In Lyon, many years ago, a boy was born whose parents owned a bistro serving classic Lyonnais cuisine. Once older, his love of cooking led him initially to assume an apprenticeship at Jean-Paul Lacombe’s Léon de Lyon (2*) before making the big, bold move to chérie Paris where he undertook a grand tour of some of Paris’ best kitchens learning from France’s finest chefs. He completed stints at Savoy’s Le Chiberta (1*), Point’s La Pyramide (2*), the eponymous restaurant of Michel Rostang (2*), (beloved) l’Arpege (3*) under legendary Alain Passard and finally with Alain Ducasse (3*). By 1997, he craved change and decided to travel the world, but wanting to learn English first, he came to England for what he thought would be just six months. Here, a recruitment agency set him up as a sous-chef at Overton Grange Hotel in the food-famous market town of Ludlow, Shropshire.
Six months came and went, but Bosi remained; by 1999, he was head chef and had earned a Michelin star. During this time, he dined one night at the Merchant House, run by Shaun Hill, his wife and their assistant, Claire. Claude met Claire. They fell in love. In May 2000, Hibiscus was born. The pair formed a formidable duo: Bosi building a reputation as an original, talented chef and Claire commanding the front-of-house. Success followed success and after a single year, they were rewarded with a Michelin star; three years later, the men from Michelin returned to bestow a second.
Seven years on, that infamous itch set in and the husband-wife team decided to scratch it; they uprooted their beloved Hibiscus and transplanted it to Mayfair. With them, they brought many of their loyal Ludlow staff; five of ten FOH members followed and now share an apartment together in Hammersmith. Backed by some loyal customers/City financiers, they appropriated a modern office building on one of Mayfair’s quieter streets and hired Davies & Baron (who won the contract by being the only approached design firm who bothered to travel to the Ludlow restaurant) to transform it into a sleek £1m 45-seat restaurant, which fondly resembles the original.
The humble façade hints at the understated, modern interior where Claire’s partiality for natural materials is evident: inky black slate along one wall, banquette seating along another, rich wool carpets of mossy green, light oak panelling, thick white-linen-topped tables, custom amber cover plates from J.L. Coquet (luxury Limoges porcelain producers) and horn-handled Laguiole (suppliers to 3* Pic) knives at every sitting. The soft furnishings and elegant carpet are great for the room’s acoustics – there is no problem hearing or being heard across the table, even when the restaurant is full. At the room’s centre is a large serving island around which the waiting staff buzz and from where beverages are served. Upon the centre-table stands an eye-catching, bright sunflower arrangement and above it hangs a golden, plush chandelier. Among these classic touches is a modern sliding door between kitchen and dining area. The décor is simple and stylish, rustic yet refined, minimal but not stark; the diner is relaxed and not distracted from either their company or their food. Pastoral shades of brown, beige and yellow and gentle lighting add further comfort and though a small space, tables are generously spread, all making for a soothing, pleasant and intimate ambience.
Chef Claude’s words, ‘I’m transferring Hibiscus, not starting a new restaurant. The idea is to continue and build on what I have been doing,’ are underscored by Hibiscus’ sustained links to Shropshire, which not only surface in the scenery, but in the sourcing of supplies, most of which still come from this area, including the venison, veal, pork and butter. Claude has also apparently leveraged contacts from his Paris days to garner some prominent purveyors, in particular Bernard Antony for cheese and Joel Thibault for vegetables.
Dinner started with a small surprise; the Chef himself happened to be at the front door and greeted me. Although a bear of a man with a larger-than-life mien, he was friendly and welcoming. His personal charisma, the conviviality of the room and the friendly staff at once disarmed me and I took my seat feeling quite at ease. The simple menu – six starters, mains and desserts and a 7-course surprise tasting menu – was loaded with exciting ingredients including eel, pig’s trotter and tripe. Of course I opted for the tasting menu; what with 7-courses and each a surprise, how could I refuse?
