Hibiscus (London, U.K.)
Given the extraordinary amount of positive press and praise lavished on Claude Bosi and his restaurant, Hibiscus, I maintained surprisingly healthy expectations.
I steered a wide berth around the chatter about whether Bosi would regain his second Michelin star, which was lost in the restaurant’s moved from Ludlow to an unassuming stretch of Maddox Street near London’s Oxford Circus in 2007.
I ignored late-breaking reports of disappointing experiences.
And I even suspended my disbelief and disgust over learning of Chef Bosi’s treatment of an acquaintance in an email exchange prior to my visit. I’m sure the chef didn’t intend for my acquaintance to see the email, but the fact that it was misdirected to said acquaintance’s inbox was an oversight I’m sure he sorely regrets. The content of the email was quite unforgivable.
But I think that I can be impartial.
If the food is good, the food is good.
At Hibiscus, the food was good.
Some of it, like the Veal Sweetbreads, was sublime. Roasted in salted butter, the golf ball-size nugget wore a coat of crisp breading that was spiked with English mustard and glowed with sage. Together with the accompanying fresh lime buds and intensely green wood sorrel dressing, which pinched a zinging sour note, the combination released a bouquet of fragrances. It was revelatory.
This dish whipped circles around a similar version of sweetbreads I had at Jean-Georges earlier that year.
Bosi is an impresario of flavors. His food packs a punch and traces a line between the familiar and the obscure. It’s bold. It’s dynamic. At times, it’s strange. For the most part, I loved it.
But sadly, my dinner at Hibiscus wasn’t an unimpeded stretch of joy. The service spoiled my evening.
I won’t attempt to place blame. I’ll simply say that there was an apparent clash of personalities and, sadly, my meal was the casualty.
There was no outright act of rudeness. But there was a protracted attitude and aloofness amongst the staff around me that made me feel like a persona non grata all night.
To be sure, my only two requests were obliged. But the obliging felt obligatory – burdensomely so – as when my server, a Spanish alpha male, approved my request to supplement an additional course (of the chef’s choosing) to the 7-course tasting.
Instead of denying my request politely or offering to check with the kitchen first, he meandered through a short trail of reasons why it might not be advisable. His primary concern, which focused on the quantity of food, seemed insincere. Despite repeated reassurances that I would pay for it and that I would manage the quantity – emphasizing that my request was motivated by a desire to try as much of the chef’s cooking as possible – he seemed inexplicably annoyed. Surely, I wasn’t the first enthusiastic diner to visit Hibiscus.
Given my server’s reticence on that issue, I should have known better than to request a second supplement to my meal mid-way through. This time, he wasn’t worried about the quantity – he brought me a full a la carte portion. Instead, he quickly quipped back about timing, warning me that the addition might cause a delay between my courses. I noted that I was in no rush (did I appear to be in a rush?), which seemed to exacerbate the issue. Again, he obliged.
Actually, everything felt obliged.
Was I taking up too much space as a single diner? They didn’t appear to need my table. There were a couple of empty ones in the dining room throughout the evening.
Was I an unsightly glutton in the midst of their crowd of pretty faces and expense accounts – a parasite perched on their banquette threatening to devour every morsel in their kitchen and having the gall to a pay for it all too?
I have no clue. All I know is that dining shouldn’t be this hard.
Then there was the head mistress. A sentry standing guard at the top of the dining room, she surveyed her forty-seat dominion with an eagle eye the entire night. I have to give her credit for running a tight ship. And tight it was. It was so tight, I could hardly breathe.
Was this a prison or a restaurant?
My only interaction with her the entire evening occurred when she approached – looking as if death had become her – to drop off a bowl of warm cheese gougeres as an amuse bouche.
She has such a lovely smile on the restaurant’s website, it’s a pity she doesn’t show it off more (I mean that sincerely).
To be fair, there was one member of the staff who did make me feel welcomed. He also was the only one who seemed naturally sincere. His name is Simon Freeman. He is the sommelier.
No quips. No detours. No drama. Just courteous and pleasant service.
I asked him to pair two half-pours of wine with my meal and he did a splendid job.
My limited experience with South African wines has not been positive, which is probably why I found the Glen Carlou “Quartz Stone” Chardonnay 2007 shockingly good. Tasting of tart apples and having the slightest hint of butterscotch, this mildly oaky white wine paired particularly well with my first course, the Langoustine Tartare. And the Langmeil Valley Floor Shiraz Barossa Valley, 2006, spicy and full-bodied, was exactly the kind of zesty red wine needed to keep pace with the bold flavors in my last two savory courses.
CLICK HERE to view the entire photo set for this meal or click on the course titles for the individual photos.
