Tuesday 13th February, 2018 – Hibiscus, Derngate Theatre, Northampton
It being Lynne’s birthday (and a significant birthday at that) we would normally have celebrated at The Vine House but they were closed while Julie, one half of the couple who own the place, was having a knee replacement operation. We needed an alternative venue and we needed it fast! A bit of digging around suggested that the closest fine dining option we might find was in Northampton. Well, you could have knocked me down with the proverbial feather at that suggestion. Northampton may be many things, but what it’s really not is a fine dining destination. With a certain amount of trepidation I booked a table at Hibiscus, having been somewhat assuaged by the online menu, though not by some of the TripAdvisor reviews. However, I’ve always regarded TripAdvisor with a healthy degree of scepticism, given that you have no idea whether “reviewers” have an axe to grind or not. Additionally, we’d tried one of the current chef’s previous ventures and had not been convinced, as the restaurant in question seemed to be having something of an identity crisis. It’s local to us (walking distance) and that experience put us off so badly we didn’t go back.
We set off early, because one thing I do know about Northampton is that the one way system seems to exist in some sort of alternative reality, and that the way you get somewhere one week won’t be there when you try it again. Parked in the nearest carpark we found our way in to the Royal and Derngate Theatre which has undergone quite a lot of renovation over recent years and now contains a new bar and, above it, in a room done out in grey and silver, the restaurant.
We were taken to our table, as there doesn’t seem to be a bar area upstairs, and as it was Lynne’s birthday, and they were aware of this, we were offered a complimentary glass of prosecco each, with half a fresh strawberry in it.
This seemed a good way to start, and we soon had menus to study.
We considered the Taster Menu but then decided that we would just go with two starters that we’d share, and two mains and, if we could, a dessert each as well. Meanwhile, the very young, very sweet waitress brought the bread and butter. The butter had possibly been whipped, though she didn’t tell us that, and the bread looked decent enough though nothing especially special. It tasted fine, but whether it constituted fine dining, I wasn’t wholly convinced.
The wine list was conservative, playing it very safe I thought, with prices much lower than you would expect from a fine dining establishment. I can see their point. They’ve not been open long, and this is Northampton we’re talking about after all. If the prices go too high, then they’ll soon lose custom. As it was, for a Tuesday (and the day before Valentine’s Day) it was around three quarters full.
The amuses bouche arrived and was very interesting, being a beetroot and apple concoction, with a froth of apple and a deep dense earthy beetroot puree hiding underneath it. We were off to a very good start that suggested we were in the hands of a chef who knew what he was doing.
The starters came after a decent pause, while we drank a Provencal rose, and speculated on the room we were in. There was a fire-place with scenes from Arthurian legend on it, and we did wonder if the room had always been in the theatre, but had been freshly renovated. The Royal part of the Theatre has been in existence since 1884, and so it could be a part of the original building. Anyway, we turned our attention from the decor to food once more.
The beetroot theme continued with a heritage beetroot, roasted and served with walnuts and Stilton cheese, and a little light greenery (nasturtium leaves among them). It was tender and continued the earthiness we’d already encountered, along with lovely sweetness, set off by the red onion marmalade it was accompanied by. The other starter was also very good.
It consisted of roasted scallops, a boned-out confit chicken wing that was far tastier than I would have expected given that chicken is often dull, some crunchy pieces of cauliflower and apple, and raisins and coriander. It was an excellent combination and definitely more than the sum of its parts would suggest. We finished the wine, and started on a red, trying not to terrorise the young waiter whose first night it was. He seemed to be able to cope though he did seem nervous.
Our main courses were with us perhaps slightly faster than we would have liked but that was our own fault. We should have said something when we sat down, because they do have pre-theatre diners too. Anyway, it wasn’t too bad. And the food was a long way from bad.
The pan-roasted Atlantic stone bass was a lovely thing, the skin crisped to perfection, the flesh white and pearly and flaking under my fork. The crushed new potatoes were nicely seasoned, and the spring onion gave it a little bite. I had expected that lovage sauce might be slightly overpowering, but it wasn’t. It was mild and set off the fish rather than fighting with it.
The other main was much meatier and packed a hell of a punch. The roasted duck breast was medium rare, still pink enough to be deliciously tender, and accompanied by a bonbon of confit duck, shredded and served on of a pumpkin puree to soak up the sauce, alongside a pumpkin fondant, and some crisp kale. The whole was nicely pulled together with a five spice and honey jus, although I think it might have worked just as well with something slightly less sweet, perhaps more acidic.
The desserts are clever and presumably can be assembled without the need for a massive brigade – which I assume is essential as it’s not the biggest kitchen I’ve ever seen (although it’s also not the smallest I know of). We had a white chocolate mousse, with Raspberry sorbet and some slivers of raspberry tuile, and shards of biscuit, as well as some globes of fruit puree. Lovely and fresh and not too substantial. Just the thing.
The other dessert was somewhat more enigmatically described as “dark chocolate and orange” and was lovely, with chocolate mousse, and chocolate ice cream, along with a sorbet of orange, and chunks of orange and mango. It was very good indeed, and when the bill hit and it came to around £110 for three courses each as well as two full bottles of wine that’s pretty impressive stuff from chef Lee Scott (we’ll forgive the La Strada fiasco on the strength of this outing). We’ll certainly give it another go, probably to test run the taster menu. At just shy of £50 a head it seems like a good price/quality ratio. I wish them luck, Northampton needs something like this to offset the chains and the low-end joints that litter the town. There aren’t enough places where you can have a pleasant dinner, in lovely surroundings, and not be chased out because they want your table back inside two hours.