Monday, 7 April 2014
I've been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks, mainly because I've been too busy enjoying myself in California (more on which soon) but partly also because I thought it might be an idea to let the whole blaggergate thing die down before posting a long and gushing post on a free meal in one of the best restaurants in town.
I don't really have anything to add to much that's already been said on the whole sordid affair, but briefly, while posting (accidentally) the mobile phone number of a blogger on Twitter was unadvisable (although having admitted their mistake the retweeters in question still haven't had their accounts reinstated, which is insane), the act of soliciting a free meal in return for a positive review (as the blogger in question unquestionably did) is well worth highlighting, and is the kind of ethically bankrupt thing previously mainly only print journalists had been guilty of. So let's not have one idiot give anyone the excuse to drag us down to their level, eh bloggers?
You'll excuse my ironic tone, but really, the furore over the fact that some crappy food bloggers are now joining their crappy print cousins in offering positive reviews in return for free meals is not one that should take anyone by surprise. I grew up in Liverpool, where our local rag the Echo regularly ran an "everything is awesome" column where even the most diabolically bad restaurant would be given a po-facedly upbeat writeup in return for a boozy jolly for their journalists. National restaurant critics, lucky enough to be paid for their meals AND their words, can claim, if they want, that a bloggers opinion on a meal is "worthless" if it's comped (as one of them recently did) but surely the point is just to be honest, no matter who paid the bill?
Anyway, whether you consider this post and the opinions contained within to be "worthless", or whether based on past form you can see it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference, well, I hope it at least provides a brief distraction.
Of course, it would have been a lot handier for me, if not for them, if my meal at Hibiscus had been anything less than blindingly, unassailably brilliant. Then at least I could look like I had my critical head on in the face of such PR generosity. But no, from the word go this meal was one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. It began, after some pretty little textural amuses and some fluffy, cheesy gougere, with a seemingly innocuous basket of house bread.
From the first bite, something was different about this bread. A crust like the finest French pastry, delicate and flaky with only enough strength to make each bite the greatest of rewards, it held a softly-sticky, gently-vinegared crumb that I can barely imagine being better. To cut a long story short, it was perfect. As well as that, it was strangely familiar. I asked whether Hibiscus make their own bread.
"No, the chef gets it made by a friend of his" was the first, rather cryptic response. But when the chef himself appeared to do a start-of-evening meet-and-greet, I took the opportunity to dig a little deeper. "It's from Hedone", he said, and then the pieces fell together. Hedone are in collaboration with Antidote, where I'd had equally stunning bread a week previously. I've learned since they're going to start selling it direct to the public; if it's £50/loaf (which wouldn't surprise me if it's anything to with Hedone) it would still be a bargain.
So, still cooing over the house bread, we began the tasting menu proper with "Chestnut mushroom, coconut & curry 'en cocotte'", and if you think that sounds a bit weird, you're not wrong. The mushrooms were clearly of high quality, but didn't sit well, in my opinion, with the strangely bitter coconut froth above. Still, I'm prepared to believe this could be a personal thing, and as a palate cleanser it may have had a different job to do than simply be blandly enjoyable.
Fresh crab and white turnip had marvellous sweet crab (the attention to ingredient quality at Hibiscus is obvious even to a pleb like me) and the little blobs of smoked olive oil cream were a lovely counterpoint.
Scallop sashimi (sorry, "carpaccio") with thinly-sliced black radish (translucent and with a soft crunch to contrast the scallops) was another masterclass in sourcing, the scallops having bags of flavour and immaculately presented. Highlight of this dish though were the neat blobs of truffle & walnut oil, which added a luxurious extra level of flavour. I think it was with this dish that we were given these sort of prawn cracker things made out of scallops (scallop crackers?) which I wasn't a huge fan of, but you have to admire their technique.
Two meaty asparagus tips next, coated in toasted hazelnuts and resting on another healthy dose of black truffle. A joyful mix of textures, and who doesn't love truffle, but still the main draw were the asparagus, an incredible deep green colour (not that you can tell from my photos, but that goes without saying) and not a hint of stringiness.
While I consider most of what goes on in high-end kitchens to be nothing short of black magic, there's a certain extra quotient of awe reserved for those who can turn their hand with equal skill to fish as they do to, say, meat or vegetables. A properly cooked steak or jerusalem artichoke can be a thing of beauty, sure, but there is something wonderfully disorenting about a fish steak that has been cooked in such a way as to highlight those mysterious, almost alien, ocean flavours. This halibut, immaculately timed and attractively sat amidst an ocean-metaphor of frothy sauce, had exactly that effect - it was like setting off on a sea voyage from the comfort of your Mayfair restaurant table.
Look at the profile of that duck - even my photography has failed to dampen its magnificence. A dark, salty crust, a not-too-thick layer of melting fat, and a bouncy, pink flesh that cut like butter. Roast tardivo (radicchio to you and me) provided bitterness, a blog of beetroot earthiness, and eel an interesting extra salty/smoky note. Great stuff.
An apple, celeriac & chestnut pre-dessert, much like the mushroom & coconut thing earlier, made up for in innovation and ability to discombobulate what it lacked in straightforward pleasure. Sometimes, a dish becomes a talking point for reasons other than plain solid technique - whether polarising or disorienting or shocking, there are different ways to impress.
The final dish, a chocolate tart, was perhaps the only dish that could be accused of being slightly unambitious. It was very good, don't get me wrong, but it's hardly the kind of thing that sits comfortably next to the shooting stars and fireworks that had come before. The only nod to the range of meticulously-sourced ingredients from the other dishes was an ice cream made from "Indonesian Basil", but I can't honestly say I could tell the difference. That all said, it disappeared in seconds and I loved it. So maybe I'll just shut up and stop complaining.
Right then, so, how did I do? Did any of the above look like it had come out of the local Frankie & Benny's (my photography notwithstanding) and I'm being especially nice about it because I got it for free? Am I capable of separating the business of who pays the bill from the skill of the chef in the kitchen? Have I completely wasted my time and yours? Well, if I have, at least it didn't cost either of us anything. And regardless of my defense of the practice of accepting comped meals (not asking for them in return for a positive review, which is obviously not on) I still will continue to keep a lid on the number of freebies I do write up, just because things are generally more interesting that way.
Meantime, the only other thing I have to say is, stick with the opinions of a blogger or critic you trust, disregard anyone, paid or unpaid, that doesn't declare when something has been given for free, and - oh yes - go and book a meal at Hibiscus. It's really rather good.
I was invited to review Hibiscus, so there.