As we arrived, Craig, the maître d’, seemed relieved to see us. A big party had cancelled only that morning.
This could be bad news for a small restaurant with only a couple of dozen covers, but Craig said chef James Close had created some new dishes and wanted someone to try them out on, if we didn’t mind.
Was he kidding? Private dining in the North East’s only Michelin-starred restaurant?
It’s an attractive Victorian pub, bought four years ago by Russell and Helene Close, whose son had wanted to try his hand at cooking professionally. They’d expected James to turn it into a bistro. I’m glad he had loftier ideas.
James wanted to cook at the highest level but when, last year, the tyre company gave him a star, no one was more surprised than him.
However, don’t come expecting to find a fully-formed celebrity chef. He’s modest and charming and, although he’s already achieved more than most chefs accomplish in a lifetime, James knows he is only halfway up the ladder to stardom.
Last week he took his partner Charlotte and their baby daughter Harriet on a tour of Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe. I’m guessing he took a notebook.
His passionate cooking is already influenced by the thrilling modern cuisine of the Flemish region, places such as Hof van Cleve, Hertog Jan and In De Wulf. Judged by this one meal, James is an exciting, ambitious chef on his way to gastronomic glory. Sample his cooking while you can.
Take, for example, our first course.
The menu simply said “eel with duck liver, beetroot and cherry”. Little rolls of creamy liver parfait, wrapped in wafer thin smoked eel, were so rich and smooth, I suspect it contained foie gras. Some restaurants won’t declare goose on their menus for fear of retribution from foie gras fascists, but it makes a great partner with eel, and beetroot is an excellent earthy foil for both.
New as this combination might be for some, it’s not actually original. Gert de Mangeleer in Bruges has a similar dish, and even Ramsay combines foie gras with eel at his London restaurant Maze. But now James has made the combination his own.
Drops of intense cherry cut through the richness and then, for texture, he cleverly adds tiny beetroot meringues and coats the rolls in dessicated beet. This simple dish is worth a star on its own.
It was preceded by four interesting tasters. Tiny cubes of ox tongue were presented on a hot stone. Crispy on the outside, moist ragu within, they were topped with the tiniest turnip.
A miniature barbecued yellow courgette was filled with delicious crab and rye seed, decorated with edible flowers. Fried cod skin was then served with little dots of aioli, garnished with bronze fennel. I suggest James strengthens his aioli: it added little to the fish skin, which craved a sharper contrast. I did like the single Lindisfarne oyster, presented as a tribute to the island. It was leisurely poached to moist intensity, then fried in batter containing Lindisfarne ale and set on concentrated oyster emulsion. To this James added one oyster leaf, which tastes just like its name.
I sensed the deft green fingers of Ken Holland at work, who supplies many of our region’s top restaurants with baby shoots and is an essential partner for anyone cooking at this level.
There was so much more. We’d ordered the slimmed down lunchtime tasting menu at a bargain £47.50. This included a razor clam that rocked through the taste buds, with almond, ceps and peas; then pigeon breast with pigeon liver mousse and a roast leg, its Jurassic talon gesturing towards a slice of artichoke and a strange afterthought of raw peach.
Our main course was beautifully pink lamb, with anchovy emulsion and the now ubiquitous barbecued kale. Two dessert courses included an upmarket Mars Bar creation, filled with salted caramel and served with popcorn ice cream and gold leaf. All this was accompanied by an intelligent wine pairing, for a further £40.
Thankfully the restaurant only opens when James is cooking, which ensures perfection, but makes booking essential.
The Raby Hunt is six miles from Darlington. That’s just 28 minutes from Newcastle by train, plus a short taxi ride. If you are remotely interested in great food, you’d be mad not to go.
For a special occasion, book for dinner and stay in one of two nice rooms. There’s also a £27 three-course lunch menu. Service is impeccable. But hurry: in three weeks’ time they’ll be publishing the 2014 Michelin list, and I doubt James Close’s name will be missing.
Secret Diner’s Verdict
(out of 5)