TAKING advantage of a trip to North Yorkshire, we thought we’d stop off at The Raby Hunt in the hamlet of Summerhouse near Darlington.
If the name rings a bell somewhere in the recesses of the mind, it’s probably because it’s just recently won a Michelin star and has had a lot of press attention.
Remarkably, it’s the only restaurant in the North East that currently holds the coveted stellar award, seen by many as the Oscars of the foodie world.
Even though it’s a bit off the beaten track – for us townies coming from Newcastle – it’s so worth making the effort to seek out.
The restaurant is housed in a characterful Grade II listed building dating back to the early 19th Century, about six miles from Darlington.
It’s a gem of a place and lunch was a gastronomic treat, being both memorable and imaginative, with a fair few oohs and aahs thrown in.
It’s not break-the-bank prices either for cooking of this standard. Lunch was surprisingly affordable, at two courses for £20.95 and three courses for £24.95, although some dishes carry a supplement.
The Michelin accolade is a remarkable achievement for head chef James Close who, with his family, owns the elegant, small 24-seater fine-dining restaurant with rooms.
Even more so, when you consider he’s only been at the helm for three short years.
Inside, it’s an absolute delight. A bijou bar area leads into the dining room. The décor feels fresh, simple and uncluttered. Purple upholstered seats, crisp white table linen, wooden floorboards and views of the surrounding countryside make for a restful and intimate setting.
I sipped a glass of organic Saint Véran unoaked Chardonnay (Domaine de la Croix Senaillet, Macônnais, 2010), £8.75, and water, while the other half was keeping a clear head for tackling our moors adventure, so he cradled a Luscombe hot ginger beer, £3.25, deliciously tickly on the throat.
The restaurant with two bedrooms – a former inn that used to be part of the Raby estate – has already made its mark and regularly features in eating out guides, but is far busier now since winning the star in September.
The lunch menu offered a choice of three starters, mains and desserts or there is a five-course tasting menu for £47.50 with wine matching available for £30 per person.
The staff were bright and switched on; the front of house, Craig, knows all the dishes inside out, and was friendly and professional throughout.
Lunch doesn’t feel a stuffy affair, and with a handful of other tables taken up, there was enough of a buzz.
A selection of freshly baked breads from the Clervaux Bakery in Darlington were first brought to the table: a French baguette, a black pudding roll flecked through with meaty morsels, and a maple, date and pecan bread – sweet and moreish, almost like a scone. And treat of treats, hand-patted butter. Next up, an amuse bouche of duck liver parfait wrapped in smoked eel with beetroot prepared three ways, was a chef’s show-off dish.
It was so prettily presented, the bite-size fishy treat tasty, the sweet beetroot (a slice, jus and dehydrated crumbs) exquisite, the pickled blackberry...well, just amusing.
James may say his food philosophy is driven by simple flavours, but this is very clever cooking.
He mixes modern British style with European influences and is a keen supporter of local produce. The local butcher provides meat that has been grazed in nearby fields, fish is sourced locally and vegetables come from nearby growers.
My starter of lemon sole with caviar, radish slice and mussel jus was a fresh, clean looking dish of intense flavours. The fish white and meaty, the radish slice peppery, the caviar a salty tang and the mussel jus offering full-on fishy flavour.
The other half’s squab pigeon starter was a revelation. I’m not pulling your leg when I say the pigeon’s leg was presented, with claw intact, cooked confit-style, on a stone. The breast meat, poached and roasted with complementary liver parfait and artichoke, was served up on another plate. It was certainly a talking point! And pictures had to be taken to show the kids back home.
The breast meat was gamey rich, and the leg meat actually delicious. It required careful handling with that claw – but tasted much like chicken.
For mains, we both sampled Raby estate loin of venison with venison ragu, celeriac, broccoli and red endive, which comes with potato puree, a rich jus and dark chocolate flecks artfully dotted around.
This was a robust meaty dish, still immaculately presented with flair. The venison was cooked sous vide, water-bath style, and had a red blush all the way through. The exquisite meat was moist, really tender, cooked to perfection. So filling, too.
Neither of us could resist dessert and we were both keen to sample James’ imaginative offerings.
And he did not disappoint. Raby Hunt’s rich chocolate bar with popcorn ice cream is a signature dessert. It’s like a very posh, witty take on a Mars bar, featuring three types of chocolate, with gold leaf atop a glossy chocolate exterior, and salted caramel layer inside. Sticky, gooey, but gorgeous. You know you shouldn’t, but you just can’t resist!
The other half’s rhubarb textures with dehydrated pieces of almond cake and Brillat-Savarin cow’s milk cheese ice cream, was a fresh, colourful, cleansing dish of forced rhubarb pieces, delicately poached.
It was a beautiful dessert with just enough of a sharp edge to the rhubarb, offset by the creamy, subtley flavoured ice cream.
We were almost sorry to leave – lunch was quite the gastronomic journey. It felt relaxed but special – clever dishes and flavour combinations make this an experience to be savoured.
Address: The Raby Hunt restaurant with rooms, Summerhouse, near Darlington, DL2 3UD. 01325 374237
Open: Lunch, Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 2pm; dinner, Wednesday to Saturday 6pm to 9.30pm. Also taking bookings for Mother’s Day on March 10 and Easter Sunday on March 31.
First impressions: Housed in a handsome Grade II listed former inn in village setting.
Welcome: Warmly greeted by friendly and efficient front-of-house manager Craig.
Style, design and furnishings: Simple décor, purple seating, wooden floorboards, rural views. Intimate space but light and bright at lunch.
Cuisine: Predominately British with European influences.
Service: Professional staff are smart in both senses and very efficient, but not at all stuffy.
Disabled facilities: Accessible.