“ Currently closed for refurbishment until September 2012. Address: Trap St / Lower Withington / Macclesfield / SK11 9EQ / Tel: 01477 571 602 „
~First Find Your Swan~
Don't even think of going to the Black Swan unless you've got a sat nav. It's hard to imagine how twisty and confusing the small country lanes in the area around Swettenham and Lower Withington are or how totally useless a map would be. I was actually expecting it to be called the Red Lion so I was wrong on both colour and animal. The village is a tiny place to the east of Holmes Chapel and to the north west of Congleton. It's a lovely part of Cheshire, very green, very pretty and very quiet. If you are visiting either Holmes Chapel or Congleton or perhaps making a trip to Jodrell Bank, it could be a possible choice for lunch or dinner. To make things more confusing, the Black Swan is on a road with no more than a handful of houses and a turkey farm. Passing trade is likely to be light.
My friend Alison was late as usual. I was sitting in the car park wondering why four of the seven cars in the car park were Range Rovers and suspecting it might be a bit of an expensive place when the phone rang. Alison's sat nav had thrown a sulk and turned itself off. She'd been driving round in circles for 15 minutes and was going crazy. I couldn't help because I hadn't a clue where I was either. If I'd been an air traffic controller trying to 'talk her down' from her positional panic, I'd have been useless and she'd have landed in a field in a ball of flames. I walked up and down the street looking for sign posts and found a turkey farm. It wasn't very helpful. Then she asked me if I was anywhere near the Clonter Opera. I remembered I'd seen a sign so maybe I was. She picked the only road she could find with a sign to the opera and rolled up a few minutes later.
The car park by the time she arrived was down to just two Range Rovers and was almost empty. The last time Alison and I ate out it was at a pub whose car park was so full that it took over an hour to get our food after we ordered. The food had been great and we understood why the car park was so packed. This was very different. Perhaps we should have turned tail and run off to the Indian restaurant I'd passed in Holmes Chapel but Alison was so relieved to be in thePictures of The Black Swan, Lower Withington
Spot the customers....that's right, there aren't any. right place that I didn't bother to try to persuade her. We headed in.
~Fine feathers don't make fine birds~
Entering the Black Swan we were both rather impressed by the look of the place but still perturbed by the lack of customers. On looks alone this place should be stuffed to the gills and it looks like something out of a style magazine. The entrance area has a bright, clean bar with a beautiful slate floor. We found a small scattering of men sat at the bar on stools and we asked the barman if we could have a table. We could have had lots - we were the only diners in the entire place and it was almost 7.30 pm - it should have been busy. The dining areas were very attractive - no two tables matched and they varied from rather battered WW2 utility tables to big slabs of wood several inches thick. Many of the chairs were high backed ones upholstered in chintz fabrics. Paintings on the wall varied form the overly ornate and old fashioned through to a gallery of modern landscapes which were for sale.
We spotted an open fire and I pointed out it was nearly the end of May and surely it wasn't needed.............and then promptly we chose a table near the fire. We were drawn to the cosy table by the small window, not too close to the fire but near enough to enjoy its glow. The place looked and felt lovely but there was still the small matter of the other customers - there simply weren't any.
Our table was a rather scarred old thing and like all of the tables, there was no table cloth. It reminded me of my Grandmother's dining table though she'd have had a fit if anyone had put hot plates directly on the varnish.
We ordered drinks - a diet coke for me, a half of some weird beer for Alison - and looked at the menus. I couldn't see anything that really grabbed my attention and went back and forth to the 'specials' board several times, still struggling to find what I really wanted. The emptiness of the Black Swan could be quickly explained by the high prices. Who wants to pay £15 or £16 for a main course in a pub? Not too many people, especially when it's in the middle of nowhere so you'll either need a taxi or to stay off the alcohol.