Tartare of Scottish Langoustine
Sweetcorn & Green Mango Salad, Smoked Sweetcorn Dressing.
Grilled Hand-Dived Scottish Scallop dusted with Mace, Sharon Fruit (compote),
Fresh Chestnut, Pumpkin & Passion Fruit Puree.
Quenelle of Northern Irish Pike
Redcurrant, Sage, Flat Parsley Veloute.
Fourth Course (Supplement)
Raviolo of Hen’s Egg
Smoked potato, caramelised Cevennes onion, shavings of truffle.
Roasted red mullet, bone marrow & gherkin toast,
fricassee of Japanese artichokes, spätzle gnocchi,
Grelot onion, mullet liver sauce.
Sixth Course (Supplement)
Brittany veal sweetbread roasted in salted butter,
English mustard crust, wood sorrel dressing, fennel &
Autumn truffle salad.
Roast Mortimer Forest venison, Comice pear cooked in red wine,
roast chervil root, smoked chocolate sauce, and
chicken liver mousse with pistachios.
Fresh chestnut shavings.
Eighth Course (Supplement)
Tripe a la Lyonnaise – “My Mother’s Inspiration”
Gratin of tripe and cuttlefish, caramelised pig’s ear & parsley cake,
fricassee of Jerusalem artichokes, and St. Andre Onion
* * * * * *
I appreciate and admire Claude Bosi’s keen sense and use of sweetness. I generally shy away from sweet foods. But Bosi incorporates and manipulates the flavor masterfully, successfully blurring the line between savory and sweet and juxtaposing various forms of sweetness to highlight their differences. But none of this could have been apprehended in my second amuse bouche, Hibiscus Soda.
More than a sip – more like two or three swigs – this glowing-red drink came with a frothy head topped with cracked black pepper and translucent, grape-sized balls filled with pineapple juice that burst when punched. It looked like a lava lamp and tasted like something you’d stick an umbrella in. Beyond the curiously constructed pineapple juice balls, I’m not sure this drink made much of an impression on me.
But the first course did. The “Langoustine Tartare,” which was dressed with smoked “sweetcorn” dressing and topped with “sweetcorn” kernels and dices of green mango, was a masterpiece in flavor matching.
The success of this course relied entirely on the freshness of the ingredients (where one finds fresh sweet corn in the dead of winter – besides the freezer – is beyond me). Bosi bridged the two – corn and langoustine – seamlessly with the intense, natural sweetness common in both. Each ingredient was distinct, yet, where the sweetness of one began and the other ended, I could not tell.
The slimy texture and sweetness of the small round of tartare might have become cloying after a couple of bites had it not been offset by a strip of corn crisp. Dusted with a gently salted corn powder, the crunchy chip helped balance the composition in both flavor and texture. This was an outstanding course.
The second course, “Scallop,” was also a study on sweetness. Dusted with mace, the scallop was accompanied by an autumnal gathering: pumpkin, passion fruit, sharon fruit (persimmons), and fresh shavings of chestnuts.
The interaction among the ingredients in this dish had almost the opposite effect of the interaction of the flavors in the langoustine tartare dish.
Instead of fusing the sweetness of the ingredients together, each ingredient on this dish sharpened the flavor and character of another. The dull sweetness of the pumpkin, laced with tart passion fruit, heightened the indulgent sweetness of the persimmon compote, and vice versa. The earthy sweetness of the chestnut shavings magnified the briny sweetness of the scallop, and vice versa. Touching upon all was the mace, a neutral axis for the pivoting flavors.
A carefully calculated composition that left me seeing shades of sweetness, this dish was more interesting than it was memorable. That the scallop was perfectly cooked seemed like an afterthought.
Having rarely met a quenelle worth eating, the third course, “Quenelle of Northern Irish Pike,” was beyond exciting. Its constitution – smooth, fluffy, and velvety, with a slight bounce and an indescribable aerated quality – was sublime. This is one of the best quenelles I’ve ever had. The flavor of the pike was clean and light, yet strong enough to withstand the flavor-forward ingredients paired with it.
The plate was dotted with a crimson red currant sauce and fresh red currants and dusted with dried sage powder. A vibrant green “flat parsley velouté” was poured table-side. It looked like Christmas on a plate.
This dish was another successful product of Bosi’s flavor wizardry. Cutting the velvety richness of the quenelle with the acid in the currants and enveloping the whole with a sweet, grassy parsley velouté, Bosi directed what seemed like a traffic jam of flavors into something beautifully harmonious and balanced. This was a landmark quenelle encounter.
