Malcolm Warne pops to the local for a tricky review assignment. Would a friendship be at risk?

THIS is potentially a particularly tricky assignment.

Good friends invite us to review their local pub - and when I say local, about 50 yards away from their front door.

Which is lovely but also fraught with danger.

Because what happens if said pub is absolutely pants. And I say so.

Friends find they are no longer welcome at the local they rather liked were for bringing that mean-spirited, evil critic from the D&S to their door.

And said friends are suddenly no longer so friendly towards yours truly on account of having been barred from their local pub, the only pub in the village.

It’s a nightmare scenario which thankfully did not come to pass because, praise be, the Black Horse at Kirklington, just south of Bedale, is a long, long way from being pants.

And that is ever-so slightly surprising because the new owners are self-confessed hospitality novices.

Dave Ball did things with water filters in his past life - a job on the road which took him all over the country. His family had run hotels and restaurants but he admits he spent very little time in them. Wife Cheryl was a benefits assessor. Not exactly the ideal grounding for entering one of the most tricky of trades.

But owning and running a pub, as Dave puts it, gives them the chance to do something together, and five months in, they are making a pretty good fist of it.

Their first task was refurbishment and as pub refurbs go it has been a pretty light-handed one. Redecoration has freshened the place up in a neutrally, inoffensive way. The brasses and other knick-knackery have gone. Two wood-burners make for a cosy feel – although on the night we called only one was lit.

There’s also a pub dog, Dave and Cheryl’s three-old Border terrier Lennie who is remarkably well-behaved. Whenever anybody comes in, he introduces himself, checks the guest out, accepts a quick stroke and then heads back for a favoured spot near the burner.

Recently I saw a book in Waterstones’s whacky ephemeral publications pile called Pub Dogs, full of cute dogs in quaint-looking pubs, the sort of book you buy for the dog lover who you don’t know very well and haven’t a clue what to buy them. Well, Lennie should definitely be in the next edition.

With friends Carl and Suzanne, we grabbed drinks at the bar (good range of real ales available) and took our places at our booked table which given it was a quiet Wednesday night probably didn’t need to be.

The Black Horse menu is simple pub grub with minimal adornments – sausage and mash, burger, steak and ale pie, lasagne, curry and rice, fish and chips.

In the kitchen is chef Kevin Dowson with 40 years’ experience behind the stove including a stint at the old Lodge at Leeming Bar, Carl and Suzanne’s old stomping ground.

Kevin’s style is what once might have been described as good home cooking.

Carl’s coarse chicken liver pate (£5.50) was served with the ultra-traditional melba toast and chutney and salad garnish. Suzanne and Sylvia’s thick lentil soup (£3.95) was deeply-flavoured, well-seasoned and accompanied by chunks of fresh granary bread and butter.

My barbecue ribs (£5.50) were meaty enough and served with a sticky sweet sauce. Finger-licking good indeed.

Main courses were well received too. Sylvia and Suzanne, clearly on the same wavelength that evening, enjoyed their breaded (not battered) scampi (£8.95), crisp chips and an interestingly fruity salad.

I had picked something from a short specials menu which suggested the kitchen can produce more than just pub standards. My pan-fried fillet of venison (£15.95) was perfectly cooked, nicely pink but not bloody. It came with mustard mash, a red wine sauce, redcurrant jelly and a large bowl of wintry vegetables (leeks in cheese sauce, cabbage and swede).

Two desserts were shared. Carl and Suzanne thought their sticky toffee pudding (£4.50) served with custard very serviceable and the lemon cheesecake (also £4.50) that I thought I was sharing with Sylvia was pretty good too – excellent biscuit base. Sylvia was put off by the sheer size of the slab we were served and I only managed two-thirds of it.

The bill for the four of us was just over £92 with a mix of drinks including a good number of soft ones, including just £1 for a sparkling mineral water. I don’t think I’ve ever been charged so little for a soft drink.

Service was good but given we were the only people eating and Cheryl was looking after us it was more of a private dining experience.

The Balls’ tenure at the Black Horse should be a long one. They may have little experience but they have got a lot of things right.

Dave told me work starts shortly on creating a proper beer garden. Roll on summer. Carl and Suzanne may even have us back.

The Black Horse,

The Green, Kirklington, Bedale DL8 2ND

No website. Tel: 01845 567122

Disabled access.

Food served: Wednesday-Friday 5-9pm, Saturday noon-9pm, Sunday noon-6pm


Food quality: 8/10

Service: 9/10

Surroundings: 7/10

Value: 8/10