7 September 2013

The Raby Hunt

Food ✪✪✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 

The Raby Hunt Restaurant & Rooms
Nr. Darlington 
Co. Durham 
DL2 3UD 
01325 374237 


Wed to Sat only: 12-2pm 6-9.30pm 

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 like 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 - no, I'm absolutely sure - it contained foie gras. Some restaurants won’t declare goose on their menus for fear of retribution from the 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 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 an extra 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 and and a turnip sliver. 

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. 

However 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. 

With all these baby vegetables 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 rather ubiquitous barbecued kale. 

Two dessert courses included a rich upmarket Mars Bar creation, filled with salted caramel and served with popcorn ice cream and gold leaf. Simple and delicious. 

The only real negative in the entire meal was the rather ordinary, and imported, sourdough, although it was served with fine artisan butter.  Sorry, but I think they really should be making their own bread.

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.


  1. Surprising - every time I've been they've had freshly baked bread...

  2. After reading this review I booked to take my wife for our anniversary. We were the only guests for lunch that day and similarly we were asked if we would like to test some new ideas, to which we were only too happy to agree to.
    Our first amuse bouche was dehydrated cod skin served on a cod skeleton, with saffron aliole. My wife is not normally one to eat fish skin, however she loved this treat. Or next taster was black pudding with foie gras and apple. This also was delicious and the crunch of the apple nicely complimented the texture of the other ingredients. We also were offered the Lindisfarne oyster, which nice and delicate, and the oyster leaf had a surprisingly oysterish taste. Our next sample was crab with globe artichoke and pickle. This was delicious, in that the artichoke flavour was quite subtle and not over powering. I had not eaten artichoke for years after a bad experience in Spain, and I was pleasantly surprised. Following this we moved on to the tasting menu which we had chosen, and the first dish was eel with duck liver and beetroot and cherries. The duck liver was made in to a parfait and allowed the smokieness of the eel to come through, and the beetroot added a bit of texture, especially from the beetroot meringues. Our second dish off the tasting menu was the razor clam which was delicious, and the almonds gave it a nice crunch. The squab we were presented next was cooked to perfection, and led nicely to our venison with celeriac, and again a lovely piece of artichoke. The venison had been cooked su vide and wad lovely and tender.
    We finished our meal with two deserts the first being blackberry and pistachio, which had blackberry ice-cream, coulis, and meringues. The second was a lemon thyme flavoured creme brulee with stewed fruit. I do enjoy a good creme brulee and this one did not fail to please. Before our drive home we finished with a coffee prepared in an intriguing pot called a Hario.
    Overall we had a fantastic experience and cannot thank Craig and James for looking after us so well. We look forward to our next visit.

  3. 6 out of 5?? Hmmmm smells fishy