You don't see very many approving words written about the Michelin Guide these days. It's out of touch say its detractors, overly in thrall to the signifiers of the Gallic cuisine it originally described. Too many stars here, too few there. Critics, bloggers and other interested parties scratch their collective bonce as Rogan remains starless in Manchester while in London, Ducasse retains all three. The thing has become a running joke and should just be ignored, they say. And yet, and yet. If it wasn't for the attentions of the little red book we may still not have heard about the cooking of James Close at the Raby Hunt, much less have had the pleasure of settling in for a recent lunch of absolutely stellar cooking. So: thanks Michelin!
I'd honestly never heard of the place when it achieved it's star in the 2013 guide, the only eatery in the North East to do so then, and now. The story of a chef, only cooking professionally for a few years, achieving such an accolade is admittedly just the kind of copy-generator that the guide must thrive on, but the consensus seemed to be that this was an occasion they had gotten it right. We have been meaning to get down to Summerhouse and find out for ourselves, and a recent anniversary provided just the right excuse for a blow-out lunch.
|Salt and Vinegar Cod Skin, Aioli|
|Restaurant interior. Look, it's me!|
|Jerusalem Artichoke Crisp, Lamb Ragu, Minted Yoghurt|
Once seated in the restaurant itself - smartly but not stuffily done out - we were accosted by further bits of dinky deliciousness. Another crisped skin, this time of jerusalem artichoke supported a blob of sensationally rich lamb ragu and some minted yoghurt.
|Prawn Cocktail Cornet|
Bread and butter was superb, with warmed sourdough getting on very well with some decadently sweet tasting butter. I meant to ask if this superlative dairy spread was home made. Wherever it's coming from, it's brilliant, and one of many indications that detail has had some careful attention paid to it. All of this, arriving at our table within minutes of us, reassured that we were in for a meal of very high standards, but was still scant indication of the total genius we about to be hit with.
|Fresh Water [Beetroot, Cherry, Eel]|
|Bream [Brown Shrimp, Artichoke, Fennel]|
|Squab [Ragu, Carrot, Kale]|
|Leg of Squab|
|Salt Marsh [Lamb Rack, Anchovy, Spinach]|
|Blackberry [Tonka Bean, Chocolate, Pistachio]|
|The Chocolate Bar|
The service was confident, relaxed and charming throughout, with just one restaurant manager and a waitress aided by a maitre d', who I took to be James' father. This was, I thought, the perfect number of staff for a restaurant this size. Although we were off the booze, I had a scan of the wine list which looked to have some interesting choices at not-too-painfully marked up prices, including, in a very enlightened move, a good selection by the carafe.
At the risk of repeating myself, I need to again say something about attention to detail; coffee wasn't presented as a mere afterthought, but was sourced from nearby Darlington, roasted to the restaurant's specifications and served using Chemex filters, which provided a nice theatrical touch to bookend a superb meal.
I'm not normally given to outpourings of regional pride. The world is full of nice places, of which the North East of England is but one. But it really is a very good thing indeed to have a restaurant producing food of this level and ambition in the area, and I wish James and all the team every success. He was nice enough to come and have a word with us afterwards, talking about ideas for new dishes and plans for extending what is currently a very small kitchen area.
The tasting menu we had was priced at £47.50, which I think is very fair value. The three-course lunch, priced at £28.50 is a more affordable way of getting to taste James' food. Considering that, on the day we went, you'd be able to eat that beetroot and eel dish in amongst other wonders, that is a bargain. Prices are higher in the evening. If you've already been, I'm sure you can understand why I sound like a starry-eyed sycophantic fool here, and if you like good food but haven't, I urge you to seek it out. I had a good think after about any real criticisms I could have about the meal and the only things I could come up with were that I wasn't too keen on the piped piano music and the sign on the loo door isn't perhaps fitting of a Michelin Starred eatery, but I'm not that arsed about toilet signs, so whatever. Basically, it's brilliant and you should go.
The Raby Hunt Inn and Restaurant with Rooms, Summerhouse, County Durham, DL2 3UD
01325 374 237