The Black Bull in Sedbergh hits the right notes, writes Amanda Wragg, when it keeps things a little less complicated. Pictures by Tony Johnson.

Black Bull, Sedburgh
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There’s a sense of wonder approaching Sedbergh on a fine early summer morning. It’s a no-nonsense kind of town – not particularly pretty or quaint, but stout and workmanlike, and I mean that in a good way. There’s a butcher, a baker and probably a candlestick maker, so a proper high street, albeit one populated by pupils from the public school snappily dressed in Harris Tweed jackets. There are a number of book shops too. In an effort to recover some sort of tourism in the town after the devastating 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, they reinvented themselves as the Book Town to boost the local economy. It seems to have worked if the number of walker/readers is anything to go by.

Ever present are the haunting Howgill fells, actually looking like a painted theatrical backdrop. They catch the light like no other hills I’ve seen; they were patron saint of walking Alfred Wainwright’s favourites, who described them as ‘‘like velvet curtains in sunlight and silken drapes at sunset’’.
In the main street The Black Bull, a 17th-century coaching inn that closed after the floods in December 2015 has had a £1.8m facelift and very handsome it is too. Since 2014 James Radcliffe and Nina Matsunaga have run the award-winning Three Hares, a café, bakery and bistro a few doors down. They bought The Black Bull, rolled their sleeves up and set to work. It’s been completely renovated from top to bottom as a stylish, comfortable pub/restaurant with rooms.

Scottish crab, cured Bloody Mary tomato, horseradish ice, blini, celery . 

The Bull’s vast dining room is slightly clattery, but comfortable, and the floor to ceiling window on to the street brings light and the opportunity for people watching. There’s a lot of greenery; frondy things hanging off walls, artfully placed branches with moss, stones with spongy things on them. It’s a good-looking, modern menu which might leave some of the more traditional locals slightly bewildered. Where once there was pie and chips, now there’s ‘‘Crapaudine beetroot, Lincolnshire Poacher custard, wild asparagus, olives’’ and ‘‘Shorthorn beef fillet, oxtail, St Georges, Cippollini’’. I’ve no idea what that is either. No matter.
We set off with Sparkenhoe Red Leicester Arancini, a rice ball flecked through with melting cheese; it’s perfectly good, particularly with Nina’s excellent sourdough – she really is quite the brilliant baker. Next up, a dish I had great expectations for; spiced cod cheeks with chana dahl – two of my favourite things and a great pairing but it slightly missed the mark. The fish was sweet enough and nicely cooked with a hit of heat but the dahl proved a bit dry and uninteresting. Similarly the Cornish crab and buckwheat dish was underwhelming and over-complicated, the promised horseradish barely there – and for £9 I’d have liked a touch more generosity with the crab.

Cath Grayson’s slow cooked mutton, fresh borlotti bean cassoulet, lamb merguez, caper berries, lentil crisps. 

More successful is a plate of Howgill Herdwick lamb. It’s a very pretty thing, and with just a couple of pieces of charred Baby Gem, some strips of fine carrot and a fabulously deep meaty sauce, it totally hits the spot. The lamb is beautifully judged, though I didn’t detect the radish – or the anchovy – but it didn’t seem to detract. Sea trout with Jerusalem Artichoke and ‘‘coastal greens’’ is good enough but again lacks a bit of oomph. And oomph is required at £21. A ‘‘liquorice carrot’’ side lacks liquorice and looks clumsy next to the carefully plated mains. Can I put in a plea for more robustness in the flavour department? There’s too much timidity in the kitchen, it’s okay, we can take it!
There are four choices for dessert but we’ve only room for one, sharing, so Northumberland honey parfait it is. Again it’s a bit of a one-note dish and less than the sum of its parts. We might have fared better with salted caramel fondant with finger lime or pistachio, cherry, rhubarb and griotte sorbet.

Venison and liquorice pie, pickled walnut ketchup. 

We’d had lunch in the couple’s café, the Three Hares, which you can see from the dining room, and in some ways it’s the better deal; brilliant sandwiches (that bread, oh man) great cakes, excellent coffee – a completely different offer of course, but less ambitious and better executed. If they were to apply those principles in the restaurant they might get a more consistent result. Matsunaga can clearly cook, and her German/Japanese heritage brings interesting pairings to the table, but please just calm down and keep it simple. We stayed over (fabulous rooms, they’ve thought of everything) and breakfast was just the job: local sausage, mushrooms on toast, fresh fruit and yogurt.
You see, you can do it.

The Black Bull, 44 Main St, Sedbergh LA10 5BL tel: 015396 20264,
Hours: Lunch 12-3 all week.
Dinner 6-9 Monday to Saturday, Sunday 6-8.


About The Author

Mandy Wragg is a freelance food journalist, writing and inspecting for the Yorkshire Post, Alastair Sawday, the Morning Advertiser, the AA, Cool Places and David Hancock's Inn Places. She co-writes, an independent guide to eating, drinking and staying in Yorkshire.

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