perfectly-formed village, now that they have begun a family.
Though their credentials are impressive, they need a decent cook. Happily, they have two.
The former is head chef, Warwick Kidd, who is among the county’s best.
Kidd learned his trade at the school of hard knocks, cooking in kitchens where chefs didn’t suffer fools. He has a Michelin pedigree, having cooked in the UK and France, and is also an in-demand private chef.
His number two is Alex Lloyd, a popular sous chef who has worked in Oswestry’s better restaurants, including the Townhouse and Sebastians. Between them, they have what it takes.
With Kinnerley’s very own Fab Four at the helm, the Cross Keys has what it takes to be successful. It’s been given a lick of paint and artwork on the walls pays homage to its rural location, with images of countryside animals.
The menu is decent, too. The ambition of Warwick and Alex is evident.
Their soup of the day, for instance, is a Jerusalem artichoke veloute, rather than plain old mushroom or boring old tomato.
Salsify, winter greens, cavalo nero and tenderstem broccoli sashay onto the menu, like models on the catwalk, elbowing plain old peas and carrots into touch. There’s creativity and can-do skill, there’s know-how and a career’s worth of ideas.
Not that locals have to partake of the finer things in life, if all they want is a plate of fish and chips or a decent steak.
The Cross Keys serves haddock battered in Woods’ Brewery batter, alongside homemade tartare sauce and hand cut chips. Hand cut chips reappear alongside locally sourced steaks, with a choice of rump, skirt or sirloin on offer. In short, The Cross Keys pulls off that rarest of tricks of being able to appeal to all-comers; it is all things to all people.
My partner and I visited in the depths of winter and found the venue full to the brim. Drinkers congregated at the bar, enjoying quality pints of ale and service with a smile. Diners ate in what might have been a former lounge; with a mixture of couples, elderly residents and young families – kids with iPads and plastic toys were just as welcome as those in tweeds.
My partner started with salmon gravadlax. It was served prettily with beetroot, a fragrant and herby dill dressing and a peppery horseradish cream. The combination of tastes and textures worked well while the presentation was as pretty as a picture.
I started with a twice baked cheese soufflé, which was deliciously light and eggy. A garnish of pickled pear added both sweet and acid, cutting through the richness of the soufflé in the finest of ways. Candied walnuts offered texture and another hit of sweet. Yum.
Our mains were both good. She ate an accurately cooked stonebass fillet with lemon and dill potatoes that were packed with flavour.
The lemon and dill were a wonderful counterbalance to the fish. Cavalo nero and a white wine veloute finished an impressive dish that brought echoes of France to this quiet village near Oswestry. It was an intelligently constructed plate of food.
My main was decent too. A sweet and sour butternut squash had been roasted to bring out its natural flavour. A warm lentil salad added plenty of texture and earthiness to the dish while harissa added heat and toasted seeds provided crunch.
A round of goat’s cheese was a bit of a letdown; flaccid in texture and with unimpressive flavour, it was the one dull note – something that could be exchanged for a higher quality replacement or removed from the dish altogether.
Desserts were fun, which is the way desserts should be. A smoked tea chocolate fondant was rich and gooey, though the smoked tea flavour was overwhelmed by chocolate and became noticeable by its absence.
My cereal milk pannacotta was a nice idea that lost something in the execution. It was served with cornflake crunch and a fruit coulis, which added texture and sweetness. The pannacotta wobbled like a fat man’s muffin top and in truth would have been better with more cream. The flavour of cereal milk was great – who doesn’t like that – but there it was a little bit too blancmange-ey, a little bit too much like a milk flan. The fields are full of dairy cattle – a little cream in the mix would have improved things considerably.
With minor tweaks, The Cross Keys has the potential to become one of Shropshire’s go-to pubs. It’s not there yet, though it has every opportunity of doing so. It has good owners, a quality team in the kitchen and a loyal and supportive community who have shown in recent years that they’ll back it all the way. As it gradually beds in, it will start to attract more customers from Oswestry, Shrewsbury and the many villages and hamlets between.
The region needs more quality, independent pubs that support local communities. The Cross Keys has made an impressive start.