Sunday, 26 January 2014

Restaurant Review: The Raby Hunt, Summerhouse

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
After a gloom-laden drive down from Newcastle we were pleased to get sat down in the small but plush bar area, as the weather outside was on the atrocious side of grim. We'd decided in advance to say bollocks to it and treat ourselves to the tasting menu, Kasia subbing in some suckling pig for a squab pigeon. A snack of crisped salt and vinegar cod skin with aioli was expertly done, reminding me of something similar at Texture in London. Fun, and very tasty.

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
Upping the whimsy factor to fantastic effect was a prawn cocktail cornet, made with wonderful brown shrimps. Hurrah for a suitably grown up version of a childhood favourite. One of these days I'd like to do a meal composed only of such daintily powerful dishes as these...

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]
The first "proper" dish was easily one of the best things I've ever eaten, an all-too-rare plateful of flawlessly prepared components working together to create a whole that tastes as if it has had magic dust sprinkled over it. Cylinders of rich liver parfait came wrapped in wafer thin sheets of eel. A triptych of beetroot - fresh; pickled for acidity; meringues for sweetness - showed technique, while a cherry gel had a smoky depth whose bbq sauce-like power would shock the most fatigued palate. I'm aware that my prose here is as purple as this dish, but you're just going to have to deal with it. Perfection isn't an easy thing to describe.

Bream [Brown Shrimp, Artichoke, Fennel]
That the next dish wan't a total let-down in comparison speaks of a nicely cooked bit of fish, more of those delicious brown shrimps, with charred aniseedy top notes coming in the shape of a wodge of grilled fennel.

Suckling Pig
The unmistakable aroma of pig fat being introduced to extreme heat emanating from the kitchen signified that Kasia's pork dish was not far away. The meat was dense and rich and wonderful.

Squab [Ragu, Carrot, Kale]
Nonetheless, I was well chuffed for having stuck with the squab dish that was advertised on the tasting menu. The breast hinted at rather than shouted about the flavour of liver, while the ragu had the uncanny effect of reminding me of a stunning plate of long cooked mince I doubt I've ever actually eaten. Crispy kale provided some needed greenery and texture. Crispy kale is all the rage these days, eh?

Leg of Squab
Accompanying this came something that looked a bit like a prop from Jurassic Park, but was in fact the leg of the beast I had just consumed. I'm assuming it was confited as the meat was bullshittingly tender. It had been butchered in such a way as to make eating it a hassle-free, if slightly neolithic experience. Wonderful.

Salt Marsh [Lamb Rack, Anchovy, Spinach]
Last of the savoury courses heralded perhaps the most conventional plate of food of the day, but this wasn't totally unwelcome after gnawing on a talon. The lamb was packed with flavour, as was the accompanying spinach. Blobs of an anchovy puree cranked up the saline and umami factors.

Blackberry [Tonka Bean, Chocolate, Pistachio]
Dessert was "only" very nice. Whole blackberries, tasting as if soaked in some sort of booze, shared the side of a plate with some biscotti-ish bits of pistachio crunch and very decent chocolate. I'm not sure where the tonka bean came in, and I was on the hunt for it as I love tonka beans. Was it in the chocolate? Very pretty plate.

The Chocolate Bar
Lunch ended on a stratospherically high note as we made the very excellent decision of asking to have one of what seems to be their signature pud to share as an extra. It's basically a posh Mars Bar, but that doesn't come close to getting at just how bloody great this was. The salted popcorn ice cream was a revelation both in terms of smoothness and flavour, but the chocolate bar itself...  To quote Ray Wilkins: "My word, Peter".

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


Raby Hunt on Urbanspoon


  1. Wow...that is some review ...glad you enjoyed this meal and thought so highly of not just the food but the restaurant and staff too. Sometimes the most exquisite meal can be marred by poor surroundings and bad staff!!

  2. This is on my list of places to visit - just rocketed to the top after reading this!

    1. Hope you enjoy it as much as we did. I've not had many better meals.


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