Eating Out: Down at the coach and courses

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BACK northwards again last week, this time to the Black Bull at Moulton, a mile south-east of Scotch Corner not, as southern recluses might suppose, a right-angle wrapped in breaded sausage meat, but a roundabout on the A1. We had slalomed our way through the coned carriageways of the once Great North Road to arrive just as night fell. Along with the Rovers, Saabs and BMWs in the car park, there appeared to be a Pullman railway coach tucked neatly alongside the back of the pub.

This turned out to be only one of the several slightly eccentric dining areas reached through the back of the low-ceilinged, beamed pub. My companions that evening had made the booking, this being where they had enjoyed their best meal out since moving to North Yorkshire two years ago. They chose a table in the conservatory (on the grounds that we would be able to see and hear more of what was going on). The room is somehow less conservatory-like than those repro Victorian ones, but closer to the real thing in that the ceiling is a live vine, bearing, at this time of year, real grapes.

The alternatives are a small private room, simply decorated and with an 18th-century gate-legged oak table at which I wouldn't have been surprised to see Dr Johnson presiding over dinner with friends; a veloured booth with a small interior window overlooking the conservatory; a few tables along a wide corridor; and finally the painstakingly restored Art Deco Pullman dining car, the single venture into gimmickry by a restaurant whose hallmark is tradition. It used to be pulled by the Brighton Belle and was bought from British Rail when the train was decommissioned in 1972.

My friends, he particularly, took to the dut-ies of reviewer's companion with great enthusiasm. We were presented with two menus and a wine list, and while he gallantly allowed us two women to make our choices first, he saw this as an opportunity to test the standards of service. No third menu arrived. His delight at having caught them out lost its edge when his wife quietly pointed out that he would have to ask for one, as it was unfair to judge the place on the staffs telepathic gifts.

Further joy when we found that the table was wobbling. That too was swiftly and peremp-torily dealt with. Our waitress pushed the offending leg back up against the wall and that was that. My companion gave up the unequal struggle and decided to leave the testing to me.

The menu is divided into hot starters, cold starters, fish main courses and meat dishes. In no section is there a choice of fewer than 10. The style is traditional British, that is to say classic French, a sprinkling of Italian and robust helpings of protein. Some of the starters come from an earlier food era, such as avocado with prawns and prawn cocktail, but there are also oysters, soups, souffles, roasted Mediterranean vegetables and, for a taste of the home country, grilled black pudding with caramelised apples. The main courses reminded me above all of the food offered by the few gentleman's clubs I have been invited to, or indeed the sort of hearty meals Dr Johnson might have eaten: every type of steak (all Aberdeen Angus, the menu assures us), rack of lamb, grouse, poached salmon and lobster thermidor.

We had a terrible time deciding what to have, particularly Anna, who is seven months pregnant and no longer mistress of her emotions. I think I'm having a panic attack, she confided as she looked down the menu. She settled determinedly for hot crab mousse and lobster sauce followed by lobster salad with new potatoes. But when the waitress's pen was poised, that just wasn't right, and suddenly nothing would satisfy but the fish soup and the brochette of scallops and bacon with spinach. Her husband ordered the seafood sausage with spinach and potato cake and red pepper sauce, followed by a steak; while I finally chose a spinach and cheese souffle and grouse.

Quantity may not be a true foodie's primary consideration, but it certainly creates a satisfying sense of abundance particularly when it is matched by quality. The fish soup, which was delicious though predictable, came in what can only be described as a serving dish. The other starters, also very good, were modest by comparison but at home would have served as a meal in themselves. Our main courses came on large plates and were beautifully cooked and nicely presented.

Ordering the wine took no time, as the list's reputation has travelled and Michael Boustred at the Stile Restaurant, where I ate last month, had advised me what to have. The Cotes Rotie Landonne La Mouline 1984 at 31.50 a bottle was a lot cheaper than even he could get it, he said, and worth every penny. He was right. And there were many other excellent wines to choose from, most at more or less merchants prices. The reason is that until six years ago, the owners, George and Audrey Pagendam, also ran the Wetherby wine merchant Pagendam Pratt and Partners. They sold it to Berkmann of London, which continues to supply them.

The dessert menu contained the usual round of Frenchified offerings lemon tart, creme brulee, etc. We had these two and an amazing meringue confection which looked rather like Dougal the dog from The Magic Roundabout. Not that any of us could have coped with anything weightier, but I was surprised not to see at least one sponge pudding listed, because by now there was no doubting the solid English (with a Yorkshire accent) character of the place.

When Audrey Pagendam told me the story of the Pullman coach, she said that her husband had written to BR when he heard they were planning to sell the Brighton Belle. He expressed regret that all the great British things, like the Queen Mary and London Bridge, had been dismantled and sold abroad. Why was it we didnt value the things we do best, he asked. Well, one institution that is still going strong, at least in Moulton, is the great British pub.

Our bill for three, including mineral water and coffees but excluding tip, came to pounds 118.55.