Following a middling Sunday lunch, Neil Sowerby suddenly understands the recent vegan upsurge

ON the weekend building up to St George’s Day it felt right to get beefed up. There were no Yorkshire puds or goose fat potatoes on hand for our first roast encounter. Just substantial slices of Dexter beef fresh off the whole spitted beast courtesy of Rob Owen Brown at the Hinchliffe Arms, a Confidentials pub fave in the Pennine hamlet of Cragg Vale. 

And if the promised pudding throwing and tug-of-war didn’t materialise while we were there, we still felt we had honoured the patron saint of Olde England (and Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal and Russia) in time-honoured fashion. The beef from stock raised just up the lane was exquisite.

But that was just the start. You get the trencherman’s taste for flesh, so next day, the Sunday, we made the crusade to Leeds and the Cross Keys. The name’s suitably heraldic, the 1802 building appropriately Georgian and its roasts of high repute. Four times runner up in the 'Best Sunday Lunch' category in The Observer Food Monthly annual awards… and it also has a covetable courtyard to soak up all that sunshine, hot as horseradish, we were suddenly basking in.

180424 Cross Keys Cross Keys Yard
A lovely spot across the river in Holbeck

The Cross Keys is in a lovely spot across the river in Holbeck, and you can even resist the temptation to walk to the nearby Northern Monk refectory as the beer’s just as good here. The Keys is part of North’s empire, so look no further than a pint of Transmission IPA to whet the appetite.

Sad to say what followed didn’t live up to the reputation (and it rained, too). Two tiny starters of crisp squid rings with squid ink mayonnaise and flash fried king prawns with lime and chilli butter were adequate pub nibbles but hardly justified the £5.95 price apiece.

180424 Cross Keys Prawns
Flash fried king prawns: adequate pub nibbles
180424 Cross Keys Squid
Crispy squid rings were fine

Yet they were not what we there for. With distant memories of ‘a whole rib of beef for a party’ offers at the pub, we found the current Sunday roast menu decently priced and adequate, but hardly the stuff of awards. 

The beef was topside (£13.95), medium rare, tender and not without flavour, the accompanying Yorkshire pudding nicely fluffy, the roast baby parsnips the pick of the veg, but the ensemble didn’t excite; roast pork loin and turkey on a £14.95 mixed platter were dry and characterless. 

180424 Cross Keys Pudding
Flavoursome topside beef with fluffy Yorkshire pudding
180424 Cross Keys Mixed Roasts
Roast pork loin and turkey were dry and characterless

From a trio of £4.95 desserts a chocolate pot was lumpen, rescued by a tart cherry compote on top. Much better was the firm poached pears with classic Northern Bloc raspberry and sorrel sorbet. 

The beer list, from North Brewery with judicious guests, keg and cask, from the likes of Magic Rock, is the way to go. The wine list is poor, typified by a glass of a South African red blend called Primordial Soup – definitely soupy, not one of Boutinot’s better projects.

180424 Cross Keys Pears
Poached pears with raspberry and sorrel sorbet
180424 Cross Keys Ck Bar
The charming Cross Keys bar

We still love the character of the Cross Keys, with its colourful Industrial Revolution back story of steam engine inventor James Watt, who hired a room within this foundry workers’ local so he could spy on rival engineer Matthew Murray. Watt’s portrait hangs in the upstairs bar (see below).

It all feels rougher round the edges than the nearby Midnight Bell which, like its siblings, Crowd of Favours and the Lamb and Flag, also operates a well-sourced meat policy for their roast offering. 

But across the city the game has been upped, with Sunday lunch a competitive field from both stalwarts and newcomers. The Cross Keys is now among the pack, not leading the way. Just another plate of meat. Suddenly you understand why the vegan upsurge makes sense.

180424 Cross Keys James Watt

The Cross Keys, 107 Water Lane, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS11 5WD t:0113 243 3711.

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

    Prawns 5, squid 5, pork 5, beef 7, poached pears 8, chocolate pot 6

  • Ambience 3/5

    Essence of high Wattage Holbeck Urban Village.

  • Service 3/5

    Welcoming but a touch random.