Wednesday, 21 October 2015

London - Hibiscus

It's extraordinary the lengths I'll go to sometimes to have dinner with a mate.  

I found myself travelling to the UK at the same time as a buddy from Brisbane, so of course we arranged to meet up for dinner. The last time we caught up for a meal was the very special Fish House on the Gold Coast (see post here) and while that was a bit of a trek, by meeting up in London, we'd outdone ourselves.

I'd already hit up a couple of two Michelin Star restaurants for my short trip to London (The Square and Marcus), so thought what the heck, another couldn't hurt, right?  The very highly rated Hibiscus was the target of my attention and I was excited to check out the very passionate offering from Claude Bosi.

Originally opened in 2000, Claude purchased a site in the market town of Ludlow, which quickly earned a reputation as destination dining spot, earning a coveted Michelin Star in its first year of operation.  The second star was not far behind in 2003, which Claude has kept to this date.  Not even a move from Ludlow to central London could put a dent in the fine diner's popularity.  If anything, the move significantly enhanced the Hibiscus brand.

I'd arranged to meet Kev at Hibiscus, which was a lot harder to find than I thought possible. Google Maps had me all over the area and while I was able to find Jason Atherton's Pollen Street Social, Hibiscus eluded me.  I literally had to to a 'house by house' inspection before I found the little brass nameplate.  Talk about a discreet entrance!  I waited outside for Kev, who regaled me with his own tale of trying to find the restaurant.

As we entered the discreet entrance, we found our way blocked by three very friendly 'gate keepers', who checked our reservation and then led us to our table.  Hibiscus was quite small inside, but looked very opulent, with plush settings that had more of a very exclusive club or lounge feel to it.  We were given a rather understated menu set that had a copy of the a la carte options, as well as a special 15 Year Anniversary tasting menu.  No surprises about our selection, how could we turn down the opportunity to sample some of the classic Hibiscus dishes from over the years!

We were straight into it and first up was a couple of amuse bouche, a little sun dried tomato tartlet and a little croquette with avocado foam.  My favourite was the little tartlet, which had a lovely crunch from the casing and a punchy, yet sweet tomato flavour.

These were quickly followed by a little foie gras ice creams, which was very similar to the 'cornetto' amuse bouche that I'd sampled at The Square.  It looked very similar, but while The Square dish was pure foie gras, the Hibiscus was actually ice cream!  Interesting flavours and texture.

Our first course from the tasting menu was presented, and was quite unusual.  We were initially given an egg carton with a sticker proclaiming that we were now the recipients of some farm fresh eggs, curtesy of Hibiscus!  However, once we opened the carton, we saw through the ruse and got our first sight of the 'Clarence Court Egg'.  The perfectly cut eggs held a mix of egg, sweetcorn and coconut with a Thai curry.  I found the sweetness from the sweet corn working well with the spicy yellow curry, which was subtle and did not overpower the creamy egg.

Arguably, the nicest course of the night was the next course of 'Devonshire Crab', presented in a clear bowl and mixed with smoked haddock and granny smith apple.  The essence of haddock had been converted to a jelly, which blended perfectly with the sweet crab.  Little squares of slightly bitter apple provided some texture and a sharp contrast to the sweet crab, which was undoubtably the star of the show.  We both devoured our crab in quick time and looked at each other sheepishly, as if to say, where is the rest?!

We started to notice a single ingredient connecting our courses when the very pretty 'Spring Onion Ravioli' was presented.  The most prominent ingredient was English sweetcorn, which had been present in all of the courses to date.  There was one large spring onion ravioli underneath the creamed sweet corn and when split open, the complimentary sweetness from the spring onion ravioli and corn danced on the palate.  There were hints of paprika and lime throughout the dish, never enough to detract from the sweet onion flavour.  What made this dish standout was the combination of flavours and the sauce, which were very memorable.

The next dish had me running through my second moment of deja vu from my Square meal, however, that feeling was dispelled once I sliced into the 'Cornish Cod'.  There was a brown butter foam covering the expertly cooked sweet cod, some caramelised onions and a bed of mashed potato.  There is something about brown butter that makes everything taste better, but when mixed with the creamy mashed potato and sweet onion, the supporting cast suddenly took precedence over the cod.  I'm not sure if that was supposed to be the plan!

We were really excited when we were served our 'Native Lobster', it was beautifully presented.  The red of the lobster faded into the beige of the paimpol beans, with additional colour coming from the tomato, red pepper and raspberry.  The addition of the micro herbs perfectly offset the overall redness of the dish with some much needed greenery.  Look, this was a decent dish, the lobster was perfectly cooked and oh-so-sweet, and it blended well with the tomato and raspberry, but we couldn't help thinking we'd just had really expensive baked beans.  In fact, the beans generally brought the dish down for me, with Kev agreeing that they needed a little more oomph.

We had an option of 'Milk Fed Veal' as the advertised main option, or a special dish of 'Grouse' with fricassee mushrooms and a cast iron pot of offal covered in baked potato.  I made the tactical error of going for the Grouse.  I usually love game and fowl, but I really picked poorly.  I didn't at all like the grouse, mushrooms or offal, which had a lot to do with the style of cookery, as opposed to the ingredients themselves.  I struggled to eat the dish and had to let the wait staff know that there was technically nothing wrong with the cooking, but that I just didn't like the flavours.  Kev thought I was nuts, he loved his serve and was eyeing off my leftovers - I think he was too polite to ask for my plate!

We had a pre dessert glass that contained an apricot puree sitting atop a meadowsweet flower panna cotta.  Now, I'm not a fan of panna cotta in a glass, I find it to be a little lax and doesn't allow for the sweet Italian dessert to 'stand on it's own' so to speak.  The apricot was very powerful and slightly overshadowed the panna cotta, the dish was a little out of balance for my palate.

We were back to sweetcorn with our dessert of 'New Season Sweetcorn', again presented in a glass and with melted milk and caramel popcorn.  The sweet corn was a foam that covered dollops of the melted milk and candied pop corn.  I've had sweet corn desserts quite a few times and often find them challenging and rewarding at the same time.  I found the Hibiscus dessert just as challenging, in particular the candied pop corn was a little dry in the dessert and there was not enough sweetness for my liking.  I'd been hoping for a beautifully presented and intricate dessert, but got a glass of corn instead.  It wasn't the most memorable way to finish the meal.

I guess when I reflect upon our meal at Hibiscus, I think of it as a meal of two halves, it started off with a bang, started to plateau with the Lobster dish and then finished off quite poorly.  Now, this was undoubtably due to the level of expectation I placed on the two star restaurant, but also due to the fact that I'd had some amazing food on my London trip and the Hibiscus meal was just not quite to the same standard.  Kev on the other hand, had been super impressed with the meal from beginning to end, thinking it was one of the better meals he'd ever had.  Go figure!

What impressed me most was the service, the wait staff were completely engaging, totally friendly and impeccably professional.  They knew when to have a joke with the 'Aussies', but also knew when to step back and leave us alone.  To their credit, the jumped all over me when my grouse went back to the kitchen largely uneaten, the were mortified that I didn't like it but were satisfied that I explained it was due to personal taste rather than cooking issues.

It had been a great experience overall, largely catching up with Kev and chewing the fat, so much so that we were nearly the first to arrive and were the second last to leave.  While I'll largely try to forget that grouse, there were some real highlights of superb cooking and delicious flavours that I will definitely remember for a long time.

The Spring Onion Ravioli was probably the highlight of the meal - the beautiful flavour lingered on the palate
Hibiscus was a small room that felt very intimate
Me and Kev - last in the room!
Hibiscus Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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