Friday, 8 February 2008
The Square, Mayfair
This was supposed to be a review of Hibiscus. I'd had it booked for weeks, my interest aroused by some incredibly favourable reviews and the memory of a very good meal when it was in Shropshire a few years ago. But then this happened :
Man hurt in city centre explosion
So just as I was changing into my nice shoes towards the end of a day in the office, I got a call from a rather harassed sounding woman from the restaurant to say that there'd been a power cut in Mayfair and she'd have to cancel our table! A couple of frantic phonecalls later I managed to find a table at The Square, that other Michelin-starred Mayfair stalwart, and fortunately our evening was saved. On the way to the new venue from Oxford Circus tube I peered into the darkened reception of Hibiscus to find a few miserable looking couples sitting with their bags and coats while the a receptionist tried presumably to find them other suitable accommodation. So I suppose it could have been a lot worse. Just ask the man caught in that explosion.
The Square has always held a very special place in my heart - anyone who knows me could tell you that one of the best things I've ever eaten was their signature crab lasagne - yet it had been a good four years since I'd paid a visit. Claude Bosi, who runs Hibiscus with his wife Claire, is very much a "chef's chef", always in the restaurant during service (unlike certain other sweary craggy-faced megalomaniacs I can think of) and devoted to his craft, and Philip Howard of The Square is very much in the same vein, so it seemed a logical swap. Very little seemed to have changed in the restaurant; the staff were still as friendly and professional as they were numerous, the spacious if functional room buzzed with the great and good of Mayfair high society (Philip Green was there last night) and the food... words cannot describe. But I'll do my best.
Amuse-bouches were presented on a bizarre wooden contraption into which were inserted items such as anchovy bread, cauliflower mousse (in a dainty little pastry cup), a folded slice of what looked like beetroot but I think was some other root vegetable, and a couple of other items which I couldn't even begin to describe but tasted, without exception, very nice. Our bouches were very definitely amused.
Next a pre-starter of cauliflower mousse on some sort of vegetable jelly was, again, brilliant. This restaurant does things with cauliflower that boggle the mind - it was a similar amuse of cauliflower mousse that formed one of the highlights of my first visit all those years ago, and this brought the memories flooding back.
My starter proper was the "Velouté of field mushrooms with a soft poached egg and a truffled brioche roulade". Like my favourite courses at Foliage, this was superficially a straightforward mushroom soup, but rich and fluffy and served with fresh truffles shaved on top by the waiter thus transforming it into something truly memorable. I think you could have served my bowl again without washing, I scraped it so clean. Delicious. Oh, and in case you're wondering why I didn't have the crab, I thought I'd leave that particular memory without danger of being tarnished, although two other diners on our table did have it and from what I can gather it was as good as ever.
But better was yet to come. "Roast calves sweetbreads with feuillantine of onions and tongue and a sauté of kidneys and mustard" was so good I never wanted it to end. The feuillantine were dainty onion chips sandwiched between the most phenomenal cabbage and truffle mixture which was so astonishing I had to pass it around the table to share my joy. The generous serving of sweetbread was as good as any I've tried, perfectly cooked, soft and succulent, and the two little kidneys were firm and tasty pieces of meat perched on top of a rich purée. So much going on it seems reading this description that the flavours may have become slightly confused, but it all worked together perfectly.
The pre-dessert was a glass of heaven's own rhubarb and cream concoction served with a fluffy nugget of doughnut. It was also fantastic.
By this point everyone was so bowled over by the standard of dishes that anything less than the greatest dessert of our lives would have been a comedown, and I'm afraid the general consensus was that the desserts were the weakest of the courses at The Square. Some were better than others - a soufflé was particularly good - but my "cocoa crème brûlée with griottine cherries and kirsch ice cream" suffered from hugely overpowering (and dangerously alcoholic) cherries which meant the crème brûlée was slightly lost. Good alright, but not perfect, and the other dishes had been pretty damn close to perfect.
There were yet two more courses to round off the evening. Innocuous-looking chocolate truffles burst in the mouth to reveal a wonderful fruity liquid center, and were served with matchsticks shot through with fruit jelly. Finally, a spectacular spray of teeny homemade sweets were generally also excellent apart from a couple of pieces of grapefruit rind which were so bitter I can still taste them 12 hours later. But they were nothing if not a talking point.
This meal came only a couple of weeks too late to be my favourite of the last 12 months, but believe me it's very much in the running to be top of the list for 2008. I've used so many superlatives in this writeup I've exhausted the list in my thesaurus, so all I can suggest is you book yourselves in and see how good it is for yourself. It's not the cheapest of places - we paid £86 a head and didn't have a huge amount of wine - but for your money you get faultless service, a luxurious situation and eight courses of pretty much the best food you're likely to eat in London. Philip Howard at The Square, I salute you.