A trio of nibbles appeared as we looked at the menu, which cost £80 for a three course à la carte experience. The best was a classic gougere with lovely deep cheese flavour. Also nice was a deep-fried ball of polenta with miso and uzu, and there was also a dish of pork scratchings (17/20 overall, more for the gougeres). Next was a “royale” of blue cheese (Crozier Blue from Tipperary) with toasted pumpkin seed and truffle, around which was poured a pumpkin soup. This flavour combination may sound rather odd but I thought worked very well, the pumpkin flavour contrasting nicely with the cheese (17/20).
My starter was a trio of scallops (from Skye) topped with toasted sunflower seeds, with a sunflower husk sauce. Although the scallops were cooked correctly they lacked sweetness, and I felt that the sunflower taste dominated the dish (15/20). Better was a raviolo of hen’s egg yolk and smoked potato with autumn truffle, which was well executed and was an enjoyable autumn dish (16/20).
The best dish was venison (from Mortimer Forest near Ludlow), with pear confit in mulled wine with glazed Savoy cabbage and a red wine sauce enriched with smoked chocolate; the venison had excellent flavour, the cabbage was pleasant and the sauce worked well (easily 17/20). I much preferred this to cod with sweet corn with Jerusalem artichoke and vanilla puree with buttermilk. The cod was just barely cooked, and for me the vanilla completely dominated the dish (14/20). Cheese was from Paxton & Whitfield, with some slices of 3 year old aged Comte from Bernard Antony in Alsace.
Tarte au chocolate was served with Indonesian basil ice cream; the chocolate was Valrhona but for me the outside of the tarte was rather crisp, and the inside not quite as rich as it might have been; I am not find of shrubbery in my desserts, though the texture of the basil ice cream was fine (15/20). I preferred a millefeuille of whiskey cream with d‘Agen prune ice cream, which had good pastry and ice cream with smooth texture and plenty of prune flavour (16/20).
Service was hard to fault, with a very knowledgeable sommelier and friendly, efficient staff. The bill came to £141 per person, with just a corkage charge (£30 a bottle) as we brought our own wine. This is my fourth meal at Hibiscus, and although it had highlights (mainly the venison) the food seems rather over-worked to me; this may be partly a matter of personal taste, but I find this food hard to love.
What follows are notes from meals in 2008.
The ground-floor dining room is in a new development at the unfashionable end of Maddox Street. The simple dining room has light wood panelling on the walls and banquette seating on one side. It is a manageable size, with 48 covers plus a private dining room downstairs. It has a fairly low ceiling and spot lights that seem to be mis-aligned, illuminating edges of some tables rather than where you are sitting, causing more than one person to have to peer at their menu.
Such opening glitches should be easily fixed, as hopefully will be the malfunctioning air-conditioning, which appears to have just two settings: "swelter" and "roast". It is a nice change to see a dining room without a noisy wooden floor, and in the blissful absence of muzak a conversation is actually possible. The menu is a mix of quite classical dishes with some more fashionable futuristic elements thrown in. The a la carte is now £60 (£49.50 when it opened in 2007) but there is also a cheap lunch menu at £30 for three courses, and a tasting menu at £70. Chef Claude Bosi has taken advantage of his contacts when working in Paris (Arpege and in the early days of Alain Ducasse at the old Robuchon site) to use some interesting suppliers, in particular Bernard Antony for cheese and Joel Thibault in Paris for vegetables. Breads are from The Bread Factory, who also supply the Fat Duck.
Here are notes from my most recent meal.
This was my third viist to Hibiscus, which I find something of an enigma. After an excellent first meal I had a disappointing dinner in February 2008, but this meal was the best of the three. Perhaps the cooking has simply settled down. A first course of a single hand-dived scallop was perfectly cooked, the scallop itself lovely and sweet, dusted with mace Sharon fruit, shaved fresh chestnut with a pumpkin and passion fruit puree. The acidity of the Sharon fruit was a gentle foil to the natural sweetness of the scallop (18/20).
