The Bell & Cross, Clent - Four stars
If you are a follower of Wolves, Walsall or Shrewsbury Town, your demeanour as you read this might well be inextricably linked to the performance of your team this afternoon.
A win will probably have left you with a spring in your step, setting you up nicely for a night of good cheer, followed by a pleasant, relaxing Sunday. If your team has lost, you’re probably feeling a little downhearted, wondering what the next nine months have in store.
And of course, if you support West Bromwich Albion or Aston Villa, you will be wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, the football season doesn’t start until next week.
There are few leisure activities that stir the emotions more than the Beautiful Game, as Roger Narbett will no doubt testify.
He is the man who was drafted in to improve the grub for the England football team following a woeful World Cup qualifier in 1989, which was so bad it led to concerns at Lancaster Gate about whether the team’s performance had been affected by the poor standard of the food.
Having worked as a chef at the Savoy and Dorchester, he was given the task of helping England’s fortunes on the field, by making sure they had a decent meal before they went out onto the pitch.
Well, at least the food got better . . .
Narbett, who for the last 13 years has run the Bell & Cross with wife Joanne and fellow chef Paul Mohan, continued as chef to the England football team until 2010, and the corridor at the Bell & Cross is festooned with memorabilia and messages of goodwill from the England players.
If only the England football team won half as many accolades as Mr Narbett. Not only was he Young Chef of the Year 1985 and National Chef of the Year, 1990, but the Bell & Cross is also listed in the Michelin Eating Out in Pubs Guide to Great Britain, not to mention holding the 2013 title for County Dining Pub of the Year.
These days, Roger divides his time between the Bell & Cross and his other pub, The Chequers in Droitwich, but his wife Jo still keeps a watchful eye on the place. And Paul Mohan, the other chef, is hardly a slouch, with his moment of fame coming when he cooked for Bill Clinton during the G8 summit at Birmingham in 1998.
It was certainly a capacity crowd when we arrived just after 8pm, and we were directed to the small bar room at the front of the pub, where we waited for around 25 minutes before our table was ready.
The bar room was a little too cramped for comfort, and while it oozes olde worlde charm, I’m not convinced it presents the right sort of ambience as a waiting area for diners.
No such problems with any of the other rooms, though.
There are four small dining rooms, each with their own distinct character.
There is a wonderful array of drinks on offer. Real-ale lovers can choose between the excellent Enville Ale and Malvern Hills Black Pear, as well as Banks’s bitter, but sadly no mild. There is also an excellent wine list, with no fewer than 42 different wines on offer to suit all tastes and budgets.
The carefully chosen food menu is bang on target, providing simple pub classics but with a special twist. For example, you don’t get any old cod and chips, but a fish battered in the glorious Enville Ale lovingly brewed with the finest honey.
One unusual option was the American-style flat-iron steak, taken from the shoulder which, while slightly less tender than the fillet or rib-eye, allows top-grade beef to be sold at a slightly lower price.
Having perused the hand-out menu long and hard, I thought I had made my choice. The slow-cooked shoulder of Cornish lamb sounded delightful, being served in a pea and mint puree, and served with chorizo and sweet potato gratin dauphinoise.
But just as we were preparing to place our order, the girlfriend pointed out an second oversight – nobody had shown us the specials board. After drawing this to the waitress’s attention, she returned with a hefty blackboard which was placed in a spare chair, and it was then that I had a change of heart opting for the trio of lamb cutlets served on a bed of spinach in a red wine jus, with chateau potatoes. Before that, we shared a long, narrow board of bread plus an olive dip, excellent value at £3.50.
The presentation of the main courses was impeccable. If food were art, this would win the Turner Prize. Actually, on second thought, it probably wouldn’t, given that the only way you win that particular accolade these days seems to be by dunking cows in formaldehyde. So this was better than the Turner Prize, miles better, the meals should have been framed. Even the girlfriend’s rib-eye steak looked like a sculpture. How can a piece of meat look so beautiful?
To be truthful, I felt like a bit of a hooligan tucking into my neat line of vertically stacked lamb cutlets, it seemed naughty somehow, after all the work that had gone into it.
Such thoughts were quickly forgotten once I began to tuck in, though. The cutlets were all beautiful, soft and flavoursome, although the third one was slightly fattier than the other two. The potatoes were crisp and tasty, and the sauteed spinach a pleasantly fresh shade of green. Improvements? Well a dash more wine in the jus would have added a bit to the flavour.
The steak was equally good, coming with a delicate green pepper and brandy sauce, with a subtly balanced flavour.
I do think they are selling themselves a bit short by describing the chips as ‘fries’ though. Fries are what you get in those nasty fast-food joints, the sort of places that think that wishing you a nice day merits a gold star. But these weren’t fries, they were proper chips, hand-cut and golden coated. They should wear their chippiness with pride.
Indeed, in a moment of weakness, I decided I wanted my own side order of these, which was probably a mistake given that the main course proved to be much heartier than it looked.
Too full for a sweet? The stomach said yes, but the head thought it rude to say no. Of course we had desserts.
In an ideal world, we would have now retired to the beautiful back garden and reclined in the stylish bucket chairs, watching the sun set as we tucked into afternoon tea sundaes. In the real world, it was pelting it down like stair-rods outside, so we needed a plan B.
Maybe for the sake of continuity I should have followed the Cornish theme, and gone for the hokey-pokey and lemon meringue pie, but I’m a sucker for sticky toffee pudding and too weak to resist the temptation.
A neat block of sponge, daubed with a small but perfectly shaped blob of ice cream, it looked as though every last detail had been carefully considered.
My companion was equally fulsome in her praise of the warm Bakewell tart, topped with crushed raspberries.
The food really was very hard to fault, everything was exemplary, and from a culinary point of view it is hard to understand why so many people are drawn to the bright lights of Birmingham when you can enjoy equally good food in the beautiful countryside of north Worcestershire.
If you’re expecting cheap-and-cheerful pub grub, though, you might be in for a shock. The total bill came to £89.10, so quality does come at a price. There is a cheaper fixed-price menu offering two courses for £13.95 from Monday to Thursday (and Friday lunchtime), but the choice is much more basic. And while the staff were all friendly and courteous, it was a shame that the odd slip-up let the side down. As any Aston Villa fan will tell, you, these mistakes can prove costly.
Just as well, then that the food was peerless and the atmosphere perfect.
That boy Narbett. He can cook for England.
By Mark Andrews
The Bell & Cross
Holy Cross, Clent, DY9 9QL