Monday, 23 March 2015

Restaurant Review: The Raby Hunt, Summerhouse

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
Things started now as they did then, with a feather-light cod skin crisp. I thought I could detect some kind of vinegar powder dusting the thing. Either way, these are great. I wonder if you can get them by the bag anywhere? Iceland, maybe.

62˚ Lindisfarne Oyster
Next up, an interesting oyster dish in which temperatures are key. Specifying the exact heat you've used to cook something is always going to invite smarty-pants comments and my Dad wasn't about to turn down the invitation. Classic Dad. Anyway, the thing arrived in a rather grand bowl, paddling in a rhubarb vinegar and topped by a pear snow and a sprig of oyster leaf. The cooking had left the bivalve slightly firm and mild of flavour; the whole thing together was a blast of sweet/sour ozone freshness.

Raw scallop
An off-piste extra from the kitchen next was a real treat. Nuggets of sublimely fresh scallop came perched on slices of lime, merrily cevicheing away in front of us. Sesame seeds and some sort of miso-type glaze completed a neat Japanese/Peruvian (a pretty trendy combo dontcha know) megamix of flavours. These were bloody great.

Serious bread and butter
I read something about a particular French megachef recently, claiming he deliberately serves cold,  average bread in order that the customers don't fill up on it. Diners are confronted by the opposite problem at the Raby Hunt. The sourdough they do is some proper stuff, hefty of crust and with just the right amount of fermented tang.

Duck liver, eel, beetroot, cherry
Things got stratospherically good with the next dish, which was the culinary equivalent of meeting a dear old friend. Except that the friend is, if anything, better looking than you remember. And, unless you're mistaken, even tastier, at which point the metaphor breaks down. Miniature barrels of duck liver parfait are wrapped in impossibly thin slices of eel. Slices of fresh and pickled beetroot add earth and zing. Beetroot meringues are more for texture than anything. Finally, blobs of cherry gel of shockingly vivid flavour bring the whole thing together. I don't know what the powder is; dessicated genius perhaps?

Bream, cod roe, spinach
A healthy portion of bream was firm but moist of flesh, and crip-skinned, which is precisely what you're after from fish cookery. Spinach offered a needed burst of vegetal freshness, while the whole thing was seasoned by the seriously fishy splodges (Restaurant Manager Craig's words, not mine) of cod roe, and what I think might have been dessicated scallop roe. There was a wonderfully measured blast of lemon in the buttery cooking juices which made for some swoonworthy bread-mopping action.

Raw beef, basil, anchovy, marrowbone
Another extra from the kitchen, and a new dish to try. I'm going to sound like an ungrateful git, but also just to prove I didn't completely check my critical faculties in at the door, I didn't think this quite worked. The beef, some very recherché sounding Wagyu/Dexter cross had a remarkably creamy feel in the mouth, but to this philistinian palate the flavour of the cow wasn't quite there, being elbowed out of the picture by the basil. Still, pleasant stuff.

Duck, ragu, kale
No such issues with the final savoury course. This was a plate of bullshittingly good cooking. The bird was crisp skinned, with just the right amount of creamy fat. Riotous amounts of flavour were going on in its perfectly pink flesh. Charred cauliflower, buttered morels and crispy fried kale bulked things out in the nicest possible way, but special mention goes to the treatment of jerusalem artichoke. Slices of the raw tuber were lightly pickled, bringing acidity but still tasting supernaturally of itself. Lurking under some kale, artichoke skin had somehow been hollowed out, crisped up, then filled with a ragout of the bird's innards. The overall effect was comfortingly familiar but shockingly delicious, and I don't see how it could've been improved. Completely sensational.

Chocolate bar, popcorn, gold, salted caramel
Pudding was another "classic" dish, and remains a no-holds-barred kind of way to end a meal. The popcorn ice cream is completely delicious, but the multi-layered decadence it sits opposite is where the action is. The chocolate coating will please narcissists as it's so shiny you can see your reflection in it, while the various innards stop just on the right side of being sickly.

They do Chemex coffee here, which means a lengthy tableside performance from one of the staff. Pro-Tip: have some good small talk lined up. Ours was average at best. I'm not utterly sold on the benefits of Chemex. The flasks look lovely, and it certainly makes a formidable brew, but so does a cafetiere if your beans are fresh enough. Hey, what do I know. I'm very sold on their chocolates, which were lovely, especially a rosemary white chocolate square.

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


All comments gratefully received. Sorry about the word verification thing, but I've started getting bombed by spam.

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