If the “Pike” was a swipe at the avant-garde, the fourth course, the “Raviolo of Hen’s Egg,” which wore a buttery coat and was showered with black truffle shavings, embraced tradition. This was a pretty straightforward proposition – one that I’ve encountered many times. Prodding the pasta pocket released a golden river of barely cooked egg yolk. This one oozed on cue, spilling forth smoked potato puree along with the yolk.
Had the raviolo been served plain, the smoked potato puree would have been a compelling – possibly the star – element, contributing a unique layer of flavor and texture. However, a truffle purist, I found the smoke in the potato puree to be a superfluous interloper – competing with (indeed, near-obliterating) the aroma of the black truffle, which, it being early in the season, was weak. I wonder if the smoke would have enhanced or handicapped the optional £20 white truffle supplement.
I would dismiss this dish as a predictable appeal to hedonism if it weren’t for the sliver of caramelized Cevennes onion on the plate. Sweet as candy, the onion provided relief from the otherwise largely savory, cream-on-cream experience. I wish there was more of it. I carefully section off pieces to ensure that some of it made it into every bite.
Throughout the evening, my server’s thespian face was used it to its full dramatic effect. His countenance could change on a dime.
A furrowed brow conveyed concern, as when he dropped by to see if there was something wrong with my largely untouched piece of “Red Mullet.”
I’ve had mullet/rouget countless time before. Never has this naturally cranky fish been in such a foul mood before.
The bone-in piece of fish was so offensively off-flavoured that I was fairly certain it could not have been meant to be served that way. I took a couple of bites to make sure that the offensive flavor was coming from the fish and not the mullet liver sauce, which, though strong, was not unpleasant (my only other experience with mullet liver was at l’Arnsbourg). It was so strong that not even the tiny gherkin-marrow toast perched atop the fish – a tiny flavor bomb – could tame it.
The fishiness of the mullet had invaded the accompanying spätzle, so I didn’t bother with it much more.
When asked, I told the server that the fish was too strong for me, adding, politely, that I thought the flavor was off. He nodded, throwing in a spontaneous (and short-lived) frown. No offer to replace the course was made, and I didn’t bother asking. Away it went.
Thankfully, that was my only real disappointment of the evening. The fact that it was inedible was pretty troubling – I’ve only sent one dish back to the kitchen in recent memory. But the next course, the aforementioned sweetbreads, which was the first supplement I had requested, was a strong recovery. In fact, it was so satisfying that I decided that I couldn’t begrudge myself the one other item on the menu that caught my curiosity – the “Tripe a la Lyonnaise ‘My Mother’s Inspiration.’” I asked for it to be added on after the “Roast Mortimer Forest Venison.”
The next course, “Roast Mortimer Forest Venison,” showed me that chocolate and liver go amazingly well together. The single slice of venison was blood-red and incredibly tender. It came with a small scoop of chicken liver mousse and a smoked chocolate sauce. The plate was garnished with pistachios, a roasted cone of chervil root (a rare treat), and a slice of Comice pear poached in red wine.
The chicken liver mousse, together with the smoked chocolate sauce, upended my expectations in the best of ways. The chocolate sauce was savory. The liver mousse was a touch sweet (perhaps there was a splash of liqueur added?). Think savory chocolate-foie parfait.
While the liver magnified the beefy flavor of the venison, the chocolate sauce picked up the red wine-infusion in the pear. Everything worked intuitively, especially with the wine that Mr. Freeman had paired with it.
The venison course also came with a side of “Creamy Polenta” served in a little Staub cocotte. The polenta was incredibly smooth and flocked with chestnut shavings, which added both sweetness and texture. I believe that cheese had been incorporated into the polenta as well. Though this was an expertly rendered polenta, I generally find such “pureed” and soft starches boring and superfluous. This one was no different.
I wasn’t expecting a whole order of “Tripe a la Lyonnaise, ‘My Mother’s Inspiration’” as a supplement. The thin layer of tripe spread out in a shallow Staub roasting dish could have easily been portioned down. But I understand that, together with the two side items (which also could have been portioned down), it was clearly intended to be presented as an “all-in-one” meal.
Bosi’s tripe a la Lyonnaise was a blanket of intense, rich, and thick tomato sauce that cleverly disguised its contents. One could not apprehend that there were both strips of tripe and cuttlefish in this dish or distinguish the two by sight. But this was a small accomplishment next to Bosi’s feat of achieving an almost identical textural consistency between the two – I could hardly distinguish the difference by mouthfeel alone. Given that any one bite contained some of both, I found myself picking out pieces, one-by-one, to taste them for their flavor.
