Well, my New Year's Resolution of blogging on here more hasn't got off to the best start, seeing as today is the 16th and, until now, I hadn't made any entries at all. But then I hadn't really had anything to blog about until the weekend just gone. For that was Masters Weekend!
A bit of an ongoing tradition, Masters Weekend involves a few close friends and I watching the first Masters snooker semi-final at Wembley (first Conference Centre, now Arena). In years gone by when one of these friends lived in London, the weekend would inevitably end in a large amount of beer and a curry. Now, as one's tastes have become more refined, Masters Weekend has become an opportunity to sample some of London's nicest restaurants with my good lady wife.
It started a few years ago with a visit to Benares, continued last year by taking in Le Gavroche and this year involved a trip to Hibiscus, which I will talk about in detail later on.
The snooker itself this year was a little uninspiring. Marco Fu beat Mark Allen 6-4 to reach his first Masters final, coming back from 4-1 down and rattling off a couple of century breaks on the way. Neither player is dull in the Peter Ebdon mode, it just seemed like hard work to watch it. And yes, I did briefly nod off.
After the snooker was finished, the drinking buddies were waved on their way, a quick wash and brush up was had, and Clare and I made our way to Mayfair for our evening at Hibiscus.
I'm not one for leaving food (ask my wife), but the tasting menu at Hibiscus defeated me. It certainly wasn't due to the quality of the food - which was tremendous. There was just too much of it. Perhaps choosing the 8 course menu was a little ambitious, but I blame the big and unhealthy lunch and the packet of Space Raiders before we headed out.
Hibiscus is a 2 Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair. Blink and you'll miss it from the outside, as its frontage is modest and inconspicuous. The dining area is much the same, tastefully decorated in a mix of wood paneling and perspex pillars. The atmosphere is relaxed - there's no dress code as such. Nothing spectacular to look at then, but it doesn't need to be when the food served up is so good.
As mentioned above, we chose the 8 course tasting menu for our meal. On Fridays and Saturdays tasting menus are all you can choose; 4, 6 or 8 courses. The menu lists a number of the possible dishes, but you won't know exactly what you get until you get it. The charming maitre'd asked if we had any dietary requirements. Clare doesn't like foie gras. I do. He said he'd see what the chef could do...
Before the devouring proper commenced, we were presented with appetisers of parmesan rolls and crunchy balls of polenta with black olive. Both were delicious with crunchy outsides making way to gooey innards. A further appetiser followed; a mushroom and coconut veloute served in an eggshell. I'd not heard of coconut and mushrooms together since the sweets of my childhood, but this was great. Rich mushroom flavour combining with the sweetness of the coconut.
On to the first course proper, a tartare of Scottish langoustine with smoked black olive and passion fruit garnishes. The fish (mollusc? crustacean?) was tender and tasty, but didn't blow us away. Things soon got better though. Next up was a delightfully cooked Scottish scallop covered with a hazelnut crust. This was served with pork pie sauce (yes, really) and pink grapefruit gel. The sauce managed to capture the essence of Melton Mowbray's finest, but without the crust and jelly. The whole dish was a joy, but the next one raised the bar further.
Egg yolk ravioli with smoked mash and dusted with crumbs of black truffle. Whoa mama - what a dish! A runny celebration of tastes with woody truffle mingling with smoky mash, all covered with glistening egg yolk concealed in a beautifully light pasta. One of the nicest things I've ever tasted, and that's saying a lot after the Space Raiders.
The following halibut with salsify and quince was good, but didn't quite ascend the yolky heights of the pasta. The fish (definitely fish this time) was perfect, the quince was nicely tart but the salsify didn't add much to the plate. It was at this point we started to flag, as the halibut portion was a generous one.
The first main was next, and the chef had remembered our earlier request. Clare received some sashimi prawns with a ravioli containing pigs trotter and liver. Unfortunately the sound of this was a bit disconcerting and only a few prawns were consumed (by Clare anyway - I ate the rest). My dish was glorious. Truly, truly glorious. A small slab of the lightest foie gras covered in rye breadcrumbs. This was combined with quince and szechuan spice for sharpness. I've had foie gras before and found it rich, but not this time. This even topped the ravioli.
By now we were both struggling and the next course bested us both. Saddle of hare cooked in truffle with leek. Delicious again but just too rich. The hare is cooked for 24 hours don't you know? To his and the restaurant's great credit, the maitre'd spotted we'd both left some of the hare and offered to give us a different course. Fantastic service. We politely declined and also turned down the cheese board which was to follow. This was knocked off the final bill - another gold star for that.
Our waitress kindly gave us a break before the pre-dessert, which revived and refreshed us in the form of pineapple sorbet with a pineapple salad. Dessert itself was ginger milfoy (flaky and light) with ginger salad (subtle and not over gingery), caramelised apple sauce (a blob of toffee apple like goodness) and puy lentil and lemon ice cream (more lemon than lentil but fine nonetheless). Eight courses turned out to be more like eleven in the end...
A couple more special mentions are necessary: the petit-fours which contained a wonderful milk chocolate with salted caramel, and the service, which was exemplary. Pleasant and attentive throughout; a slight delay in one course was acknowledged and apologised for, and making separate mains for both of us was a welcome surprise. Also showing the understanding they did when the hare had hounded us was exceptional.
The 2011 Michelin guide is out on January 18th. There's speculation that Hibiscus may receive a 3rd star. I'm no expert but I'd say it would be warranted. How much better can things get?