Exciting openings have not been plentiful of late. Now we have one. Such is the allure of the re-born Black Friar, reopening on Tuesday, July 27, not even the stormy weather heading our way can zap the al fresco vibe generated by its glorious garden. The short hot summer was at its peak when we got our sneak preview. The rest of the world will inevitably follow.
Hurtling along Trinity Way, you’d be hard pressed to twig the large terrace behind its palisade; ditto the glass-fronted restaurant annexe seamlessly attached to the Victorian sandstone and brick pub, restored to the tune of £1.4m.
For two decades, after a devastating fire, it stood desolate on the corner with Blackfriars Street. Not quite an eyesore – if you were a fan of Boddingtons Bitter. As the reputation of the ‘Cream of Manchester’ turned sour under successive corporate owners the prominent two bees logo decked out in yellow and black on the end of the building was a lachrymose reminder of the straw-coloured, fragrantly hoppy nectar the beer once was.
This may be apocryphal but I’m told Boddies cask was so popular in the Seventies the Black Friar stocked no keg beer or lager. That was an old school Salford boozer; in its latest incarnation it reflects a new apartment block generation colonising the former industrial wasteland. Food-oriented, most definitely. Developers Salboy originally intended it to be a vehicle for star chef Aiden Byrne, but he pulled out as the pandemic struck; in his place is another ex-20 Stories talent, Ben Chaplin.
Still it plugs its pub credentials, honouring the brewery that once belched malt fumes over Strangeways by offering the keg Boddies at £4.50 a pint. A bland brand, it’s brewed by Inbev in Samlesbury; I’d veer towards the excellent wine list instead.
The trad pub sign also name checks Boddingtons. It features a jolly friar, given a shaggy dog back story on the website (and a chance to proclaim the pub’s Resurrection, thankfully without appropriating the Stone Roses).
I’d hoped the fashion for this kind of naff narrative self-validation had passed, but hey it’s just a quibble. Let us praise. The Black Friar is a holy exceptional addition to the Manchester/Salford food and drink scene. The first Salford gastropub proper since the demise of Robert Owen Brown’s remarkable Mark Addy.
What immediately impressed on that embryonic lunchtime visit was the quality of service mustered from a young crew by exuberant Lebanese general manager Remi Khodr. From the immediate water bowl for our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, to the limoncello proffered when our puddings were slightly delayed the experience was a delight.
Probably because Smidge was with us we were seated at a garden table. No hardship but the restaurant proper looked the stylish business. An open kitchen, an abundance of greenery, black and white tiles, marble table tops, all filled with light.
.A section of the garden – Boddingtons Corner – can be hired for private events, as can the panelled, drawing room-like Sanctuary on the pub’s first floor.
As many original features as possible have been retained but alas the shell was vandalised during the lost years. Compare and contrast its namesake in London, the Blackfriar, a masterpiece of art nouveau don by the Thames, built on the site of a real priory. It did serve Boddingtons in its heyday; food has never been a priority.
Under head chef Chaplin it definitely is here. There is to be an upmarket ‘pub food’ menu but we got to sample the ‘restaurant’ offering. Eventually there’ll be a chef’s table on the Black Friar’s second floor. You can see the ambition in what’s on offer already. I have never encountered such an elaborate, deconstructed tiramisu. No wonder it took time to emerge. A honeycomb and gold leaf wow. Equally satisfying was a 72 per cent Valrhona chocolate fondant with peanut butter ice cream across the table.
A starter of juniper-cured ‘au point’ Creedy carver duck was stunning, served with sweet roast cherries and a pickled kohlrabi salad. My Cornish boudin, in contrast struck a drab note, despite the best efforts of basil jelly and some interesting smoked dehydrated watermelon. Little roundels of seafood sausage betrayed hardly a hint of crab.
Main prices are heading premium-wards. £28 for roast Cumbrian rack of lamb, but all the Mediterranean elements of the dish were in harmony – glazed baby aubergine, kalamata olive and confit tomato jus. Smidge loved his substantial tithe.
Perhaps there was too much going on in our other main, a couple of quid more. Wallowing in a polite ‘bouillabaisse’ with a scattering of mussels was a dense seared monkfish fillet. Giving it a flouncy 20 Stories feel was a small flotilla of nasturtium leaves. A mound of squid ink rouille was excessive and would have been unbalancing if I hadn’t shoved half to the side. No matter, this is food worth making the trek for.
Would I treat it as a pub to drop in for a pint? Doubt it. That’s what The Eagle around the corner is for. And yet… that garden. That first kiss of ‘freedom’. I know how Adam felt. Before the Fall, that eternal lockdown.
The Black Friar, Blackfriars Road, Salford M3 7DH. 0161 667 9555.