John Dory also tasted fresh and was well timed, served with gnocchi, autumn truffle, girolles (fgrom Scotland) and sage and onion puree and mead auce. I found the elements around the fish rather indistinct (a flavour or two too many) but the fish itself was excellent, if a little over-salted, even for me (17/20). I was most impressed with veal sweetbreads from Brittany, oasted in salted butter with an English mustard crust, with a wood sorrel dressing and autumn truffle salad and “lemon caviar”. The sweetbread was superb,the crust giving a nice balance of texture, the mustard crust a welcome but carefully controlled bite; I could have lived withut the wood sorrel dressing, but this was a fine dish (19/20).
Next was suckling pig (supplied from Herefordhshire, but specifically from Jim Ainsworth, ex editor of the Good Food Guide). Initially the roast suckling pig was served with a parsley root puree, bron shrimp sauce and fondant potato stuffed with a tartare of shrimps. The star was the meat itself, the pork having particularly good flavour. Then a warm sausage roll with a simple salad of leaves with autumn truffle dressing, the pastry superb, the meat again tasting great (18/20, much more successful than the previous time I tried this dish).
Pre dessert was a layer of three mousses, chestnut, celeriac and apple served in a glass. I was very sceptical about the idea of using celeriac in a dessert, but the stong taste of the chestnut and the acidity of the apple managed to keep it at bay (15/20). A cream tart of sweet ceps was as weird as it sounds, executed well but tasting of ceps, served with macadamia nut sorbet and blood peach gel. This was correctly made but I feel that it is a conceptually flawed dish (15/20). Service was very attentive and friendly.
If Claude Bosi could rein in his temptation to add just one more flavour to a dish, and serve desserts that tasted of sweet things then I would be a lot happier, but this was the best of the three meals I have eaten here, and I hope this improvement continues.
Below are notes from a meal in February 2008.
As before, the goujeres were very good, keeping their shape well (comfortably 16/20). The pollock was the same as last time, but I was disappointed with my starter. Tartare of Scottish scallops with green mango bound in olive oil was served with a veloute of sweetcorn and a scallop cracker as garnish. The scallops in themselves were fine, and the cracker was crisp and tasted of scallop, but the scallop flavour was completely crushed by the sweetcorn veloute. Moreover you have here a dish wish something with a hint of sweetness (scallop) with a green mango (somewhat sweet) and a sauce of sweetcorn (sweet) – the dish completely lacking balancing acidity. Moreover the dish was out of balance due to the over-strong sauce (13/20).
The pork two ways was the same as I wrote about last time, the pork belly over-seasoned (which is hard to do for me) but the “sausage roll” excellent. My Cornish John Dory was cooked well and had good taste, seasoned with air-dried ham (which did little) with assorted roasted root vegetables with Ras el hanout (the Moroccan spice mix) and cream of candied chestnut and gherkins. The vegetables had excellent taste though the carrot was cooked for too long (16/20). Cheese is from Bernard Antony and hence is as good can be obtained in London (19/20) though it would be nice to have a board (as they had last time) rather than just a selection.
A pre-dessert of Granny smith apple with a layer of “sweet celeriac” fortunately avoided any noticeable taste of celeriac whatever so worked reasonably well, though the chestnut puree on top of the apple was perhaps over-rich (15/20). Kaffir lime parfait with mango salad had a sweet olive oil and mango dressing and tasted properly of lime, in this case the inherent acidity of the lime working well with the mango dressing (16/20). My companion’s gratin of banana and coffee with black treacle syrup seemed slightly the better of the two dishes.
Coffee was good, as were a few petit fours e.g. good salted caramel chocolate. Service was excellent. I was worried by the scallop dish, which seemed to me badly ill-conceived; I cannot imagine how this could ever really work as a coherent dish. The meal tonight was more like 16/20 than 17/20, a little worse than my earlier experience.
Below are notes from October 2007 by way of comparison, soon after it opened.
