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Menuwatch: The Black Bull

04 December 2019 by
Menuwatch: The Black Bull

It might be a surprise to find Japanese flavours at a pub in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales but, as Tessa Allingham discovers, Nina Matsunaga has balanced a ‘subtle fusion’

On a Monday morning in mid-November, head chef Nina Matsunaga is prepping jellyfish. She’s in the kitchen of the Black Bull, the 17th-century coaching inn and dining room in the market town of Sedbergh, Cumbria, that she owns with her husband, James Ratcliffe.

She will coat pieces of the fish with a light tempura batter and serve them with a homemade ponzu dipping sauce, sharp with mirin, kombu, bonito flakes and yuzu juice. Since opening the Black Bull in October 2018, Matsunaga and Ratcliffe have built a following for their ambitious menu. With support from private investors, they spent £2.4m buying the freehold from Enterprise Inns in January 2017, renovating the Black Bull fully and re-opening in October 2018.

The Japanese notion of ‘wabi-sabi’, the celebration of imperfection, underpins the pared-back look, with some walls clad with old floorboards. Nature is brought indoors – another Japanese notion – with the windows, tables and ledges are decorated with attractive kokedama (a plant with a moss-ball encasing its roots), and plant-filled glass terrariums.

The menu, which flirts with Japanese and German flavours and influences, is however rooted firmly in the Yorkshire Dales and committed to superlative regional ingredients. But that’s not surprising, given that Matsunaga is Japanese and grew up in Dusseldorf, while Ratcliffe is from the immediate area.

The collision of food cultures means jellyfish fritters (£3.50) or a dish of lacto- and kimchifermented tomatoes with homemade tofu (£7.25) can be offered alongside beef fillet, served pink, with white pudding, honey and oats (£23.95), or turbot, Puy lentils and parsley root (£20.95).

Elsewhere, nods to Japan appear within otherwise traditional European contexts – seaweed with a parsnip, borlotti bean and burrata main course (£14.95), or furikake seasoning (dried fish and sesame seeds) that gives a savoury wallop to a starter of salmon, pickled shrimp and cannellini beans (£8.95).

It’s a “subtle fusion” says Matsunaga, aware that the menu needs to have broad appeal. Local residents bring year-round business, holidaymakers are invaluable – most come to hike or for Sedbergh’s Book Town appeal – ditto families of pupils at the independent Sedbergh School.

“It’s a great combination. Term-time school trade dovetails perfectly with tourists,” she adds. Diners in the 85-cover restaurant (60 in the main restaurant, 25 in an adjacent space where dogs are allowed) can lunch on the likes of mushrooms on toast (£5.95) or lamb rendang (£13.50).

The all-day bar menu might offer a Hereford burger (£11.95), Mansergh Hall pork sausage roll and hand-cut chips (£4.95), or halibut beignets with chilli jam (£3.50). Come evening, red meat dominates. Animals, slow-grown and mostly grass-fed, are selected from a few trusted farmers. Purebreed Hereford beef from Capstick Farm in Howgill might appear in a £14.95 beef and ale pie or a generous 20oz sirloin to share with stuffed pumpkin, radicchio and chips (£46).

Game is from local shoots – plump, panfried breast of Dentdale pheasant with a globe artichoke barigoule (£7.50) is a standout starter, though the same meat might at times be offered in a steamed bao bun with chilli and slaw (£5.50).

A starter of pumpkin, braised in homemade soy bean-based miso, has satisfying depth of flavour. Turnip kimchi, pepped up with homemade chilli paste and a smooth onion purée pile on more flavour. “I want to offer vegetarians something different,” Matsunaga says. “There are still too many mushroom risottos and goats’ cheese and red onion tarts out there!”

A short dessert menu includes ever-popular sticky toffee pudding (£6.95) alongside more unusual sea buckthorn, goats’ milk, tapioca and black sesame (£6.95).

Writing the wine list was, Ratcliffe says, “a six-month labour of love”. Opening at £22 with a straightforward South African Chenin Blanc, the list champions smaller producers and organic, biodynamic or orange wines.

It’s no surprise to see sake with advice on food pairings on offer. “It takes a bit of persuading because people have often had a bad experience with warm sake. We serve ours chilled.” A plum sake from the Hideyoshi brewery, with notes of ripe fruit and almonds, is a bestseller and recommended as a dessert pairing.

From the menu

Starters

  • Crispy brawn, local apple, celeriac £7.50
  • Slow-cooked beef rib, polenta, IPA cheese sauce, nasturtium capers £8.50
  • Yorkshire spelt and lovage risotto, Berkswell cheese £7.25

Mains

  • Wild halibut, snail, Hokkaido pumpkin, Jerusalem artichoke £20.50
  • Duck breast, heart, salted bilberry, choi sum, buckwheat £18.95
  • Aubergine and cashew nut curry, spinach, rice £14.50

Desserts

  • Quince, red wine, chocolate, blue cheese £6.95
  • Salted caramel, peanut, banana £6.95
  • Pumpkin, spice, Yorkshire parkin, ice-cream £6.95

44 Main Street, Sedbergh, Cumbria LA10 5BL www.theblackbullsedbergh.co.uk

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