It’d be poor form to go full AA Gill on a restaurant visit that was lovingly arranged by somebody else as a surprise birthday soiree, wouldn’t it? Bad manners, old boy.
On the other hand, as an unofficial ambassador for all things North and all things Food, and fan of good (and, frankly, plenty of not-so-good) pubs in general, it’d be remiss of me not to mention this trip within these pages.
So here it is. A brisk overview of the Black Bull at Sedbergh.
Much has been said about its dramatic location, the last stop before The Dales become The Lakes, and rightly so. We’ve got massive, sheer-faced hills in all directions, the sort that look unassailable from afar unless you’ve packed the proper gear, (although the sheep seem to be managing). We’ve got slender old streets with stairways and snickets veering off hither and thither, usually towards a second-hand bookshop. We’ve got a Boots on the doorstep.
Truly, a rural idyll.
We’re early. Always, always early, and Sunday lunch is in full flow. Inside, the pub’s bouncing (as much as a pub can bounce right now), so we’re grateful for the vast fairy-lit space out the back, where a pair of old barns have been rustically converted into a bar and a kitchen, from which we sup pints and, it’s my birthday, share a well-fired pizza, liberally charred and generously cheesed.
On a damp day such as this a smoky barbecue captained by a dextrous chef is a seductive thing, and the temptation to dig in at our picnic bench for the afternoon and flatten a menu promising the good stuff – lobster, asparagus, brisket – is strong. I reckon we’re about one pint from doing exactly that but, from deep within, a previously unknown willpower intervenes.
I like the kinds of simple but stylish rooms found at the Black Bull, with their village views, their plentiful supplies of good tea and coffee, and their reliably thunderous showers. What I like even more in these, ahem, gastropubs with in-house digs is that just a flight or two of stairs lay between supper and slumber. It’s the civilised way.
And down in that restaurant section of the pub, its large windows overlooking Sedbergh’s main street, you’ll find a menu of gutsy pub staples (today’s pie looks next-level) and cheffy head-turners that have bagged the Black Bull a spot on the list of top gastropubs in the UK.
As I submerge a snacky piece of crispy pork into the depths of a verdant wild garlic sauce, thoughts turn to the pub’s pair of pigs we’d watched larking around out the back, earlier. But I push through. Snacky pieces of crispy pork this good – buttery, with bite – will do that to you.
Like all good tartares the venison edit at the Black Bull blindsides, managing to be both deeply meaty and lightly refreshing at the same time (£9.50). Boffins are best placed to explain such alchemy, but I’m putting it down to the combination of well-sourced flesh served at the right temperature (not fridge-cold); crunchy nubs of zingy bits throughout (kohlrabi, amongst others, here); and a large glass of something cold and fizzy alongside.
Prawn raviolo (£9.50), a great orb of a thing, is a deft piece of pasta work. The bisque it sits in, zappy and aromatic, spoonable to the last.
This being a drizzly Sunday in the countryside, questions would be asked if nobody landed a plate of the roasty stuff. At £14.95 it’s a smasher of a feed at a wholly reasonable price. The beef farmyardy, the gravy generous. A dapperly-plated wodge of crisp-skinned seabass, with its supporting cast of earthy morels and briny mussels, is dantier but no less satisfying (£21.50).
I like it here. We drink well from an interesting wine list but could easily stick to unpretentious local beers. The team running things are attentive but unfussy. It helps of course that the journey to bed is one undertaken in seconds, but this is the kind of table, the kind of food, the kind of restaurant, that makes you want to hang around a bit longer. I sip a brandy. I never sip a brandy.
Yep, this was a treat not paid for by me, but even if this overnighter had been on my own dollar there’d be nothing to chunter about. The Black Bull at Sedbergh is a belter of a boozer.