Amuse Bouche 1: Parmesan Gougères. A handmade earthenware pot filled with lighter-than-air, warm, choux-pastry parmesan puffs partnered my perusal of the menu – in truth, they actually completely distracted me from it! So simple, but so scrumptious, these delectable and delicate nibbles were heavenly; crisp, crumbly coats concealed moist, molten middles of creamy cheese. Each morsel melted away immediately in the mouth. These gorgeous golden gougères were utterly moreish and left me licking the thin filmy rich residue from off my fingers and lips. For the record, these precious Burgundian bites far excelled those currently offered by Bosi’s former boss at The Dorchester.
Amuse Bouche 2: Soda of Pineapple & Cucumber, with Smoked Olive Oil and Black Pepper. A second small amuse/palate cleanser followed: a miniature glass goblet of algae-green carbonated pineapple and cucumber juice, within which rested a petite puddle of smoked olive oil and ground black pepper on floating thick white foam. This amuse failed to bring a smile to my lips; the fizzy potion, which I was instructed should be taken as a shot – surprising, given its size – was utterly unremarkable. Only the cucumber’s taste distinguished itself up until the final sweet slurp of pineapple sediment at the bottom. Apparently, the pineapple juice was encased in spherical skins, but this was lost on me as I downed the gassy brew. The smoked olive oil and pepper flavours went unnoticed and forgotten, just as the amuse itself would have been, had it not been for the redolent cucumber-bubble reminders that resurfaced from my tummy and out ma bouche (c’est-à-dire, des éructations) until the first course had come and gone.
Les Pains: Country Brown. Thick slices of homemade wholemeal bread were brought out in a charming oak-crafted box alongside a slab of salty Shropshire butter served on an onyx tile of slate. Initially, the single variety on offer suggested that the kitchen may have neglected this essential facet of the meal; not so. This warm country brown was delicious. A rough, rustic crust encircled the softest, fluffiest centre. The butter, from a 100-strong herd of Jersey cattle tended by someone Chef Claude refers to only as ‘Morris the Butter Man’, glowed a seductive (now before you judge me, please look at the picture) submarine yellow and absolutely begged to be spread.
Entrée 1: Ravioli of White Onion & Cinnamon, Welsh Meadowsweet & Onion Purée, Roast Cévenne Onion. A soft ravioli, filled with white onion and spiced with cinnamon, lay in a shallow warm butter bath, within which spherified ovules of onion and meadowsweet purée floated. The dish was garnished with Granny Smith julienne, violet-red pineapple sage leaves and the roasted skin of a Cévenne onion. This was a simple, delicate plate with a mild, gentle flavour, made from fresh ingredients and allowing the Chef to show off some more advanced abilities from his gamut of culinary capabilities. The ravioli, so soft and fragile it barely existed, comprised a delightfully sweet, warm combination of cinnamon and gently caramelised, shredded onion. This was only the first employment of the vegetable, it was also more impressively, though less successfully flavour-wise, mixed with the mildly nutty meadowsweet in a spherified purée. Though the skill was admired, these bursting bubbles were rather anticlimactic as their meek taste resulted in none of the explosive flavour one would expect. Finally, the Cévenne was utilised roasted, giving a crispy textural contrast along with the crunchy, fresh-cut green apple, whose subtle acidity complemented the sweetness of the ravioli. The decorative leaves, whilst pretty, also emitted the soft and pleasing odour of pineapple.
Entrée 2: Brixham Spider Crab & Fresh Almonds wrapped in Charentais Melon, Almond Purée, Sweet & Sour Melon Sorbet. A cannelloni stuffed with the white crabmeat and chopped almond was encased in a wafer-thin Charentais melon feuille studied with brown breadcrumbs and bits of more almond. A thick, milky purée of even more almonds and a sorbet of more melon filled out the plate. The Devon shellfish tasted fresh, soft and sea-sweet and was well-paired with the still sweeter cantaloupe. The nutty mousse helped subdue this sweetness, but more markedly, offered textural variation with the almond halves, crumbs and chopped pieces that together with firm garden leaves, all added a pleasing crunch to the smooth sorbet and creamy crab. The sorbet was refreshingly and surprisingly ice-cold and gave a further, third dimension of differing temperatures that contrasted nicely with the warm ‘sushi roll’.
