The Black Boys, Aylsham food review: ‘Onion rings like battered doughnuts’
- Credit: Archant
I'll admit it, I used to relish the food at Wetherspoon.
Their burger, chips and pint deals offered something irresistibly easy and cheap, like a £2 Tesco sushi tray or a spicy chicken wrap from the much-vaunted McDonald's 99pc menu.
But lately I've been having second thoughts about 'Spoons cuisine due to the arch-Brexiter stance of the pub chain's owner, Tim Martin.
He can believe what he wants, of course, and even go on Question Time to talk about it for all I care, but does he really have to fill his pubs' tables with magazines and leaflets pushing those views on the public?
I look at pub menus to choose pints, not politics, and the last time I sat down to a Fish Friday supper with a side order of Tim's opinions I decided I'd had enough.
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It was time to declare my independence from an undemocratic organization and go local.
We chose to see how Aylsham's Black Boys pub could stack up to the big boys, and couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised.
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To kick things off we went for a couple of dishes from the 'light starters' section (£4.50 each or £12 for three). The five-spice roasted duck leg with hoisin sauce was crispy out, tender in with meat that practically falls off the bone and melts in the mouth.
Then there was the prawn rolls baked in pastry and served with Thai curry sauce - a delicious dip that left us hungry for more.
These weren't exactly small courses which gave us a hunch that the pub's serving sizes were going to be on the generous side.
This was confirmed when my frankly massive Classic Black Boys burger (£14) came out with a big bowl of chips and a couple of onion rings you could easily mistake for battered doughnuts.
All the burger's ingredients - from the beef and bacon, to the melted Swiss cheese and slices of tomato and pickle - looked and tasted juicy and fresh.
It was stacked high, pinned together with a wooden stick between the brioche buns, so there was no question of grabbing it with both hands and cramming it into the mouth.
This was a divide-and-conquer, knife-and-fork job, giving me time to savour the elements and mix it up with the nicely stodgy hand-cut chips.
It took me a while, but I eventually devoured it all, and then my partner gave a couple of her onion rings and chips as her own mammoth plate had bested her appetite.
She had gone for the Black Boys combo (£19) which starred a char-grilled six-ounce flat iron steak, panko breaded chicken and half a barbecued rack of ribs.
She also got a stack of the same chips, and we were both served with a pot of coleslaw neither of us could finish.
Neither of us like to say no to a pud, but feeling like a couple of stuffed geese as we were we ordered up just the one to share.
This was the salted caramel chocolate brownie (£8) joined on its plate by a big dollop of white chocolate and yet more chocolate, this in the form of a white-and-brown wandy thing.
It was a scrumptious - especially when I started mixing a bit of the deeply warm brownie with the chilly ice cream in the same mouthful - a brilliant contrast.
All round this was a first-rate pub meal. The servings were big, fresh and delicious, and like any good eatery, left me wanting to come back soon to sample more of the menu.
I may never walk into a Wetherspoon again.
For more, visit www.blackboyshotel.co.uk
How does it measure up?
The Black Boys crowns the Market Square of Aylsham, a lovely town just about half-an-hour's drive north of Norwich. It's a Grade II listed building with a snug town pub feel - wooden furniture, beamed ceiling, fireplaces and creaky stairs leading to rooms above for the bed-and-breakfast crowd. Certain touches, like a big gilt mirror and a rounded balcony over the main doorway give it a hint of Belle Époque glam.
We were there for lunch on a Saturday and it was typically bustling, full of families and a few lads at the bar. No-one was afraid to make a noise and yet it was relaxing enough to while away several hours on good food and drink.
Excellent, not too slow, but we didn't feel rushed either.
There's everything you'd expect from a fully-equipped pub, which means pretty much anything you could want - from draught lagers and regional ales to soft drinks and espresso. They've an extensive wine list with more than 25 wines served by the glass, everything from a French petit verdot to a Kiwi sauv blanc.
The pub and restaurant are on one level, but this is a very old pub so there is the occasional step or unexpected turn to navigate. There are entrances at the front and back.
There are some out the back and they were quite all right.
Customer parking is at the rear of the building, off Penfold Street. If for some reason this is full, you can also park in Market Place itself, or in the car park off Burgh Road. They're both free for two hours, but you're only meant to park in Market Place 8am-6pm Monday to Friday and 8am-2pm on Saturday.
Places like the Black Boys prove you can enjoy excellent pub food without breaking the bank. Our bill came to £55.60 for two-and-a-half courses for two people and couple of soft drinks, which were £2.50 for regular and £3.10 for a pint. We went for main meals, but someone next to us was having a steak sandwich from the 'lighter menu' - these are all £10 but look like they're big portions as well!
Probably the duck and prawn starters, not just because they looked and tasted excellent, but came with the promise of even better things to come.
Delicious, fresh food, generous serving sizes and very fairly priced, the Black Boys offers everything you could want from a pub dining experience. It's a good excuse to visit Aylsham, or make a meal there part of a bigger day out in north Norfolk.