Thursday, 9 November 2017

Raby Hunt, nr Darlington

Back in the days when D and I were young(ish) we used to turn to the Michelin guide a lot when picking restaurant destinations. I’ve always known what I like (most everything apart from rice pudding) and what I don’t like (rice pudding) when it comes to food, but when it comes to dropping a three figure sum on an experience, it’s as well to receive some wisdom and guidance.

As we’ve got older and fatter, we have become less driven to collect stars. And one of the reasons that we took agin them is the (to us) perceptible London bias. Despite the fact that I live in Yorkshire, I would always regard myself as a displaced Southerner, and, in general, roll my eyes at the chip on Northern shoulders when it comes to the national geographical divide. But I do concur that it seems to be far harder for restaurants outside the capital to trouble the hallowed pages of the Michelin guide and wonder if not all standards are created equal. Thus, when a restaurant in the wilds of the North East is awarded two stars we cannot help but take notice since it flies in the face of all our huffing and puffing.

And I can safely say that Raby Hunt, after a single, glorious dinner, has established itself firmly as one of my new favourite places to eat. Every single one of you reading this blog, wheresoever in the country you are situated (and I appreciate that many people live quite a long way away from Darlington) (and, in fact, some people don’t live in the UK at all so they’re even further away) need to get yourself over there. It’s not really handy for anywhere but that gives you an excellent excuse to stay over in one of the three, beautifully appointed, definitely not haunted rooms, and have a very good breakfast the next day.

The chef-proprietor, James Close, is not only self-taught but was, until the age of thirty, a professional golfer. In less than a decade he has marshalled a kitchen that prepares and sends out some simply extraordinary food which speaks of incredible instincts: an understanding of texture and flavour combinations that must be utterly innate. Much as I love dishes that fit within a shared culinary history, here, I really appreciated a sensibility that seemed unfettered by tradition. Flavour combinations were sometimes familiar, but sometimes absolutely not – the dish of razor clam with celeriac and almonds was nothing I had come across before and, on paper, doesn’t sound like it should work…and yet, in the eating was utterly extraordinary.

Pastrami sandwich
Razor clam, crab taco, mango and yuzu tart
Chocolate, black olive
Jay Rayner’s 2015 review of the restaurant mentioned that the food was not as definitively of its place as, say, a L’Enclume and I would agree with that…there was a hint of wanderlust to the menu with ingredients and influences both drawn from across the globe. Potentially confusing and cacophonous in the hands of a lesser kitchen but here, it felt mischievous and exciting. So a crab taco was served in the same parade of little dishes as a mini New York deli sandwich, a lamb ragu nestled within a crispy Kuzu basket (which we think is some sort of Asian starch), the final dessert (mango, yuzu and coconut tart) was full of tropical sunshine…and it all made perfect sense. And, really, it’s a peculiarly British habit to shamelessly annex tastes from around the world – we’re a nation of culinary magpies. So perhaps I was wrong to say that Close is unfettered by tradition – perhaps it is the nomadic aspect of our culinary heritage that he is embracing here.

We went with my parents and, around the table, struggled to reach consensus as to the best dish (although for my money the razor clam was the star of the show. Also, I want all my chocolate mousses to be served with a hint of fruity black olive from now on). Suffice to say, throughout the fifteen course tasting menu, there was not a single duff mouthful. But, as ever with these places, the service is as much a part of the experience as the food, and that was perfectly charming too. Favourite moment: my Mum wondered aloud what a yuzu looked like and one was produced from the kitchen. Second favourite moment: when D bemoaned the lack of bread available for mopping up the remainder of his lamb gravy, a basket was duly brought. You can be sure he returned the favour by sending back a plate so clean that no further washing was required.

With so many wonderful places to visit and explore, and finite resources at our disposal, we sadly don’t get to revisit favourite spots as often as we would like. However, there is absolutely no way that this will be my last visit to Raby Hunt. I am beyond excited to see what this chef, an absolutely shining example of modern British cooking, produces next.

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