Entrée 3: Tartare of Line-caught Cornish Mackerel, English Strawberries & Celery, Wasabi & Honey Dressing. A delicate, fresh mackerel tartare, embedded with soft pine nuts, came topped with diced seasonal strawberries, celery and basil garnish and framed by comet-like splurges of Japanese horseradish and honey syrup. The strawberries acted as a gently acidic counterpoint to the oily fish, whilst the crunchy celery complemented its soft texture. The saccharine zing of the excellent dressing brought with it richness and intensity and though pleasingly powerful, did not overpower the milder mackerel.
Plat Principal 1: Roast Cornish Cod, Mona Lisa Gnocchi, Summer Truffle, Scottish Girolles, Sage & Onion Purée, Lancashire Mead Sauce. A chunk of roasted cod was accompanied by petite potato gnocchi and rusty brown girolle mushrooms. The pristine white fish, cooked to flaky perfection, rested on a thick mead sauce, was wrapped in a crisp, golden orange crust and decked with a poppadom of air-dried fish skin. The creamy, but airy gnocchi and earthy mushrooms lay in a lighter sage and onion purée and were topped with sizable shavings of summer truffle. The tasty mead sauce, simultaneously slightly sweet and savoury, was the ideal complement to the naturally strong flavoured fish and salty richness of the dried skin whose force was further assuaged by the sweet onion and peppery sage and girolles. The dish also featured a stroke of lime gelée, whose deep sourness, added deeper flavour. Only the summer truffle failed to make an impact – however, I have already accepted that this summer’s truffles are simply tasteless.
Additionally, being previously aware of Bosi’s penchant for playfulness (previous menus have included sausage rolls and john dory with gherkin), I started to speculate if this was in fact a humorous poke at British eating and a posh take on beer battered cod (fish in mead sauce) and Indian takeout, with the customary curry compliment of poppadom. Whether this symbolism was intended or just my imagination, the result was delicious!
Plat Principal 2: Lamb Sweetbreads lightly oak smoked, Fresh Goat’s Cheese, Onion Fondue, Lettuce Velouté. This arrived with theatrical aplomb: I was first presented with a lidded roasting pot, fresh out the oven, and filled with oak hay and lamb sweetbreads, the glistening meat just visible through the thick white smoke that nearly veils one’s view inside the pot. After the lid is lifted however, the whole table is enveloped under this dense, intoxicating cloud with its warm, woody and musky odour that tantalises the taste buds and the senses. Once my mouth was suitably watered, the pot was whisked away for plating and the lamb finally served alongside a quenelle of melted onion and herbs; a smear of goat’s cheese tinged with sprinkles of powdered tamarillo and roasted brown breadcrumbs; and smoked olive oil, into which a verdant velouté of lettuce was poured tableside. Again my mind began to wonder – deconstructed kebab perhaps?
The lamb had a deliciously deep, smoky barbecue flavour and though the meaty morsels did not melt in the mouth, they were indeed soft, tender and buttery. The homemade goat’s cheese, creamed lettuce and onion fondue, were all distinct and clear, although the lettuce tasted instead of spinach. The tamarillo powder – a South American tree tomato, tangy and mildly sweet, and comparable to kiwi, tomato or passion fruit – packed a punchy heat. A forkful of all these parts was smooth, crunchy and moist, with no single ingredient overwhelming the others; even the naturally dominant goat’s cheese was tamed, but again the smoked olive oil taste was completely lost.
