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The Black Lion review (with a trip to the Modern too)

Jonathan Schofield crosses into Salford for a re-invented pub and then crosses back into Manchester for the Restaurant of the year

Written by . Published on October 22nd 2009.

The Black Lion review (with a trip to the Modern too)

The Black Lion was one of those pubs along Chapel Street which seemed to have given up the ghost. One of those pubs where comfortable charm had given way to management bone idleness and a creeping desperation that seeped into the spirit. It was a place where you expected at any moment one of the five ill-looking customers to put ‘My Way’ on a jukebox held together with masking tape - then tell you how life’s been unfair.

What is it with belly pork at the moment? Say the words ‘main course’ and ‘British’ together and a belly pork floats through my mind’s eye and moves in the air to position itself in front of me like a fleshy smile.

When the lights went out and the boarding went up earlier this year it was hardly a surprise. Yet the Black Lion wasn’t a complete basket case. The pub has a big presence, brick and stone, wrapped round the street corner where Blackfriars Street kisses Chapel Street, a tumble over the river from Deansgate. It has footfall to die for.

Tim Flynn saw the rich possibility here and took the place over. Flynn’s a good lad with an Irish accent so strong you can pickle herrings in it. He’s got form too having already re-invented the New Oxford in Bexley Square, further up Chapel Street over Trinity Way.

This is his tried and tested formula. Put on real ale, lots of it, get rid of all the fighting lagers, put on some decent food, don’t burst people’s eardrums with music on weekend nights, brighten the place up and then sit and wait. Eventually people with functioning tastebuds and who prefer pubs as places of social interaction will start voting with their feet and getting the place back on its feet.

Flynn did this in summer and it’s starting to work. Not that everything has been handled perfectly just yet. The brightening up of the Black Lion has gone a bit too far. The primrose paintjob in particular is more reminiscent of a Yorkshire Dales teashop than a pub. But that aside it immediately signals a change of direction from the rough boozer it was previously. At least the heavily varnished wooden fixtures and fittings tamp down the floaty primrose.

But the most important decorative elements are the ale pumps. The beers are the thing here, and the hand pulls are arranged along the bar like an army on the march. They seem to jockey for position shouting , ‘me,me,me’.

Bury based, Leyden Brewery won this ale parade with a pint, for a United fan, of Blue Moon. It was joy, maybe those Abu Dhabi princes lording it over Eastlands should spend another few million on acquiring this fan-based business too - not that they’d be allowed to enjoy its products. For the record the Blue Moon was a full flavoured pint rich with hops yet smooth too.

The food is honest-to-goodness pub standard, properly cooked and prepared from a simple menu. There’s a pared down lunchtime offering and a more complex evening list with a few weightier items.

My friend and I had the belly pork and the Aussie burger which together weighed in at less than £15.

What is it with belly pork at the moment? Say the words ‘main course’ and ‘British’ together and, I don't know about you, but a belly pork floats through my mind’s eye and moves in the air to position itself in front of me like a fleshy smile. The dish is ubiquitous at present, the big food fashion. Not without good reason of course, a fine belly pork is a beautiful thing with that tender yet sturdy flesh and that luscious juicy layer of fat. It provides a primitive primal hit to the meat eater.

The Black Lion’s version came with crackling, mash, courgettes and a slightly too thin stock. It was good filler though with enough flavour in the combinations not to disappoint at this price point. By accident I spilt some beer onto one side of the plate and it mixed with the stock. The chef should think about doing something similar, it worked very well.

The burger was Aussie apparently because of the beetroot. It was also Aussie because the chef, Megan, is as well. The beetroot made for an intriguing and juicy supplement on a burger that was good if not write home exceptional. The fried egg on the meat was a nice touch. The chips in their skins were gorgeous, a highlight of the lunch.

You couldn’t help feel there was something being held back though. Clearly Tim Flynn wants - as the pub establishes itself- to keep the food simple and cheap. Yet there were hints in the menu that our Aussie chef could clearly cook. If I were Mr Flynn I would ask her to loosen up and make the menu more exciting with more depth and variety.

There are other plans for the Black Lion. Upstairs there is a cracking function room which is intended to be used for live music and theatre. It seems that Central Salford might be on the verge of getting a second Kings Arms. The latter is a model inner urban pub full of full of vitality and activity: the complete opposite of its many desperate cousins in these areas and the model for the Black Lion.

Maybe in terms of fully judging the food we should have had a pudding at the pub but we thought we’d go on safari. Dessert was reserved for the Restaurant of the Year 2009, as recently voted for by the Manchester Food and Drink Festival judges.

This is the Modern which sits in glassy, concrete and steel splendour on the top two floors of Urbis - the most awkward building to manage in Manchester, the World and the Universe.

