On a wet Wednesday night in 2012, I went on a date with a very nice man who took me to a very nice restaurant. We ate more than we needed to, drank more than we should have, and laughed so much more than I expected. I’m no dating expert, but in my opinion, it was a very successful first date – no awkward silences, no over-politeness, just comfortable in each other’s company. Three years on, I am still going on dates with this man to wonderful places, eating, drinking and laughing all the way, though we foot the bill together now!
I know people say you shouldn’t change when you get into a relationship but we have and I think it’s for the better. Sure, there’s all that emotional stuff like being a little more patient and understanding… blah blah blah… but let’s get down to the nitty gritty, the most significant change is in our culinary skills and tastes. Before a certain someone met me, he’d never eaten udon noodles (that’s a whole other story) and a generous sprinkle of pepper was the height of spice he could tolerate. I probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near offal and shamefully purchased pre-made pasta sauces.
But oh how we’ve changed.
We’ve always been decent cooks with a fondness for quality food but London has spoilt us; from the street food trucks to the pop up residencies to the fine dining experiences, every level of the industry is pushing boundaries and trying new things all the time. So like spoilt brats we expect places to deliver exactly what they promise, impress and challenge us a little, and of course leave us with that happily sated sense of contentment. But has London also led us to expect too much? I’ve been wondering this a lot lately, particularly after our experience at Hibiscus; French cuisine, two-Michelin starred, highly recommended… what better way to celebrate three years of wining and dining together?
From the outside, Hibiscus is so understated we actually walked right past it, from the inside the dining room is understated and elegant. We were swiftly seated and given a few menus to peruse, though I was rather tempted by the huge tasting menu, we showed some restraint and opted for the set menu lunch with a bottle of the 2014 Les Vignerons d’Estezargues, Terre de Mistral, a very smooth, very drinkable red wine.
When the amuse bouche arrived, I wasn’t surprised as the ‘fresh eggs’ at Hibiscus are well documented but I was certainly amused by the flavours of corn and curry spice. I enjoyed it but a certain someone probably would have been happier with an egg done the traditional way.
We started with the cured mackerel and strawberry ‘sauce vierge’ and the octopus, burrata and black pepper sauce ‘Malaysian style’, both were quite delicious. I thought the mackerel looked beautiful, the just-cooked flesh flaked away easily once I cut through the perfectly crisp skin, the sharp strawberries balanced out the oiliness of the fish. The octopus was equally pleasing, a tender tentacle to tantalise those tastebuds… you know it’s good when I bust out the alliteration!
Impressed with the first courses, things took a bit of a nose dive with the mains of confit chicken leg, tropea onion, paimpol beans, smoked eel, organic lemon and dijon mustard and barbeque veal breast, new season carrot, lemon, olives and goat’s cheese. On paper, the veal appealed to both of us, on the plate it was absolutely stunning, but on tasting it was a bit of a disappointment. Good flavours let down by a few hunks of dry meat.
I don’t often order the chicken dish at a restaurant because it’s just chicken but threw that rule out the window because this is two-Michelin star chicken with all these bells and whistles of smoked eel and fancy beans. But you know what? At the end of the day it was still just chicken, nice chicken, well cooked chicken, but all a bit ho-hum. I wish I had gone for the tuna.
At this point we were really wondering if our expectations had been too high… ‘it’s only their lunch menu’… ‘maybe we should have gone for the tasting menu’… ‘I’m sure dinner is very good’…
And then our desserts arrived and all was well again. My summer berries tart, honeycomb cream and whiskey ice cream was scrumptious, but I am quite partial to a fruit tart. The crust was thin and crisp, just as I like it and the ice cream had a generous little kick to it. In my opinion, the tart might have looked better but a certain someone’s dessert of Oakchurch Farm raspberries, clotted cream and matcha green tea definitely won on taste.
Silky smooth sweetness, balanced with freshness from the berries then with little pops of subtle bitterness from the matcha to balance everything out. Let’s say I was extremely happy when a certain someone said it was a little too rich for him to finish off… I dragged the plate over before he even offered it to me! Oops… but you can do that after three years together right?
Oh the sweet taste of redemption.
We finished our long lunch with cups of tea and petit fours of nougat, berry shortbread, and what I can only describe as a small chocolate aero. While sipping our tea, we continued that ‘did we expect too much’ conversation; Michelin stars would imply that the food should be excellent but considering the ridiculous value of the lunch menu at a fraction the price of the dinner tasting menus, perhaps something has to give, somewhere.
So on this particular occasion, we probably did set our expectations a little too high… while we weren’t floored with excitement, the service and atmosphere were warm, almost every dish was perfectly executed, and there were some absolute highlights!
With that settled, we were off to continue living the high life of spoilt Londoners with more wine stops and an evening at the Old Vic to see High Society. An entertaining musical comedy about the life and love of an American east coast socialite, I thoroughly enjoyed it and cannot wait to see what the Old Vic offers next.
Three years on, countless number of ‘dates’ later, this one was every bit as fun as that very first night in Wellington so here’s to many more!