Saturday, October 13th 2018 – Hibiscus, The Derngate Theatre, Northampton
It’s true – if unkind – that when thinking of Northampton the last thing that comes to mind is fine dining, but with the county’s annual food and drink awards coming up in a couple of weeks, and the announcement of the Restaurant of the Year shortlist a recent thing, it seems matters culinary are changing in the county town. Of the six places short listed, three are in Northampton, and we were booked in to visit one of them, Hibiscus, to celebrate our 11th anniversary. This was our third visit of the year.
In the interests of further enjoying the evening, we started off at one of the other contenders, Nuovo, where we have eaten before. We just wanted to have a couple of drinks, which was just as well as the place was booked solid (always good to see), with a party in the upstairs room, and another down in the main part of the restaurant.
The barman has an imaginative way with cocktails, and had come up with a rather delightful honeydew melon and vodka based long drink, with white port, home grown grapes, sugar, lime and tonic water. This special was on for the week and we figured it would have been churlish not to give it a whirl. It was refreshing, cool and very dangerous indeed (one of those drinks that you could sink very quickly, not realising how much alcohol was in it).
We swapped to Hugos for the second round and then headed off to Hibiscus. It’s unusual in that it’s inside a theatre (not something you tend to find outside London to be honest), and is also very much aiming at the fine dining market, something that Northampton desperately needs. We’ve been a couple of times now, and the food has been excellent, while the wine list might have been a little lacking. That has changed over the summer, and I understand why they are now in the running for the title in their first full year of operation. The room is small but very nicely done out in understated shades of white, grey and silver, and while I think our table was slightly oddly positioned being right by the door and thus somewhat in the line of fire for members of staff, it’s a comfortable place. We were soon parked and had our aperitifs in front of us (rose prosecco as they don’t have Champagne by the glass yet – I suspect that may come) and settled in to consider the menus.
You can have their five-course tasting menu for under £50 and a three course menu for just short of £35. It’s nothing short of remarkable given the quality of what follows that they can bring in such good food quite so cheaply. After some consideration we decided we didn’t fancy the tasting menu quite as much as the a la carte, largely because the duck on it sounded more interesting to both of us than the beef on the tasting menu. Given a choice between duck and beef, the bird is always going to win out. While we were debating, the bread arrived. This was an onion bread with caramelised butter, the onions also caramelised and the whole providing a hit of sea salt and of burnt alliums that was seriously addictive. Despite our best efforts, both slices were gone in record time (along with the butter).
We finally managed to decide what we wanted, and placed our order, asking for a 30 minutes pause between the starters and mains. The amuse bouches were brought, and described as celeriac and apple. What we got were several spoonfuls of a dense and earthy celeriac veloute, with an apple foam on the top. Mixing the two elements together meant the sweetness and lightness of the foam lifted the veloute and made it something special.
The starters were excellent, and very pretty. One was a slow cooked duck egg (I’m assuming at 62 degrees in a waterbath) with wild mushrooms and a tarragon dressing, surrounded by a wall of crisp pastry that was slightly sweet. My only reservation about it was that I think it needed either slightly longer or a degree or two more heat because I felt the egg white was rather too raw. Everything else about it, including the mushrooms, which had been dried or roasted at a very low temperature, and the egg yolk were brilliantly executed. The white brought it down a notch.
The other starter was a chicken and black pudding terrine, the chicken meat minced to a lovely texture, and the black pudding creating a seam through the middle of the terrine that gave a massive hit of piggy tastiness. It came with a light piccalilli and some fabulously crispy chicken skin. I couldn’t fault this dish at all. There’s something very assured going on in that kitchen right now, and the odd little misstep with things like the egg are a shame but they don’t alter the fact that this is quality cooking.
The new upgraded wine list provided a delicious, deep Amarone della Valpolicella. It was lovely, if very strong (15% which is pretty powerful stuff). It went brilliantly with the meaty main course and it wasn’t exactly a bad match for the fishy one either.
And so to the mains. The roasted duck breast was cooked to perfection, and served with an interesting hazelnut granola, and orange jus and a selection of heritage beetroots that provided just the right amount of sweetness to complement the meat, which was pink as I like it, the skin crisp as it should be. It was also decorated with pea shoots but everything seems to be these days, there’s no escaping them.
The other main we shared was pan roasted wolf fish (also known as wolf eel, sea wolf, sea cat, devil fish, ocean catfish, Atlantic catfish, or woof fish, and just for good measure when sold to the public it may also be known as Scotch halibut, woof or Scarborough woof) with black risotto made using black rice and squid ink, fennel and chorizo, and sea foam. Here we had what was for me the other minor misstep of the evening. The fennel was al dente, in fact so much so that it may as well not have been in a pan at all. I would have said it was raw were it not for the tiny piece from one end that was nicely cooked and soft. It only detracted slightly from a dish that was very accomplished in all other respects. The fish was cooked to perfection, the tiny cubes of chorizo contrasting well with the relatively mild flavoured flesh of the fish, the risotto was very good indeed, and the foam and sea vegetables giving a salty umami hit that just pulled it all together nicely.
And so we made it to dessert (or possibly desert if the wine list was anything to go by). We opted to share a single dish, a fabulously grown up matcha tea flavoured yoghurt parfait, with coriander ice cream and citrus notes. It looked great and tasted brilliant, not too sweet and shot through with the lightest hint of coriander. This was definitely something different.
We drank an unctuous, sticky Boschendal Vin D’Or Noble Harvest Chenin with it that rounded out the meal beautifully. A conversation with the chef and the maitre d’ afterwards revealed that they thought we might be the inspectors for the award because we knew so much about food and asked so many questions. We had to tell them that no, we weren’t, and wished them luck for the judging. I’m told that no one ever wins the very first year they are nominated, but have no idea if that is or is not true. Either way, it’s a fine establishment and very welcome in the neighbourhood.