Cheese goujeres arrive as a nibble while you browse the menu. These are very enjoyable, and I’d love to know how they manage to make them with such an even shape; if I am being picky, they seemed a fraction over-crumbly, but had plenty of cheese taste (16/20). The wine list has fairly steep, though not outrageous mark-ups. Vega Sicilia Unico 1995 is £375 for a wine that retails at £112.50 at the moment. Leeuwin Art Series Cabernet 2001 is £68 for a wine that you buy in the shops for £19.79. At the hedge fund end of things, Cheval Blanc 1982 is £2,250 for a wine that costs £762 right now. The sommelier was very good, steering us to relatively good value choices.
An amuse bouche was a glass of hibiscus flour soda with smoked olive oil. I confess I found this vaguely reminiscent of a sparkling cough mixture, but that is just me. I was on safer ground with my starter, ravioli of langoustines, three nicely cooked shellfish inside good pasta, served with a salad involving Granny Smith apples and a bed of stewed sweet onion and cinnamon. This was all well made, if for me not quite at the level of similar dishes at the Square and Ramsay (17/20).
The prettiest dish was a carpaccio of Pollack and black radish with almond oil and autumn truffle vinaigrette (pictured). This was very impressive, though it would have been interesting to compare this with making the same dish with a grander fish such as turbot; it was also rather small for a starter, though all other dishes were entirely normal in portion size. We tried a taste of a Hibiscus signature dish, foie gras ice cream with a warm emulsion of brioche and a balsamic vinegar caramel. This sounds pretty weird but actually worked well, and the potential over-richness of the dish was avoided by the use of "lemon caviar", tiny pieces of lemon; I’d have been tempted to use rather more of this to give greater balancing acidity, but this unusual dish for me was quite successful (18/20).
Suckling pig was prepared in two stages. A slab was roasted, along with crackling, and served with kohlrabi and fondant sweet potato and, unusually, with a little sea urchin. The accompaniments were fine, though I wonder why whether conceptually something as rich as suckling pig needs a further rich element such as sea urchin. My only issue with this dish is that the slab of pork was nicely cooked but the fat on the top was still rather firm; I guess it is hard to get the fat cooked more without drying out the meat, but this dish didn’t quite ring true for me (15/20). Better was a sausage roll served with a simple salad with truffle dressing and a "brown sauce", which had excellent pastry (17/20). I should just mention the very fine venison that one of my companions had, served with confit of pear in red wine, smoked chocolate sauce (a clever touch) and Savoy cabbage puree. The meat here was magnificent.
The cheese board had just two British cheeses from Neals Yard, both classics: Mrs Montgomery Cheddar and Colsten Basset Stilton. However I was more excited by the prospect of Bernard Antony cheeses (who supplies very few restaurants in London: Sketch and now the Capital for example). I liked that they had just five cheeses in excellent condition rather than the usual UK pile of cheeses of widely varying ripeness. Tomme de Savoie had lovely texture, Cantal (from Auvergne) was beautifully ripe, and there was the famous aged Comte, in this case the 36 month version (the more select 48 month version seems to only turn up in the most famous French 3 star places). It would have been nice to see a soft cheese to balance the board, but much better this way than to have something that is not in good condition just to make up the numbers (19/20 for the cheeses).
A tarte fine was served with a lentil and ginger ice cream and salted butter caramel. This was my least favourite dish of the evening for two reasons: the apple was not cooked through sufficiently (an odd lapse given the generally good technique shown this evening) while I simply did not like the lentil and ginger ice cream, which appeared as a malevolent brown/grey scoop on top of the tart – I just do not think that works conceptually, and for me it was a peculiar pairing with the apple tart (14/20). A final refreshing granita of apple puree was much nicer (16/20).
Coffee was very good and a salted caramel chocolate tried was very good. Service was extremely good throughout the evening, though there were a couple of odd lapses, with the wrong cutlery being laid and in one case the dishes were confidently set in front of the wrong diners. This seemed peculiarly amateurish, but the overall tone of the service was friendly and helpful, so it is easy to forgive such things. Overall this was a very enjoyable meal, and it is so nice to encounter a London restaurant with culinary ambition after the seemingly endless procession of rather cynical profit-oriented bistros that have been rolled out recently.