When revisiting a restaurant, it's a pleasure to find the things you enjoyed the first time just as good as they were. It's even better to find that they've been joined by other plates of searingly good quality. When we ate at The Raby Hunt for the first time a little over a year ago we were fairly bowled over by some stellar-level cooking from James Close and his small team. Things have moved on since then. There are a couple more staff both in the kitchen and out front, and, when visiting for a birthday lunch at the weekend just gone there was a palpable sense of assurance about everything going on under their roof. The following words are in danger of sounding like the worst kind of fawning, hagiographic brown-nosing, but there's no getting away from the fact that pretty much everything we ate at The Raby Hunt was - spoiler alert! - flat out brilliant.
To allow all four of us a shot at the booze, we took the train down from Newcastle to Darlington, followed by a 10 minute taxi into the rural scene in which the Raby Hunt lives. There's not a whole lot going on in Summerhouse: I didn't even see a village shop. The backdrop is pleasant, in an unspectacularly agricultural kind of way. Nothing agricultural about the inside of the restaurant which is all whitewashed walls, wooden floors and driftwood-as-art adorning the walls. It's plush and smart in an unstuffy kind of way.
|Cod skin, saffron aioli, fennel|
|62˚ Lindisfarne Oyster|
|Serious bread and butter|
|Duck liver, eel, beetroot, cherry|
|Bream, cod roe, spinach|
|Raw beef, basil, anchovy, marrowbone|
|Duck, ragu, kale|
|Chocolate bar, popcorn, gold, salted caramel|
Booze-wise, I stuck with an Austrian pinot noir which was soft enough to go nicely with near enough everything we ate, but with just enough spice and character to drink by itself. Service throughout was super-friendly, knowlegable and hyper efficient. The pacing of the dishes was, I thought, perfect. The price for the 5-course lunch tasting menu, notwithstanding the fact that we had a couple of extra bits, is £35. This is insanely good value, and I almost wonder if it hinders people from selecting the larger winter tasting menu at twice the price.
There aren't many meals during which I've mourned the passing of nearly every dish, while looking forward to the next, as I did here. A quick flick through my mental rollodex of best ever fancy meals is producing very little that I would rank higher than what they're doing at The Raby Hunt (name-drop alert...). Fat Duck yes, but by christ you pay for it. Le Bernardin was out of this world, and gets extra points for being first ever time I ate zenith-level cookery. Le Chateabriand in Paris was pretty bloody cool. Apart from those? I don't know.
We've had two-star meals in London which didn't hit the heights of flavour that James et al are managing to produce in a comparatively tiny kitchen here. You could say I'm biased, and just bigging this place up because it's in the North East, to which I would say "nah, sorry, that's bollocks". Jay Rayner noted in his recent, glowing review that he felt the food here perhaps lacked a distinct sense of place in the way that somewhere like L'Enclume does, which is an interesting point, but I think, actually, a strength of The Raby Hunt.
The food here has a restlessness to it that makes it all the more exciting, allowing for influences from further afield. The end result is a meal which I honestly think you could take out of Darlington and plonk in front of keen diners in any major city full of scran-temples and mightily impress with. In the final assessment, deliciousness is all that matters, and it feels like that, rather than strict adherence to hyper-locality, is what drives the menus that the team here is cooking. The fact that it's just down the road is just a happy coincidence.
10/10 (More, probably, but I don't want to get into all that. Where does it end?)
The Raby Hunt Inn and Restaurant with Rooms, Summerhouse, County Durham, DL2 3UD
01325 374 237
Raby Hunt Twitter
James Close Twitter