I ate my second testicle on Tuesday. That's not a sentence I ever hope to be writing again.
I've never been to Ludlow, despite its long time status as a fully fledged foodie Mecca. Not so long ago the town boasted nearly as many Michelin stars as Gordon Ramsay and, with a thriving food festival to boot, it rivalled Padstow as a gastronomic weekend destination. Much of this attraction still holds, and I have no doubt that I'll go there soon, but, alas, the stars have dwindled. The Merchant House is gone and Hibiscus has relocated to London. Which is where we come in.
Opened just last week, Hibiscus now resides in an unpromising spot in a quiet Mayfair side street. The interior is lovely, managing to pull off comfort and warmth effortlessly, despite it being very obviously very new (Krista was particularly taken with the smell of the newly polished wooden staircase!). A fair few degrees of that warmth can be attributed to the excellent front of house team, smoothly overseen by Claire Bosi (whose husband, Claude, is doing an equally good job running his talented kitchen brigade).
Despite our 8:30 booking we failed to resist the attraction of the surprise seven-course tasting menu (£75), particularly when our request for the signature suckling pig and sausage roll double dish was met in the affirmative ("I have some influence," said Claire rather archly). We nibbled (OK scoffed) some delicious gougeres, beguiling cheesy puffs of goodness that they were. Butter of the most tantalising yellowness was brought to the table, presumably in a deliberate attempt to frustrate us as we shared a bottle of fizz tinted with cassis. This teasing wait did rather stretch the patience, I'm afraid (it was 9:30 before we got any real grub), but once the food started coming it arrived at a steady pace and rarely failed to impress.
The bread that eventually arrived was lovely, although it was clearly only operating in a supporting capacity to that butter. We had seconds of both.
We were told the surprise menu would be crafted by Claude as he went along and, judging by the slightly confused (and sometimes confusing) descriptions of the dishes we received from the waiting staff this was indeed the case: they were, after all, only marginally less surprised than us. So this next bit, where I try to run you through what we ate in (hopefully) not too much tedious detail, is a bit trickier than usual as I was obviously unable to snaffle a menu as I usually do. With a little help from my friends, though, and some great photos courtesy of Howard (full set here), I think we had the following...
Hibiscus soda with smoked olive oil. This was OK. Hibiscus flower turns out to be sweet, but not too sweet (not as dry as cranberry though). The smoked olive oil sounded intriguing but failed to make much of an impact.
Cauliflower veloute. This was poured at the table around a neat little stack of iced coconut and truffle with some caramelised pistachios thrown in for good measure. The soup was stunning in both velvety texture and its essence of cauli taste, and the hot and cold combination was a pleasing here as it always is.
Beetroot tarte fine. These were delectable, and were cutely served in alternate shades of red and golden beetroot around the table. Intense pastry, more coldness in the form of iced feta and a foam of pink grapefruit. A stunning combination. And I don't even like beetroot!
Dover sole stuffed with mushrooms. This was served about five minutes after two plates of what looked like monkfish and lentils were mysteriously whisked away after an accident in the kitchen. The fish skin was wonderfully crisp but the flesh was cooked just so. The rest of the dish is slightly lost in the memory but I think there was a slice of confit cep and a wedge of pear. Or possibly apple.
Testicles. These were initially rather sweetly (but perplexingly) described as "sweethearts" but turned out to be lamb balls. They were cooked sous vide (as opposed to boil in the bag!) before being breaded and lightly fried. There was a mild thai sauce with this and a punchier native oyster and sweetcorn tartare. This combination met with a mixed reception, but I loved it. The first time I tried testicle was a home-made effort of Howard's and, much as I enjoyed it that time, it was instructive to see how the pros use them. It seems unlikely, but it would be great to see them on more menus.
Suckling pig two ways. The first was a slice of pork belly, complete with some lovely thin crackling, which came served with a cube of confit sweet potato topped with a single mussel, some kohlrabi that for some reason needed to be served with tongs at arm's length and some blobs of purée and sauce that all seemed to work well. The meat was exceptional, as it was when the same beast was used in a sausage roll that came complete with a dollop of the poshest brown sauce known to man. Wonderful.
By now it was a little late and we perhaps rather glossed over the sweets. A pre-dessert of granny smith purée with hazelnut foam was well received while there was patchier praise for the pannacotta, which came with a lemongrass foam and an ice cream made of some sort of white kidney beans. This latter was a bit too savoury for me, detracting from the caramelly delight underneath.
It felt way too late for coffee by the end, which alas meant missing out on what I understand to be petit fours of the highest quality (better luck next time).
It was always going to be hard to match wines to a menu that was changing all the time, but the excellent sommelier knew roughly what we were in for and guided us expertly to a feisty Austrian riesling, a comforting white Burgundy and a New Zealand pinot noir he was particularly fond of. There may have been a dessert wine too. I forget. He, like many of the staff, has shipped in directly from Ludlow. The Bosis will be hoping they've managed to bring both their Michelin stars with them too. On this very early evidence it I'd say they (unlike the balls) are in the bag.
Hibiscus 29 Maddox Street London W1S 2PA 020 7629 2999