The Black Bull Inn Restaurant is the onsite restaurant for the historic Black Bull Inn, headed up by acclaimed chef Nina Matsunaga and her partner, James Ratcliffe, who hails from round these parts.
We had the pleasure of trying Nina’s first tasting menu – Taste Of The Black Bull menu. Focusing on seasonal ingredients, it takes influences from her Japanese and German heritage, as well as James’s upbringing in the Dales. The result is a gloriously unique meal, full of surprising twists on traditional British cooking.
It’s paced well, with seven or so courses, stretched out over the evening – plus an unmissable selection of paired wines which starts with an English Gusborne, before jumping across to Austria, Hungary and France. The dining space is wonderful, all centuries-old mahogany fixtures and delicate lighting, steeped in tradition but with a modern, stylish feel.
After some delicious homemade bread and cultured butter, it’s time for some delicate ‘morsels of enjoyment’. First, finely diced lamb tartare – intoxicatingly smoky raw lamb, mixed up with tangy kimchi, placed on a maize-like wafer. It’s a small, sensational bite, and proof positive that Taste Of The Black Bull isn’t just another pretty tasting menu. The sister snack is equally impressive – shredded crab placed into a crisp canapé casing, topped with a bright green dab of lovage gel.
The next course raises the stakes: chalk stream trout resting in a thick buttery sauce, topped with tempura samphire and a crunchy trout skin cracker. The sauce is made using the mysteriously named ‘bokling garum’, which, rather than a villain from a kid’s cartoon, actually turns out to be a spiced fish sauce (much-loved by the ancient Romans, history fans), blended with barley.
For the meat course, a thick chunk of ex-dairy cow beef, topped with a rich dollop of sweet, spicy XO sauce, with some roasted salsify and mushrooms on the side. (Plus, for all you offal aficionados, there’s some secret tripe, only mentioned after eating.) It’s a masterful fusion of Yorkshire produce and Eastern flavours, and arguably the menu’s standout dish – although the trout comes close.
Dessert is a dense, dark chocolate parfait, boosted with a subtle amount of coffee, with a bright, citrusy yuzu sorbet resting on some coffee-infused chocolate shavings. It’s a smart combination that, unlike many contemporary post-meal sweets, doesn’t require any showy accoutrements – the flavours impress enough.
Palate cleansed, it’s time for the final course – an array of local cheeses matched with a game-changing hunk of Northumberland honeycomb. As someone with eyes bigger than his belly (mum, you were right), I hardly ever leave room for the joys of end-of-meal cheese, so to have it elevated into an essential element of the menu is a rare and welcome treat. Yes, yes, it’s impolite to choose a favourite, but everyone should try a blob of the soft, gooey (and yes, stinky) Ingleton goat’s milk cheese squished onto a sliver of honeycomb on a cracker, at least once in their lives.
In little over a decade, Nina and James have gone from Manchester markets to a formidable force in UK fine dining. These beautiful dishes are packed with a wealth of ideas you won’t find anywhere else in the North.