2 August 2011

Hibiscus, London – Restaurant Review


Hibiscus has been on my radar screen for ages, yet every time I considered making a booking I ended up opting for another restaurant. I don't know why this was the case as on paper Hibiscus looks like a solid member of the two-Michelin star restaurant club and seems like as good a place as any when you're looking for a luxurious and special dining experience in London. So to celebrate a good friend's birthday recently I knew exactly where we'd go for dinner.

Hibiscus is run by chef-patron Claude Bosi along with his wife Claire. Frenchman Claude trained in some of Paris's best restaurants before moving to the UK in 1997. In 2000 the Bosi's opened up Hibiscus restaurant in the sleepy yet culinarily well-endowed town of Ludlow in Shropshire. The restaurant was met with immediate acclaim, gaining its first Michelin star in 2001 and a second three years later. In 2007 the decision was made to move the entire restaurant to the moneyed streets of London's Mayfair, where it has now regained its brace of Michelin stars.

The interior of the restaurant is fairly muted and maybe even a touch dated. Grey upholstered chairs, light wood panelling and a large chandelier dominate the room. The lighting is a little on the harsh side, which is great for taking photos, but maybe not so great for the atmosphere. We're greeted, seated, and with glasses of Champagne in hand we're offered some small snacks.

Parmesan gougères were light and addictive, and gave a nice burst of cheesy goodness, while stuffed crispy deep-fried things (I didn't catch what they were) were also moreish.
The food at Hibiscus is not overly French as you might have expected. Instead, its British influenced menu is presided over by head chef Marcus McGuinness, who was brought over from the original Ludlow restaurant. On Fridays and Saturdays the restaurant only serves a surprise tasting menu, and your choice is simply one of 4, 6, or 8-courses. As this was a special occasion we went for the full monty, which is priced at £100 per person with an additional £90 for matching wines. We're asked of any allergies and preferences and the rest is left in the hands of the chef.

To begin, an amuse bouche of chilled hibiscus soda with pineapple foam. We're told to take a sip and then drink the whole thing like a shot. It was nicely refreshing but nothing special.
Our first course proper was a tartare of king crab (Norwegian, yay!) served with pickled sweetcorn, sea purslane, and a meadowsweet and smoked kipper consommé. I found this course a little unnerving in taste as well as texture. The minced raw crab was just too gloopy for me and combined with the sauce was overly fishy, while the sea herbs gave it a bitter taste. Hmm, this wasn't the start I was hoping for.

Things improved dramatically with a ravioli of spring onion and lime with broad beans and mint. This dish was deliciously fresh-tasting and light – summer on a plate. The lime and mint in particular giving it such zest that my mouth is watering as I write this.






















For our next dish we enjoyed another fantastic course. This time Scottish scallops had been seared and served with pea purée, toasted coconut and Morteau sausage emulsion. A piece of peppery radish and a salad leaf garnished the dish. I loved this course. There's something about scallop and pig fat that works so well together and here was no exception, the sweet scallops and pea purée being well-suited to the salty sausage emulsion (ahem).






















This was followed by roast Cornish John Dory served with a fricasée of Scottish girolle mushrooms, a small dollop of onion and lime purée, black truffle, gnocchi, and a Lancashire mead sauce. This was another good offering from the kitchen and I enjoyed it immensely.

Next, a pot was brought to our table. The lid was removed releasing wafts of smoke and revealing two roast veal sweetbreads. These were dispatched to the kitchen to be carved and plated where the sweetbreads would be joined by fresh goat's cheese, onion fondue, and wheatgrass velouté. Yes, you read that correctly: smoked sweetbreads, goat's cheese, wheatgrass and onions. There's no other way to say it, but this dish marked a low point of the meal from which it was tough to recover from.

The mix of flavours and textures was just plain wrong. I believe the technical term for it is "yuck". Sweetbreads always need a decent crust to make them work, but there didn't seem to be much present here, rendering them a spongy, slippery thing to eat. The wheatgrass velouté had a bilious green colour to it and tasted very bitter, while the addition of fresh acidic goat's cheese just didn't help things at all. In fairness though, on seeing barely touched plates returned to the kitchen we were offered an alternative dish, which we politely declined.
To follow was another equally strange, if marginally more palatable dish. This time pork belly was served with white miso purée, braised fennel, pork jus, and an aubergine & peanut butter caviar. The pork belly was cooked pink and had good flavour, although I didn't like the way the crackling had been removed and sprinkled sparingly over the top. When it comes to pork belly the crackling is the main event and I'd rather have lots of it, preferably still attached to the meat. No, it wasn't the pork that put this dish out of kilter. Can you guess what it was? Yup, peanut butter. Let's just say that I have now learned the hard way that pork and peanut butter do not go together.






















A little pre-dessert followed (every dessert should be preceded by a pre-dessert in my opinion) and this was a strawberry salad topped with celeriac and Szechuan pepper cream. It was wonderfully reviving after the previous two duff dishes, and I particularly loved that slight tingly numbness you get on the tongue from Szechuan pepper.

A guessing game followed next. I love guessing games, particularly when it comes to food. We were presented with a dark brown pastry shell of some sort filled with a green mousse with a side bowl containing a scoop of something frozen. The waitress asked us to try it and said she'd come back to hear our verdict on what we thought it was. After the peanut butter and wheatgrass saga I must admit I was a touch hesitant, but it turned out to be wonderful AND I guessed the ingredients correctly. It was a fine cream tart of sweet peas and Moroccan mint (OK, I didn't guess the mint was from Morocco) and the ice cream was a whey and coconut sorbet which was deliciously light and not too sweet.
The final dessert was sourdough bread ice cream with Rhône Valley apricot salad and toasted almond cream. This wasn't a strong dessert, its only sweetness provided by small nuggets of meringue, and it bordered on being savoury. This wasn't the best way to end a meal.

Finally over some cups of fresh mint tea we had petit fours of chocolate ganache, salted caramel, white chocolate that I think was filled with matcha and yuzu, and finally a smoked fudge which tasted oddly fishy.
I was so disappointed with the food at Hibiscus. Yes, a couple of dishes really stood out, but others were fairly ordinary and some were downright awful. Is this really the same place that holds a couple of Michelin stars and, according to the San Pellegrino rankings, is currently the fourth best restaurant in the UK? Or could it be that Michelin, San Pellegrino and the like have little relevance in being arbiters of a restaurant's quality (but that's probably a separate discussion in its own right)?

I must admit that had I walked into the restaurant not knowing of its pedigree I wouldn't have been as disappointed as I was, but still, for £190 per person I was expecting more. The one saving grace was the service, which was warm and efficient. It's just a pity that on the night we were there the kitchen couldn't reach the same level of excellence.

For now though, if you're after a fine dining Michelin-type experience in London, then The Ledbury and The Square would have to be my current go-to restaurants, and I left Hibiscus that night with more than a little regret that we hadn't booked there instead.

Food:          5 / 10
Service:      8 / 10
Ambiance:  6 / 10

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