Clever, compelling, and technically flawless though this was, this hearty dish tended to be a bit cloying beyond a few of bites. I’ll readily admit that this might have been due to my waning appetite. Had I tucked into this dish on an empty stomach, I might not have found it as monotonous. Or, at least, I might not have tired of it as quickly as I did.
The tripe came with a “Caramelised Pig’s Ear & Parsley Cake,” which, sadly, sounded more interesting than it was. This was basically a slice of parsley-flecked breadcrumbs threaded too-infrequently with strips of pigs’ ear. Crisped on the outside, it was a bit bland. It was kind of – well – like eating a clump of moist breadcrumbs.
There was also a mini oval cocotte with a generous helping of “Fricasse of Jerusalem Artichoke.” These little rounds, earthy and sweet, provided some relief from the flat-line richness of the tripe. Onions – silky strands of St. Andre onion – made their third major appearance here (first with the raviolo, then with the mullet).
Although Bosi gets some of his cheeses from Bernard Antony, the reigning affineur extraodinaire, I knew that I’d be sampling what is arguably the best of Antony’s best at l’Arpege a few days hence. I bypassed the £12 supplement and moved on to dessert.
The meal ended with, what I think, were the two most interesting dishes of the evening. Bosi’s desserts needled that narrow corridor between savory and sweet more successfully and convincingly than any others I have encountered in recent memory, including Sam Mason’s at Tailor.
The pre-dessert featured a glass layered with Granny Smith puree, celeriac gelee, and chestnut mousse foam. This was another magical meeting of unlikely ingredients.
The chestnut foam – more like a whipped cream – had a full chestnut flavor and a telltale chestnut graininess that I didn’t mind given that it blended in seamlessly with the texture of the Granny Smith puree at the bottom. Though the celeriac was the predominant flavor, I didn’t find it overpowering. Like the chestnut foam, it had a full, round, earthy sweetness that was chased by a slight trace of acid from the apple. I enjoyed this very much.
The “King Edward,” a starchy baking potato, was the subject of the dessert. Actually, it was the skin of the potato, which was creamed to make a custard-like filling for a tart. The sliver was barely enough for a glutton, but sensibly sized given the amount of food that preceded it.
The filling tasted like caramel and had the slightest hint of potato skin flavor – an earthy, toasted quality. To the side, a ball of pineapple-potato skin sorbet topped with a coffee-sugar “tuile” (it looked more like sugar glass). The sorbet tasted mostly of pineapple but retained a slight tannic lisp to remind you it had been infused with baked potato.
Surprisingly light in its overall effect, it was a soothing end to a rather intense (and tense) meal.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Bosi regained his second Michelin star just a month after my visit in December of 2008.
As I said at the beginning of this review, Bosi’s cooking walks that fine line between the weird and the homey. Its appeal probably isn’t as universal as the food coming out of peer kitchens. But, whether or not you like Bosi’s food – I’ll consider myself as one of the lucky ones, because, for the most part, I did – one can’t deny that the man is a true auteur chef: you won’t find Bosi’s brand of cooking anywhere else.
It’s not perfect – the raviolo was borne of perhaps one too many creative monkeys and there more than a couple moments of monotony. It’s not even near-perfect – the mullet was unforgivably botched. And Bosi doesn’t seem to have much use for subtlety, if that’s what you’re looking for. His food pops. Flavors are vivid. But they can be a bit unstable. Given the dynamism of the food, I suppose that’s a trade off I’m willing to live with.
Hibiscus doesn’t indulge its guests like so many in its class and category. I’m not just saying this because I wasn’t thrilled with my server or the service in general. Even without the unpleasant attitude I received, there is an asceticism to the operation. Pleasantries are trimmed. Smiles are rationed. And glad-handing is absolutely verbotin. The meal ends abruptly with your dessert: no coffee = no post-prandial sweets (a practice I first encountered when I lived in der Nederlands). It’s a place I’d be more likely to return in a business context rather than a celebration or date.
I didn’t mind trading the petits fours for value: for my seven-course meal (£75) with two supplements (£35) and two half-pours of wine (£12), I could have walked out for under £125. It’s no steal, but, it’s quite a deal considering the amount and quality of the food.
But Hibiscus’s chilly reception reminded how annoying the European non-discretionary service charge is. Sure, the £15 and change I was assessed was only 12% of my bill. But even if the service had been 12% more pleasant and welcoming, it still would have been subpar.
I left Hibiscus with mixed feelings. I will not soon forget Bosi’s food, which was compelling and had moments of brilliance. Unfortunately, those moments will forever be darkened in my memory by the looming shadow of the service.
29 Maddox Street
London W1S 2PA
+44 020 7629 2999
To read about the other meals I had on this trip abroad, CLICK HERE.