Restaurant review: Back in the inn crowd

Seared black bream, crab & parsley risotto, lemon confit fennel at the Black Bull Inn, Moulton. Picture by Gerard Binks.
Seared black bream, crab & parsley risotto, lemon confit fennel at the Black Bull Inn, Moulton. Picture by Gerard Binks.
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It was once a destination restaurant and Jill Turton finds the Black Bull at Moulton is once again on top form.

Remember the Black Bull at Moulton? Way up in the very north of Yorkshire just off the A1 by Scotch Corner. A long drive for most but well worth it for this was a destination restaurant decades before the term had been invented. Bought by George and Audrey Pagenham in 1963, it served classic Anglo-French dishes and deservedly figured in the Good Food Guide for 38 unbroken years.

The Black Bull wasn’t just about the food, it was memorable for two other things, its adjoining 1932 Brighton Belle Pullman carriage and its seafood bar. In the wood-panelled bar you could feast on shellfish and oysters served on a silver tray of ice. The plush dining car had lace curtains, little carriage lamps and old school service that brought you wild salmon, Chateaubriand, Yorkshire grouse with game chips, sea trout and hollandaise followed by coeur à la crème and a compote of cherry plums from the tree out the back.

I’ve no idea if the plum tree is still there; I’d be surprised after all the work that’s been going on. The Pagenhams retired in 2006 and the BB went into sharp decline until it was rescued last year by Provenance Inns, the group that has already revived four ailing North Yorkshire pubs: the Carpenters Arms at Felixkirk, the Oak Tree at Helperby, the Punch Bowl at Marton Cum Grafton and the Crown and Cushion at Welburn and turned them into vibrant success stories.

When he first viewed the Black Bull, Provenance’s Michael Ibbotson said it was like the Marie Celeste, with the optics still in the bottles.

Now after 18 months hard labour, the Black Bull is open again and it’s almost totally unrecognisable. “Hazel” the railway carriage is gone. She went last year on a low-loader to Derby and is being restored by the 5Bel Trust, with the ambition of getting her back on the rails.

The panelling in the seafood bar was rescued, repolished and is now installed in the bar and private dining room, but it’s hard to place the rest of it. The pub is done out with the Provenance hallmarks of wood burning stove, flagged floor, solid oak doors and Yorkshire tweeds. There is a second private dining room and plans for 16 bedrooms.

But it’s the knockout new-build dining room that really blows you away. A 100-cover extension in glass and steel. There are no views, but they have cleverly built a terrace for outdoor dining with cane furniture, huge tubs of rosemary and a life-size black bull made from chicken wire.

The menu, like all the inns in the chain, is hearty, family fare, nothing too challenging, but one that cleverly covers enough bases to please everyone from fussy kids to traditionalists: fish and chips; burger; fish pie, and with a nod to the old days, oysters, moules marinière, Dover sole; peaking with Chateaubriand, a 35 day aged, rib eye steak with chips and onion rings, though more pricy at £49.95 for two. The rest of the menu averages a reasonable £7 for starters and £16 for mains.

Our food was fine. Giving our nod to the old days, we went for fish. The “proper prawn cocktail” was just as promised with plenty of prawns and a perky Marie Rose sauce; the seafood pancake was well stuffed and given a Mornay sauce, crusted with melted cheese; fish pie came in its own cast iron pot and was generously filled with white fish, salmon, scallops and prawns, though the accompanying salad could have taken a drop or two more dressing. The black bream and risotto was perfectly good.

Service was eager and helpful, although the uncomfortably long wait between courses suggested pressure in the kitchen. And the customers? Not much change from the old county set regime: plenty of lithe, blonde women and their chinoed and blazered partners, talking loudly as if they owned North Yorkshire. They probably do.

We raised a glass of steely Lofthouse Sauvignon Blanc to the makers, Rod and Di Lofthouse, a Leeds couple who left in the early 90s to buy a New Zealand vineyard, and to the Black Bull’s renaissance. Another country pub saved. This is one restaurant chain to welcome with open arms.

Then as we waited for our pudding, we were stopped in our tracks by a Chateaubriand delivered to the next table. A metal stand topped with a wooden board was loaded with onion rings, skinny fries, rocket salad and fat slices of the juiciest, rarest roast beef fillet and a jug of Béarnaise, or possibly peppercorn sauce. It looked fantastic.

The steak had been chargrilled on “Big Bertha”, the mighty charcoal oven that sears the meat at 400 degrees, caramelising the outside and keeping in the moisture. We had to restrain ourselves from leaping across and tearing it from the couple quietly enjoying dinner, oblivious to their salivating neighbours. Instead, we stared politely, and comforted ourselves with a prim white chocolate, crème brulée and coffee. Next time, next time…

• The Black Bull, Moulton, Richmond, North Yorkshire, DL10 6QJ. 01325 377556, www. theblackbullmoulton.com. Open: Monday to Saturday, 12pm-2.30pm & 5.30pm-9.30pm; Sunday 12pm-3pm & 5.30pm-8.30pm. Price: £30 per person plus wine and coffee.