Hibiscus: A chef with balls
Hibiscus, 29 Maddox Street, London W1, 020 7629 2999
Saturday 10 November 2007
Walking into Hibiscus from the howling clangour of Regent Street is like walking into the living-room of somebody making industrial supplies of marmalade. It's slightly too warm, and everywhere you look, it's terribly orange: the walls are pale wood panels, the carpet's a Fifties smudge of browns, the chandelier a riot of yellow globes, and every place-setting features an orange "cover plate" the size of an Ascot Ladies' Day hat. In contrast, the doors leading to the kitchen are designed like stern black slates. Comfort eating out here, serious gastro-endeavour in there, they seem to say. And one enters with high expectations, because this is the famous Hibiscus restaurant of Ludlow, Shropshire, which three years ago picked up two Michelin stars for its owners Claude and Claire Bosi. In a bold move earlier this year, the Bosis shut the Ludlow operation and moved the entire brigade to the metropolis.
Can a transplanted Hibiscus – an exotic and delicate flower at the best of times – survive the pitiless scrutiny of London foodies (the day I went, Giles Coren from The Times and our own Charles Campion were lunching at separate tables)? Certainly the menu gives the impression of a chef throwing down a gauntlet. The à la carte is a gulp-making £49.50 for three courses, and each course reeks of combative experimentation. Take the "Savoury Ice Cream of Foie Gras, Warm Emulsion of Brioche, Balsamic Caramel" – does it remind you of anything? Do the words "Snail porridge" and "Bacon and egg ice cream" pop into your head? Only the fact that I don't like foie gras, and can't understand how you can emulsify cake, stopped my investigating it.
Or check out the main course: "Herefordshire Suckling Pig in two Services: First served roasted, Irish Sea Urchin, Kohl Rabi and Fondant Sweet Potato, then Warm Sausage Roll, Autumn Salad, Truffle Dressing." Apart from bearing the longest name of any dish since the heyday of Antonin Carême in the 1820s, this is, basically, roast pork with cabbage, potato and ... a sausage roll. The fact that this two-speed pork-a-thon carries a £12.50 supplement on top of the £49 may make suspicious-minded people judge M. Bosi pretentious in both his cooking and pricing, before they eat a crumb of his work.
The place grows on you, however – the napery thick and white, the service efficient and chatty as we waited for the action to start. The house white wine is an Argentine Torrentes, Sauvignon-dry with a nice hint of Muscat, and the pear-shaped cheese puffs are a treat. Time passed. A while-you're-waiting amuse-bouche arrived – a chilled hibiscus flower and apple cocktail with a dollop of smoked olive oil. It was more puzzling than palatable (smoked olive oil?) and I'd have preferred something to get my teeth into (like, say, food). From the starters, I chose Croquettes of Lamb Sweetmeats, Tartare of Native Oyster with Sweet Corn & Thai Curry, Watercress Salad. By "sweetmeats", did they mean sweetbreads? No they didn't. They gave it to me straight. Sweetbreads are lamb thymus glands (which I knew), whereas sweetmeats are testicles. Before me lay two small croquettes in a puddle of brown-white sauce and a miniature slurry of sweetcorn and oyster bits. The "sweetmeats", in their light crunchy shells, were delicious – light-textured, white with a pink tinge, a bit like processed chicken, but classier. The oyster gave it a salty kick, but the Thai curry just confused things. My first brush with lightly battered bollocks was an unexpected pleasure, though I couldn't persuade my guest to swap a portion for the Tartare of Line-caught Sea Bass, and White Beans, Green Meat Radish salad, Toasted Pine Kernels, which was "really fresh, mild and delicious".
The Hibiscus wine list is long and ruinous (the Burgundy reds start at £37, accelerate into the £50s and £70s very fast, and climax with a £780 Nuits St George '96) but I discovered a yummy Spanish Taja, Shiraz-like but with extra spice. We needed it to complement the main courses, both spectacular in their different ways. Mine was Roast Mortimer Forest Venison, Smoked Chocolate, Savoy Cabbage Puree, confit of pear in red wine – a stunning display of fat venison slices, pinkly rare to an alarming degree, tasting of woodsmoke (it's the chocolate) accessorised by a slice of poached pear, a howlingly green sauce and an unscheduled spoonful of chicken liver purée with pine nuts. Side-dish mini-casseroles of potato dauphinoise and chervil root gratinée were delicious and tasted exactly the same. I assume this is a recent discovery-cum-joke of the chef's, since my crammed plate also featured three tiny roast potatoes which turned out to be chervil root. My main course was, as they say on The X Factor, quite a journey, deeply satisfying but absurdly bitty: is it ungrateful to wish you had fewer than eight things on your plate at once? Across the table, the Roast Shropshire Partridge with Savoy Cabbage, Caper and Raisin sauce with smoked butter went down a storm, the meat intensely flavoured, tickled round the edges with hints of raisiny fruit, served as a Arcimboldo design studded with pomegranate spots.
As we hit the puddings – a too-sweet cinnamon cheesecake with figs, drenched in Paimpol bean ice cream, and a light sabayon tart of whinberries with a side dish of Earl Grey tea ice-cream and Bergamot syrup – the chef came out to take a bow. A substantial chap, strikingly youthful for someone who's run a restaurant in Shropshire for seven years, he explained the secret of his Savoy cabbage purée, and how he made it such a shiny-plastic green. "Oh that," he said, "I use a Pak-o-Jet machine" – which, if I understand it, freezes the cabbage and dries it to a powder, which is then reconstituted with a little stock. So M. Bosi, I asked, are you in there with the molecular gastronomists, slugging it out with Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria? He waved a deprecating hand, as if to say, "Oh, that stuff – too simple." On the strength of my lunch, with its slightly over-ambitious brilliance, M. Bosi will go far.
Hibiscus, 29 Maddox Street, London W1 (020-7629 2999)
Around £150 for two, with wine (depending on choice of menu)
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