Plat Principal 3: Roast Goosnargh Duck Breast, Couscous of Purple Cauliflower, Roasted Romanesco, Lapsang Souchong scented English Cherries, Fresh Almond Butter. A thick cut of duck breast, roasted a fabulous hue of Tyrian purple, was dished with cauliflower prepared three ways – a couscous of purple cauliflower, purée of white cauliflower and roasted calabrese romanesco – a dense cherry and lapsang souchong paste and sticky almond butter gravy. The duck was gorgeous; tender and juicy with just the right amount of naughty warm fat and caramelised crisp skin. The amethyst coarse couscous was deep and pleasantly crunchy; the white cauliflower, smooth and earthy; and the al dente romanesco, sweet and nutty. The cherry-tea was intense and sexy, fruity and smoky. The almond butter was luxurious and clung to the roof of one’s mouth; it was like liquid peanut butter and – I know I am not imagining this – combined with the cherry, was a teasing reincarnation of the American classic, peanut butter and jelly. The gamey duck, sweet cherry and creamy butter combined brilliantly, releasing rich, dark, nutty and sharp fruit flavours.
Pre-dessert: Sweet Tomato & Vanilla. The dessert teaser was a small glass cone of creamed sweet tomato skin, layered with vanilla syrup and held together with gelatine; frozen raspberry chips were speckled on top. The light and foamy tomato was indeed sweet, but subtly so; the vanilla, distinct and sugary, but not cloying; the iced raspberries melted in the mouth to release a soft bitter acidity, which was a nice counter to the tomato and vanilla.
Dessert 1: Fine Cream Tart of Sweet English Peas & Moroccan Mint, Coconut & Sheep’s Milk Whey Sorbet. A tasty tart of peas and mint was paired with a sorbet, resting on pastry crumbs, made from the whey of sheep’s milk – the watery part of milk that separates from the curds during cheese making. The plate was decorated with a brittle and notably sticky tuile of coconut, fresh pea halves and flashes of pea purée. The inclusion of this classic English garden vegetable into a dessert, though immediately surprising and a little worrying, worked amazingly well and proved yummy. The sweet, earthy pea cream, infused with Moroccan mint, was encased in a perfect pastry that was solid, crumbly and rich. The sorbet, in contrast, was a little awkward for me; it was not actually sweet and I found it difficult to decide if I liked it or not. However, it did taste better when eaten together with the tart than when eaten independently. Although undecided over the sorbet, I really loved this dish; its taste and creative reworking of an everyday ingredient probably made this course my favourite – but the competition is close!
Dessert 2: Coffee & Passionfruit Millefeuille, Vanilla Ice Cream, Passionfruit Gel & Mango. A pastry millefeuille, nestled on its side, was basted with a precisely patterned passion fruit and coffee whip and partnered by vanilla ice cream on a mango-cube-bed and a syrupy splash of more passion fruit. The sweet, fine pastry was light and crispy, whilst the mousse, velvety and pleasantly mild; the coffee was flavourful, but not bitter and the passion fruit punchy, but not overpowering. The distinctly tart gel refreshingly cut through this, but was in turn mollified by the milky ice cream and fresh, juicy mango.
Dessert 3: Hibiscus ‘Tarte au Chocolat’, Indonesian Basil Ice Cream. I have learnt by now that fondants are generally always the same and always distinctly decent, yet somehow I still always order them! At least this time I had a good excuse – this is a Hibiscus signature dish thus it must be good. And it was. A dark fondant tart arrived with basil ice cream and garnished with basil leaves and sweet, crunchy tuile. As my spoon, breaking the cool, firm chocolate crust armour, gently slid in, hot, thick chocolate lava bled from the soft belly. The molten magma was soothed by a smooth ice cream suffused with a distinct and herby majestic basil flavour. This was excellently executed and reassuringly luxurious.
