the virtue of their nature, premises are made to prove them; assumptions need to be guessed out of them. So I thought. But even I began to wonder, as the fourth hour of road time dustlessly crumbled into the fifth, did anyone really need to know if Darlington’s Raby Hunt is worth the trip. The place already has two Michelin stars, I reasoned, it must be decent enough; just this week it was named the country’s fourth best place to eat by the Good Food Guide. Ahead of us, tail lights glowed like hot coals. Our supplies were unbalanced: we had endless traffic, but no water. We were running low on Boney M. And then my snake friend took another cola. Despair is not the word.
There is no need to traipse through hell—I realize, perhaps, somewhat overstating the horror of being driven up the freeway in a first class sports car—your introduction to Raby Hunt. The RMT heard that we were going to have fun and decided to go on strike; a train from King’s Cross would normally take less than two and a half hours, and a drive should take around four and a half. We clocked in at six-and-a-bit, which is impressive in its own way, as my friend/driver tried to break the sound barrier whenever he could.
Arriving late means we were underdressed, not fresh, and apologies as we entered a grey, black and white dining room as serious as a paring knife. Rooms like this don’t encourage much to dwell on, so I won’t, except to say that one advantage of being clean and cold is that it throws into sudden relief how warm and kind staff can be; in this case, the new head sommelier Daniel Jonberger, who divined the need for a drink. Maybe it was because we were pointing at different bottles with tongues lolling well. But this was also the first sign that our tired state was worth it. The short answer, therefore, is yes: it is worth traveling to Raby Hunt, even six hours of travel. Even in a year of fine dining – perfection at Sola, awe at Plu in St John’s Wood, curiosity at the “best restaurant in the world” Mirazur, a long night at the relaunched Ledbury – this place stood out. Chefs James and Maria Close run a sensational operation.
It is also one with a tasting menu. Much has been written recently about tasting menus. To me, they are rather oppressive things: the restaurant has no choice over food or how quickly to eat it, and only a little choice as to how their evening will go – there are interventions to explain food (and maybe wine) constantly. , which can stop conversation and stop secrecy. You begin to wonder if the restaurant benefits more than the restaurant. That Close has no formal training which may be why he and his crew know exactly how to do it – his starting point is to consider what’s best for whoever eats, not whoever who cooks. We slide frictionlessly from course to course, no mess, no unnecessary lectures. The word is deft. You might worry about the bill – none of this is cheap – but at least you don’t fear it will arrive stapled to a quiz.
Close’s story is now available: after a career in golf, his family bought a water that was almost hopeless and Close inexplicably went from frying fish and chips to cooking some of the best food in the country. He is a culinary autodidact; his learning is not perfected at the pass but at the table. His love of food is more of an obsession than a passion: when he’s not working, he goes to other restaurants to see what they’re doing. These are not jaunts down the road for a pie and a pint; A close flight across the world for its tea.
Accordingly, the menu is inspired by Peru, Sweden, Japan, America and the UK as well. Food is strictly seasonal. The courses are a kind of snack. Fatigue seems to be less on Close’s mind—which is why a burger of foie gras and pastrami, all gooey and greasy enough for a nod to New York street food, follows the fresh snap of tempura, the langoustine inside the cases. in a spicy crackling batter (at night, I couldn’t decide if the burger was just a curiosity or a novelty; in the morning, I realized it was breaking things up, in my interest. It was a movement, in other words) .
James Close is a culinary autodidact; his learning is not perfected at the pass but at the table
Close seems to deliberately undercut his cooking: one course is called a “taco”. There are circles of corn tortilla involved, and there are smudges of avocado and even a wedge of lime, but aside from the fact that there are two variations – you sense that using the multiple “tacos” might seem like a boast to a self-effacing Close – the fine, black fat of the pork and the delicately diced tuna offered a refinement beyond almost anything found among London’s Mexican spots (the closest comparison can be found at Kol). There were moments that confused me—I haven’t managed to reconcile exactly why a very lacquered brioche cylinder arrived before the razor clam—but the sense, on the whole, was one of brilliance. I usually don’t get wagyu in particular; I don’t see the point. Here I am. A rectangle of glistening meat came with its starry skin crackling with salt, ratatouille lying next to it, with a salad my friend said turned us into rabbits. There was a palate cleanser worthy of marriage, which is a presumptuous thing to say about a palate cleanser. Desserts have been rhapsodized elsewhere; I have nothing to add — everyone else is fine. We ended up giddy with the kind of exhilaration that comes from getting your bum smacked.
Six hours of driving – even six hours as a spoiled passenger – has consequences. Boney M’s drought wasn’t the worst of it. At the end of the meal, he wanted a cigarette. We hadn’t had time to pull over for cigarettes. Raby Hunt is many things – bright, bold, original, outrageously expensive – but it’s nowhere near. We asked about newsagents and were met with amused and straight smiles. But then a pillow arrived with a fresh rollie on it. I thought, christ, they really want you to enjoy it here. And that’s the thought that sustained us all the way back home too.