[Summerhouse, Darlington, County Durham} Raby Hunt

We’d originally planned to come to the Michelin 2* Raby Hunt last December for what the two of us call the “Office Christmas Party”, but Covid put paid to that. So, instead, we came to celebrate our 49th anniversary. With a more than two hour drive from home and the need for an overnight hotel, this has to be an “event”.

It’s a fixed 15 (?) course tasting menu where the chef has cast his net widely across the world for inspiration in an eclectic interpretation of Modern British food. Service is impeccable and, no doubt, friendlier in times when staff did not have to wear masks. Yes, it does seem to put up something of a barrier and it’s something that, unless they speak clearly, can be hard to understand all the detail of the intricate dishes put in front of you…

There’s a series of snacks to start – mainly just a single bite. It kicks off with a crisp tartlet filled with Lindisfarne oyster. Then there’s Peruvian ceviche, a Mexican taco and nigari. A Scottish langoustine is coated in what might just have been the best tempura batter we’ve experienced. The final snack is a single bite brioche bun filled with pastrami and completely unnecessary foie gras. They manage to pack in pastrami’s traditional flavourings of mustard and dill pickle.

In line with current restaurant fashion at this end of the market, there’s a bread course. Fabulous, if a tad overly sweet, laminated brioche with Bordier butter from northern France. That’s followed by thinly sliced razor clam, Morecambe bay shrimps (almost sweet and with a hint of the mace you’d find in potted shrimps), with a crunch from almonds and samphire. Poached halibut may have been our favourite course. It comes topped with caviar and sits in a sorrel and seafood cream sauce. A perfect balance of flavours.

A take on lobster a L’Americaine brings a single perfectly cooked raviolo filled with a generous portion of lobster meat. Call me a philistine if you will, but I’ve never quite seen the point of lobster. Give me a crab version of this any day of the week and I’ll be a happy eater.

Then there’s two meat courses. Squab pigeon, from Brittany, was fine. Pigeon is never my companion’s favourite meat. But this was reckoned to be the best ever tasted. And finally, there’s A5 Wagyu beef – A5 meaning it’s the top quality. Which means it’s extremely tender and very fatty. This may be another thing where you might want to call me a philistine but I don’t get wagyu.

The three offerings from the pastry chef (who is chef’s life partner), were outstanding. Ile Flottante was a soft meringue encasing a lychee. But a fruit sauce, not custard – quelle domage. Millefeuille was lovely butter flaky pastry, with mango. Delish!

And finally, there’s “Skull”. Almost a piece of art. And yes, it looks like a human skull, fashioned from chocolate encasing knife sharp yuzu. The craft that must go into this can only be imagined.

It had been a really interesting and enjoyable evening. No, it’s not food you want to eat very often – even if you could afford to. But it is food you might want to eat once in a while. Certainly up there with other 2* meals we’ve enjoyed.

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Happy anniversary!!!

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Yes, happy anniversary! Forty-nine years is really something!

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We were children when we first met, of course. Now we just act as though we still were.

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Works for us - 46 years!

As a friend says: You can only be young once, but you can always be immature.

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Happy 49th anniversary, John & Mrs Hartley!

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Making noodles. Phongdien Town, Cantho City, Southern Vietnam.
Credit: CiaoHo