We had the dark chocolate and malt whisky tart and the hazelnut and caramel ice cream (£5) and the cheeseboard with walnut bread and pear chutney (£7.50). Both were beautifully presented but I found the main chocolate element in the tart lacking in kick, not quite the sordidly bitter sweet indulgence I’d desired. The cheeseboard star was the Northumbrian Baltic which was tangy and sharp to taste with a subtlety apparently deriving from the fact it is ‘washed’ in beers as it matures.

It was a shame that the waitress couldn’t remember the names of the cheeses, there were only four, and had to go away and ask about them. That wasn’t quite Restaurant of the Year standard. But as usual the big problem and also not quite Restaurant of the Year standard was the atmosphere. Even with lots of people in (it was quiet when we visited) there is something about the Modern which precludes warmth. Perhaps the space needs more of the cosy local pub about it, more of the Black Lion.

Indeed after two ales and two dessert wines, I had an epiphany in the concrete and glass harshness of the Modern. I wished for something I’d never wished for before - an item unparalleled in its feminine uselessness. I wished for throw cushions. Jolly multi-coloured throw cushions, racked and stacked in the corners. Maybe these could be placed against a tall window panel, one which had been covered in flock wall-paper complete with a fake gilt picture frame over a cheap print of a Constable painting. It'd be nice to see the Modern mocking its own merciless modernity.

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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13 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

KelvinOctober 22nd 2009.

I like these pubs because you can actually hear yourself think and hear your mates when chatting. Lots of pubs play music, which is often commercial rubbish and too loud. Cask on Liverpool Road have a good set-up, a jukebox with a good selection of quality music, chosen by the the punters. You have to put money into it, however I'd prefer this to having an unimaginative selection.

jonnieOctober 22nd 2009.

If you want atmosphere in buckets,there is only one place to go ! THE crescent !Great beer,FREE live music seperate to the pub,cheap real ale and the freindliest most intelligent regulars in greater manchester ! Brilliant

Tyson the BeerhoundOctober 22nd 2009.

The Black Lion is a fantastic addition to Mncr's pub...BUT what exactly were you drinking? A pint can't both be "smooth" and "rich in hops". And that certainly doesn't describe Blue Moon. Or, indeed, any Leyden beer.

NorthernGeezerOctober 22nd 2009.

The Black Lion, ahhhh, memories. Hark back to the 70s when i was just a slip of a lad. The Black Lion was always the first port of call before going out on the pull in town.It served the best pint of Chesters mild anywhere in the world and was a real treasure to visit. A big up to Mr Flynn for resurrecting this faded lady. I for one shall be visiting this Saturday, if for nothing else then to reminisce my youth over a decent pint and drown my sorrows at the demise of that first taste of dark nectar.

Tyson the BeerhoundOctober 22nd 2009.

It's still early days at the Black Lion, as Tim is the first to admit. Expect the decor to "develop" over time. Have to disagree with Cathy about the New Oxford, though. Yes, when it opened it was a bit soulless but there is a great chilled out atmosphere now and the decor is much less harsh then its early days.Dim lights do not for an atmosphere make!

miss macOctober 22nd 2009.

Love this pub.. Ella Fitzgwrald performed in the function room upstairs many moons ago..Great to see this charming building re-invented... Save the Pubs! oh, does it still do a 'free and easy' on a Sunday afternoon? probably not..

MartyOctober 22nd 2009.

Like the review and I like the Black Lion but tut, tut, are you allowed to say this 'an item unparalleled in its feminine uselessness, throw cushions'. I quite like a throw cushion behind the back whilst sitting.

emone59October 22nd 2009.

Also agree with Cathy regarding the lights and how bright the pub is which makes for a lack of atmosphere in my opinion. On my two visits there were only a couple of real ales on so hopefully this has been sorted out now. Overall a welcome addition to the Chapel Street area.

PaulCOctober 22nd 2009.

Have to agree with Cathy re the lighting, the lights attached to the front of the bar are far too bright ! The overall decor with its wood flooring and blinds creates a rather harsh feel, there is no softness, everything echos off the hard surfaces. My wife & I sat directly in front of the bar and felt like we were being interrogated. The ale was fine however we upped sticks after one and headed for our favourite, the Marble.

John JizzOctober 22nd 2009.

I ate with a friend at The Modern recently and to be quite blunt the food and the atmosphere were absolutely bloody lousy. Over priced and very average at best. One place I will deffinately NOT be returning to..

mark mOctober 22nd 2009.

This place certainly needed a good kick up the backside. Hope it does well

JamesOctober 22nd 2009.

The Black Lion is a far more comfortable place than the Modern definitely. But then the view is better from the Modern.

CathyOctober 22nd 2009.

Thank lord that the black lion has been given a new lease of life, least for the added safety value of walking past it without the fear of being bottled.Although, just like the New Oxford, despite the lovely staff and great drinks, it is lacking in warmth and atmosphere. Please please please dim the lights and get some tunes on.

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