Richard Miller reluctantly reports on a work in progress in need of some tweaks

Typical. Just as the deft finishing touches are being added to another masterpiece of a review, I read a heartfelt social media post from the restaurant owner that causes me to slam on the brakes. His message, in a nutshell, is a stark reminder that hospitality is deep in the mire. 

I wince a little at the less than favourable analysis of his gaff that I’m about to submit. Those pithy paragraphs decrying the steak and chips feel a bit like poor form now. My finger hovers over and then retreats away from the "send" button.

What smug folk might call a teachable moment but what we’ll call a work in progress.

But a shoddy tea is a shoddy tea, so perhaps this stop-starty evening at The Cross Keys should instead be reframed into what smug folk might call a teachable moment but what we’ll call a work in progress.

This is, after all, an attractive boozer, down there in the up-and-coming-since-2006 “Holbeck Urban Village”. Or to me and thee, down by the canal. There are positives.

2021 10 16 Cross Keys Interior
The Cross Keys, Holbeck - an attractive boozer

The welcome’s warm, albeit a little rushed, and the pungently pleasant double-whammy of beer and vinegar that hits us square in the shnozzer as we cross the threshold happens to be my favourite eau de pub.

We arrive early to enjoy a swill before our scran but are quickly jollied through to a high table overlooking the sizeable beer garden at the back (a patch that I’ve duly noted for its outdoor supping potential next summer). It feels like we’ve barely bedded in before we’re being asked if we’re ready to order yet. Cool the jets, would yer?

When we do decide what we’d like to shove down our necks, word comes back from the kitchen that one of those choices is unavailable. (Goats cheese bon bons if you’re wondering.) No biggy, but a recurring theme.

2021 10 16 Cross Keys Salmon
Beetroot and gin gravadlax

Our bonbon substitute is a neat plate of beetroot and gin gravadlax (£6.95). It feels like some time has passed since the fleshy slithers of smoked salmon were at their perky best, but an accompanying pile of crispy capers, offering crunch and zip, are a savvy touch against the oily fish.

A smart-looking ham hock hash is a solid stab at a pub classic (£6.95). Cubes of potato mingle with bristly strands of salty meat. Its fluffy poached egg crown arrives replete with a pert and poppable yolk. I let everybody down by not saturating the lot in brown sauce.

Things veer off-course with the mains.

2021 10 16 Cross Keys Ham Hock Hash
Ham hock hash - a solid stab at a pub classic

Keeping things pubby, we go with a slab of rugged ribeye (£15.95). Unasked when we order, we chase somebody down to request that the steak’s cooked medium-rare. What lands, however, would more likely be classed as "frazzled", with nary a hint of pink throughout. It is replaced good-naturedly. Chips, allegedly of the triple-cooked genre, are tepid and tasteless. A peppercorn sauce is clears-the-airways fierce.

Unbeknownst to our waitress until the order was delivered to the kitchen, the seabream had also been chalked off. Apologetically, she offers us a hake dish that's coming soon, apparently, to the new menu (£14.95). It's a clunky plateful that will benefit from a tweak or two. The fish is over-cooked and under-flavoured. The tomato sauce tastes suspiciously like a carton of corner shop passata. It’s an odd ‘un.

2021 10 16 Cross Keys Hake
A replacement hake at The Cross Keys - might benefit from a tweak or two
2021 10 16 Cross Keys Ribeye
The second attempt at a medium rare ribeye

We watch enviously as good-looking burgers arrive for the lads on the next table.

A nod towards gastronomic redemption comes in the form of sticky toffee pudding (£6.50). It usually does. The dark wodge of cake is light of sponge and generous of warm, buttery sauce, whose heat contrasts pleasingly with its bedfellow of cold vanilla ice cream. Two spoons make short work of the lot, especially when dredging the pool of creamy caramel mush at the bottom of the bowl.

The cheeseboard, we discover only after ordering it, is unavailable.

Sticky Toffee Pudding At The Cross Keys Inn Leeds
Sticky toffee pudding brings redemption

Far be it for me to comment on inter-departmental relations, but it seems that communication between the kitchen and the team out front, on this visit at least, is on the wonky side.

With its bare brick walls and nods towards an industrial heritage, The Cross Keys is a handsome spot that’s appealingly just off the beaten track. There is a fine selection of beer to get amongst and its people are keen. Nice pub, iffy grub. Finesse the fodder and there’ll be one less thing to worry about.

The Cross Keys 107 Water Lane, Holbeck, LS11 5WD

Follow Richard on Twitter: @eatingthenorth

2021 10 16 Cross Keys Receipt

The scores:

All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.

  • Food 6/10

    Salmon 5, Ham Hock Hash 7, Ribeye 5, Hake 5, Sticky Toffee Pudding 7

  • Service 3/5

    Rapid, but did relax.

  • Atmosphere 4/5

    Pubby and pleasant