As a fishitarian I was really struggling. Yes, they had several vegetarian dishes but they looked very much like the sort of vegetarian food made by people who don't actually eat that sort of thing. Neither stuffed peppers, four cheese pasta nor something with ratatouille struck me as worthy of any excitement. Fishy main courses weren't exciting either. I could have had a fairly reasonably priced fish and chips for just under a tenner although it was listed as a 'light meal' rather than a full main course so I'm not sure quite what they had in mind. So the difficult choice was between dull vegetarian food or fish which - based on the absence of any other diners - might not be as fresh as it should be.
The specials board included a fish cake that sounded like it might be interesting - I think it was salmon and halibut or something like that. I decided to ask for two starters - vegetable soup followed by the fish cake. Alison asked if she could have a main course version of the fish cake. The waitress was very pleasant and not at all bothered about me going a bit off-menu with my choices. She was probably relieved to actually see some customers.
~It's a good thing I went straight home and wrote the review (before I forgot the forgettable food)~
The soup was served with a nice warm bread roll - white and crispy with poppy seeds. The bread was nice but the soup was rather sad. I'm not sure which vegetables had found their way into it but I suspect quite a few root veg. It was rather thin (I make really thick soup) and didn't really taste of much at all. Sorry but it's hard to mess up a vegetable soup. The warm roll helped to compensate for the dull soup.
Fishcake time! I got one, perched on top of a bed of mixed salad leaves and Alison got two. Each was served with wedges of lemon and blobs of some kind of herby sour cream. As a main course I think Alison would have hoped for a few chips though she was loathe to admit it and asked if she could maybe have some bread. The fishcake wasn't all that great. You could pick out quite large lumps of fish but I couldn't distinguish between the two types of fish. The outside of the fish cakes was crisp and brown and they were served at the right temperature. I'm glad I had only one because I really couldn't have got through two of them. I didn't actively dislike the fishcake but I couldn't get very excited either.
~At last, more people~
A second couple came to eat and sat - as tends to be the weird way people are - at the table next to us. With a large number of tables to choose from, they kindly decided to allow us the honour of over-hearing their conversation. "What does creole mean'?" asked the gentleman. I rolled my eyes. He wandered off to look at the specials and returned to wonder aloud if one of the dishes was anything like German spaetzle noodles. I was puzzled that anyone could not know what Creole meant (or Cray-hole as he pronounced it) but did know about obscure German noodles. What an enigmatic chap. His female companion later asked what the 'strawberry mess' was - missing that it was Eton Mess (or as the menu spelled it Eaton Mess). Oh what a night for being a pair of smug self-satisfied foodies.
My tummy was too bored by what I'd eaten to want to take on a heavy pudding and the menu was very much of the 'fruit crumble or sticky toffee pudding' type. We still had lots to talk about so we ordered more drinks - two peppermint teas. Such are the joys of driving and not drinking. We spotted that the waitress hadn't quite caught what we wanted when she brought the cups and a milk jug. I asked whether she'd realised we wanted peppermint and she said it would be no trouble to "go and change the teabags". We took our teas and moved to the leather armchairs next to the open fire.
~Take your time~
Unsurprisingly, given the absence of customers, nobody rushed us and the service throughout the evening was pleasant and friendly. The restaurant itself was beautifully and creatively decorated and we both really liked the feel of the place. I can't help but think they're missing a few tricks for such a nice place to be so empty. The prices are clearly a big issue - pub food just can't command £16 main courses on a week night unless it's a seriously swanky 'gastro' pub. This place isn't that. If I were in their shoes I'd look very seriously at the menu. It's too big for a place that's not full every night, too complex and they must be throwing out a lot of food. Surely it's better to make less money per diner but fill the place. This pub is crying out for a week night 'deal' to bring people in. Two courses for £12 or £15 or free soft drinks (to compensate for the isolation) or something that shows a bit of imagination. I'd be happy to see a much smaller menu of freshly cooked dishes and a lot more people in the place.
They also desperately need a website. This place is gorgeous inside but who can tell from the outside that it's actually something special? It just looks like any one of thousands of small country pubs. It's hard to find geographically, impossible to find online, and its current price point is failing badly if our experience of an empty restaurant is anything to go by. This place could and should be much more popular but it needs to try a lot harder.
The Black Swan
Cheshire SK11 9EQ