The north east of England has traditionally been regarded as a gastronomic desert (with some justification). That was until self-taught chef James Close came to Darlington and turned a former pub into a destination restaurant. Raby Hunt has wowed Michelin inspectors since 2016. It featured in Masterchef The Professionals a couple of years ago. ‘Foodies’ coo about it constantly. A step out of the metropolitan bubble was surely warranted.
A restaurant with two Michelin stars is, by definition, “worth a detour.” As far as the food is concerned, I agree wholeheartedly with the tyre company. A 15 course extravaganza awaits you – each course a masterclass in top level cookery. After the initial disappointment that they “don’t do cocktails” (more on that shortly), we enjoyed a cavalcade of delicious small dishes – some merely a canapé, others more comprehensive, but all of them excellent.
Close’s judicious use of fat in his cookery shows a real understanding of how to maximise flavour and texture
It’s almost pointless trying to recall each dish but some really stood out. In nods to South America there was a tiny scallop ceviche and a taco with a cube of moist suckling pig. There was a delightfully eggy tangle of tagliolini with truffle shavings – up there with the best pasta dishes I’ve eaten in Italy. There were quirky mini pastrami and croque madames. It’s almost as if James Close wants to bring every corner of the world to this sleepy north-eastern hamlet, and why the hell not?
Particularly worthy of note is Close’s judicious use of fat in his cookery: the oil used for the tempura langoustine, or the fat marbling within the morsel of wagyu beef, showed a real understanding of how to maximise flavour and texture (the wagyu alone was divine – if only there was more).
The ‘Autumn salad’ came with its own self-aggrandising list of ingredients: intimidating at first, but no-one can be left unimpressed by a dish comprising no fewer than 55 hand-picked herbs and vegetables from the garden and arranged so beautifully. Monty Don would be proud.
In the pastry section, a pre-dessert of black olive, sheep’s yoghurt and chocolate sounded vile on paper but the proof was very much in the pudding. It turned out to be sensational. Then there was a return to more classic French territory with a perfectly-executed millefeuille accompanied by apple and caramel ice cream. Finally, a little mango and yuzu tart came in a plate painted with open palms (perhaps begging for forgiveness before the presentation of the bill?).
The only bum note was the skull-shaped petit four designed by Raby Hunt’s chief chocolatière Maria Guseva. The sugarwork and artistry were admirable but once in your mouth the punctured skull oozed an unpleasant jus. Simply, it was something that should be looked at and not eaten. Mercifully, an (overpriced) espresso washed away the taste.
So, if the food is so amazing – nay even bordering on a religious experience – why are you only awarding it 15/20, I hear you cry. Unlike the tyre company’s sole focus on cooking, we consider the dining experience as a whole. This restaurant is sadly let down by its upselling, ludicrous mark-ups and a cold atmosphere which cast an ugly shadow over the wonderful food.
First, a word about the wine situation. There is no sommelier (or at least there wasn’t one on our visit). Perhaps there doesn’t need to be one if diners are going to be duped into mark-ups that far exceed the industry standard (the restaurant refused to countenance our price comparison spreadsheet when we proffered it). Drinks were served by an adolescent wine waiter who, to be fair, was trying his best, but the robotic way he described each wine and incessantly enquired if we wanted another glass showed that the management prefer their staff to learn things by rote rather than develop any flair, passion or personality. Not the waiter’s fault at all, but a wine waiter or sommelier in a high-end restaurant really does need some life experience – developing a bank of wine knowledge takes years of tasting, travel and discovery, which, with the best will in the world, a sixth form student simply won’t have. As for the other serving staff, whilst all very well-intentioned, they were all a little too attentive. My dining companion and I felt like we were zoo animals throughout the whole meal, constantly being watched by someone peering at the sides to see if we were ready for our next canapé. One could argue that when you’ve travelled 300 miles for a meal that costs £300 per head – literally a pound a mile – you deserve to be rewarded with better service.
And indeed, having travelled all that way to the sticks, a bar offering a thirst-quenching drink on arrival wouldn’t go amiss. A request for a Negroni was firmly denied with a computer-says-no lack of discretion. For a pre-prandial the best you can hope for is a swift half at a local pub. That’s not inherently a bad thing, as long as you channel Marwood in Withnail and I and remind local patrons that you’re “not from London.”
James Close is a true culinary talent. If only he could serve his food in a more pleasant environment with reasonable mark-ups
As for the ambience, I’m not sure who came up with the concept of black paint, skulls, muted greys and obscured windows, but this kind of ‘graveyard chic’ is not exactly a relaxing atmosphere to unwind in. The bright lights and indie rock music don’t help either. Perhaps other diners in the area have cottoned on to this as it was only a third full on a Friday evening – something we found very surprising when we had to book three months ahead of time.
This may all seem like moaning. First world problems and all that. Obviously, expensive ingredients in skilled hands need to be paid for. But the key question is whether the whole experience is worth it when a single meal is commensurate with a week’s rent in a central London flat. In a word, it isn’t.
In a way I feel for James Close. His food is exceptional and he is a true culinary talent. If only he could serve it in a more pleasant environment with reasonable mark-ups and I’d feel more comfortable about recommending his restaurant.
by J A Smith