The Black Bull Inn, 44 Main Street, Sedbergh LA10 5BL (015396 20264, theblackbullsedbergh.co.uk). Snacks £4.50 – £6.50, Sandwiches £6.95 – £14.95, Starters £9.95 – £10.9, Mains £18.50 – £27.95, Desserts £7.50 – £8.50, wines from £28
It would be easy to misinterpret the Black Bull at Sedbergh, situated in that part of the Yorkshire Dales which offers the Lake District high swell. At lunchtime on a weekday, the dining rooms quickly fill with parents in expensive waxed outerwear, lunching with their children from the boarding school of the same name overlooking the city. A parade of burgers and sandwiches, stabbed with precision with cocktail sticks, alongside soups with bread slices at hand, roll out of the kitchen. And a pint please for the rosy-cheeked, broad-chested chap with the Range Rover outside.
This can be both the literal and figurative bread and butter of the Black Bull; the way any multi-purpose country pub earns its crust and crumb. But take a look at the cafe menu those family groups order from and another story begins to unravel. Yes, it includes beef and horseradish sandwiches and another filling of hot roast pork from nearby Mansergh Hall Farm, famed in the Lune Valley for its free-range pigs. So far, so shabby chic. But there are also other less traditional things: a curry of chickpeas and lentils for example, or a pork and kimchi stew, or perhaps a crispy Korean beef with shiso and sesame, offered as a snack.
The same act of juggling is present in the layout of the place. To the left of the front door is the bar area. Comes complete with draft beers from Fell Brewery, Lakes Brew Company and Timothy Taylor’s. It might just satisfy furious members of the Pub Liberation Front who believe that serving nice things to eat in places like this is a goddamn disgrace. What’s wrong with a packet of scampi chips, huh? (Nothing, as it happens.) Immediately to the right is the casual dining room, with its curving red leather booths. Beyond is the restaurant proper, a more austere space with raw wood paneling from which large charcoal landscapes are hung in turn. It’s a real riot of grays and blacks.
It all starts to make sense when you learn more about the legacy of head chef Nina Matsunaga who runs the pub with her partner, local native James Ratcliffe. Matsunaga was raised by Japanese parents in Dusseldorf and brings these influences to the ingredients of the surrounding hills and meadows, but in an electrifying and relaxed way, which allows you to have. If he tastes good, he’s on. Matsunaga was recently named a finalist in the chef of the year category of the Be Inclusive Hospitality Awards, which celebrate diversity in the restaurant industry. After eating her food, I can tell she really deserves to be celebrated.
Start with that crispy Korean beef. The meat was braised and then shredded. The tangles of it are pressed, then wrapped in a delicate hovering shiso leaf and fried in the lightest of lacy tempura batters. On the side is sweet soy sauce, drizzled with a very edible slime of black and white sesame seeds. I could do serious damage to a bucket of those. Rather sturdier is a hummus made with various types of black peas served with crackers filled with cumin and sunflower seeds.
The entrees here in this backyard dining room are intricate and detailed, but they never sacrifice taste for cleverness. As with the beef, Herdwick Lamb Shoulder is braised until flaky, Indian spiced, then pressed and served in a block of crispy Jenga. It comes with a liver-enriched onion bhaji, alongside a quenelle of Greek yoghurt and a lime-cucumber puree bold enough to make your nostrils flare like a randy mare. It’s the recognisably bold and bold flavors of the street curry house, only in bespoke tailoring and gaiters. On another plate, a fatty mackerel fillet lingers on a thick sweetened soy sauce with a touch of green chile. The heat-boiled skin is layered with nori seaweed, wild garlic sprouts, and a dot or two of caviar. It’s a fish dish unashamed of its funky pelagic depths. The mackerel is also cooked to perfection.
As well as a small fillet of beef, sliced to show the rose of the party, with a slice of rib-eye, first braised and then crunchy. Yes, I know; the same trick three times in one meal. But by God, it’s an effective trick. It comes with a big pile of suitably jarring green nam prik, a chilli Thai condiment. I think a lot of things could benefit from having this nam prik as a support act. Lightly crunchy edamame beans serve as ballast. After all this precision and poise, a plate of sturdy rolled rice noodles, topped with snowy peaks of monkfish, feels like a gear change. It comes with a hearty Asian broth, both sweet and savory with small shrimp. There are sprouting grains, Chinese greens, fresh coriander fronds and, for texture, fried golden noodles. Fresh chili and lime lend verve and literal zest to the dark flavors of umami. It’s a messy bowl, but a very good one.
If anything, the desserts take all of this box-set fuss and drama to another level. We have a perfectly set duck egg custard puck. It is so light that it seems to hold its shape only through strength of character. There’s a gentle hand on the sweetness, balanced by chunks of spiced gingerbread, echoing the legendary product of nearby Grasmere. (If you haven’t tried Grasmere Gingerbread, you’ve only lived half a life.) What is described as an apple terrine is a remarkably well-crafted block of lightly cooked fruit, thinly sliced and layered, with gorgeous cinnamon ice cream . cream, swirls of caramel cream and honeycomb flakes. It is a privilege to be introduced to these desserts. Starters cost around ten pounds and mains often drop to north of £20. There is, however, a three course lunch menu at £29.50 with only a slightly reduced choice.
Surprisingly, none of these lofty culinary ambitions come with a side order of shabby, wizened formality. It’s still very much a pub. The service is cheerful, as we are now. Lunch is finally drawing to a close, and being so far north, dusk is already falling. The Sedbergh boys are returning to class as their parents foot the bill. The Black Bull might look like a rather elegant pub. It certainly has a great chef in the kitchen. But the important thing is that he knows how to please not one crowd, but many. Today he adequately fed and watered all of us. Just in different ways.
Il Portico, an Italian restaurant in Kensington, has forcibly joined a local charity, the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation, to provide free meals to people in need living in the borough. Portico Pizzeria operates out of the site of what used to be its sister restaurant Pino, which owner James Chiavarini has set out to transform into a community asset. It will run Wednesday through Sunday and can offer free wood-fired daisies to 500 people a week. The initiative is funded both through donations and through money raised through a new delivery platform on Uber Eats, which allows paying locals to order a range of Italian dishes. Uber Eats does not take commissions. To find out more and to donate go here.
North London’s wonderful Luminary Bakery, a social enterprise helping underprivileged women get back on their feet through the art of baking, has launched a range of Christmas gift wrapping, available for delivery across much of the UK. The selection includes cotton candy brownies, mince pies, and a variety of mini cakes. Visit their online shop.
Melton Mowbray pie makers Dickinson & Morris have teamed up once again with Holborn Dining Room pastry chef Calum Franklin to offer their limited-edition celebratory Christmas pie made with hot water shortbread and stuffed with pork, turkey, smoked ham, Christmas spices and blueberry jelly. It feeds 12 people, costs £35 plus shipping and is available to buy here. Last year, when I mentioned them, they quickly sold out. Luckily, I’ve already bought mine so the rest of you can now stack up.
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