Petit Fours et Café: Smoked sugar fudge; pure black ganache; milk chocolate with salty caramel; and white chocolate with lemon verbena cream. The espresso had a good, deep taste and came served with rock crystals of sugar. The petit fours, though not profuse, were all very good: white chocolate filled with zesty, warming lemon had a nice herb taste; the ganache was very dark and very intense with a lovely liquid centre; the milk chocolate, sweet and salty; and the fudge, creamy, thick and rich. Actually, I enjoyed the fudge so much I dared ask for more. I was readily obliged.
Throughout the meal, service was impeccable, professional and friendly and the suave staff were polite, attentive and unobtrusive. All were well-informed and worked well collectively, evidence of the many years they have spent together no doubt. Claire, who demands a pleasant smile and affable disposition from all her team, was the consummate hostess and herself nice-as-pie. She effortlessly led the FOH which, even when full, provided swift and sociable service; brought courses in good and steady time; and ensured my glass and bread tray were never empty. A memorable incident involved the spillage of two glasses of wine in quick succession on the same table; this was dealt with an impressive effortlessness and lack of fuss by one of the waiters. Special praise also goes to the excellent sommelier, Simon Freeman, who was extremely knowledgeable about both the food and wine.
The overriding theme tonight was what I have termed the ‘Bosi balance’; every ingredient, taste, texture and even temperature was thoroughly and intricately balanced and harmonised. However, this does not mean the food here is at all boring or bland – Croquettes of Lamb Sweetmeats, Tartare of Native Oyster with Sweet Corn & Thai Curry, Watercress Salad is surely anything but dull. Instead, the cuisine is genuinely interesting and refreshingly different, combining unfamiliar ingredients in unfamiliar ways; the menu is always full of imaginative dishes that one really wants to eat. Bosi though is not trying to shock for the sake of it; an immense level of focus and concentration has gone into creating and preparing each plate as well as evident precision, refinement and flawless technique. The kitchen is as resourceful and versatile as the restaurant’s flower namesake – Hibiscus is used in teas, shampoos, jams, medicines, to make grass skirts and paper and even as a religious offering in Hindu worship. The cooking could be described as experimental, but diners are never the guinea pigs; recipes have been tried and tested until perfect.
I admire Bosi for his determination and readiness to challenge diners (even though he has maybe toned down the menu a little since first opening). I particularly love his willingness to reinvent classic dishes in witty ways such as foie gras ice cream and truffled sausage roll. These may sound silly, but the cookery here is very serious; technical perfection is standard, flavours are clean and distinct, ambitious and bold combinations are confident and Bosi’s ability to bring out the best from his vegetables is reminiscent of Passard.
I truly enjoyed my whole experience here; each dish was good – a rare occurrence, especially given the tendency for such innovative cooking to blow hot and cold – and there was always some element on the plate that wowed me e.g. the cod and mead; cherry-tea and nut butter combo; or English pea tarte. I was also impressed by the Chef himself; first pleased to see him greeting guests late into dinner, something I always appreciate, I was then touched when, collecting my coat and about to leave, one of the staff informed me that if I was able to wait a moment, Claude wanted to say goodbye. We spoke briefly; he came across humble and relaxed (maybe this personality has led him to eschew TV appearances, explaining his relative lack of public fame), evinced by his personal remark to me that ‘it’s hard’ finding that ‘Bosi balance’ (of course he did not say Bosi balance himself) and more public comments when moving to London that he was ‘scared the expectation is too high’ and that he did not know if people would like what he and Claire were doing. Needless to say, any such fears/doubts have since been demolished.
The atmosphere upon leaving this small slice of Shropshire was very warm with the staff individually wishing me goodnight – I seemed to have earned myself a note of notoriety after ordering three desserts! Claude and Claire were genuinely sweet and down to earth and there was a perceptible personal touch in all that they did; I felt a very real family-run restaurant vibe, which made me, in turn, feel very comfortable and as if I had been coming here for years. In fact, I already plan to come back very soon….and, for all those who enjoy corny endings, I think Hibiscus has taken root in my heart.
29 Maddox Street, W1S 2PA
tel: 020 7629 2999
nearest tube: Oxford Circus