When I first heard about Hibiscus, a new fine dining restaurant in Northampton, its location struck me as a little odd. Tucked away upstairs in the Royal & Derngate theatre, it can be easy to miss. However fine dining has always been more about reputation and word of mouth than curbside appeal, and the more I thought about it, the more the setting made sense. For me, theatre is all about memorable experiences and at its best, fine dining can be just that.
Just a year after its opening, Hibiscus appears to be building a great reputation, with positive reviews online and personal recommendations from friends piquing my interest enough to find an excuse to go. As a special gift to my parents, we booked a table a few weeks in advance before finally arriving on a chilly Saturday night.
Following the signage from the main theatre entrance, we make our way upstairs and are greeted by our smartly dressed host for the evening. Relieved of our bulky coats and jumpers, we’re guided past an immaculate open kitchen just inside the entrance and into a small but elegant dining room. Photos on the website show off a room with tall ceilings, large feature windows and an ornate chandelier. In person it doesn’t disappoint. Unlike the website, where the restaurant is pictured on a bright summer’s day with natural light streaming through those large windows, tonight is dark, warm inside and each table is candlelit. It’s a cozy, intimate atmosphere.
Hibiscus offers both an A La Carte menu and a tasting menu by head chef Sam Squires. Sam’s background boasts of experience in top restaurants, including the 5 star Grove Hotel, The Ritz and Michelin-starred Remy on the Disney cruise line. With limited experience of fine dining, but enthusiastic to try new things, we decide to indulge in the extravagant 9-course tasting menu at £59.50 per person and put our trust in Sam.
Back in the room and we’re ready to start our 3-4 hour dining experience with some wine. I’d love to pretend that we’re wordly wine connoisseurs, but the truth is when it comes to pairing wine with food we’re strictly amateurs, so had emailed ahead of our visit for recommendations to compliment the tasting menu. Credit to the restaurant, they replied in detail with a few suggestions tailored for different tastes.
It’s toasty warm and we’re finding our first bottle of wine, a fresh and lively Petit Chablis, very drinkable. A little too drinkable to be honest. This is going to be a long evening, so we pace ourselves with iced water topped up regularly by our enthusiastic waiters.
If like us, you’re not used to the ‘over the top’ service that often accompanies fine dining, it can feel a little forced and formal. Fortunately as the evening progresses, we settle into it and come to enjoy the pomp and professionalism. We’re made to feel like the centre of attention, and it’s nice to feel spoilt now and again.
Our culinary adventure starts with bread (so far, so safe) but this mix of granary and spelt slices are fresh, warm and accompanied by a shockingly green chive butter and nutty brown beurre noisette. A trio of delicate canapes quickly follows, a selection of sweet and savoury treats to kick off our meal. A breaded ball of smoked haddock and spicy chorizo mayonnaise is my personal favourite, while my parents prefer the sweet surprise of chocolate infused with sep and truffle in a deliciously chewy macaron. Lastly, the ‘jammy dodger’ with layers of chicken liver parfait, pastry and sweet cherry add a fun and tasty twist.
An amuse bouche of carrot mousse, crispy purple carrot and sherry caramel is followed by a light dish of sweet crab on a rice cracker with tiny dots of sticky soy. I’ve never tried crab before, and am pleasantly surprised by the delicate flavour and unique texture. With no frame of reference, I rely on the others on my table to judge the freshness and taste. This is why I love the tasting menu, not only for having the opportunity to try new things with confidence, but also the conversation around each dish that comes with the shared experience.
“A light dish of sweet crab on a rice cracker with tiny dots of sticky soy.”
As we move onto our next course of beef tartare, the red wine is poured - an Italian Amarone (another recommendation and at the more expensive end of the wine list at £36). Opened at the start of the meal, it’s had time to breathe and is a smooth and powerful accompaniment to the red meat. A smoked egg yolk oozes through the soft, buttery raw beef, but the real surprise is a ‘malt crumb’ that adds crunch and a tiny pickled onion that punches well above its weight. Beef tartare isn’t for everyone, and I think I’d lack the confidence to order it anywhere else, but I feel confident in the quality of the ingredients and Sam’s execution.
“Smoked egg yolk oozes through the soft, buttery raw beef.”
Our next course is perfectly cooked and moreishly meaty halibut, accompanied by a crunchy, salty cigar of langoustine and a smooth bisque hollandaise. Scottish venison loin follows, with caramelised leeks, leek ash and a red wine sauce so glossy and deeply flavoured that were this not such a posh establishment, I’d be scraping the plate. The venison is a fine piece of precision cooking, tender and universally adored by all of us at the table. Bravo.
Six courses in and not a scrap has been left. Every plate has returned to the kitchen spotless and each dish is more captivating than the last. The courses appear regularly but never rushed, allowing adequate time to digest and savor, while chatting the night away to a soundtrack of well judged music.
A seductively dark mousse of chocolate and stout leads us into our sweets. Silky smooth and generously portioned, this would satisfy most as a main dessert. This isn’t just any meal though, and it’s soon followed by a complex and delicious dessert of rhubarb, ginger ice cream and pistachio ‘sponge’. A playground of flavours and textures, the ginger ice cream excites with fiery heat. It’s a fun and colourful end to the meal that doesn’t fail to put a smile on everyone’s faces.
It’s getting late now, and as the meal winds down we’re presented with a selection of petit fours and our choice of coffees to finish. Taking our time, we reflect back on our meal, picking our favourite dishes and personal highlights. As if hearing our deliberations, the head chef comes to our table to say hello as he’s passing. He’s personable, warm and it’s a refreshing change to get to meet the man behind our meal.
We share our praise and give some feedback on the parts that we enjoyed least, such as the petit fours which were a bit of a flat end to the meal. He takes it all constructively and I’m excited to see how he evolves the seasonal menu throughout the rest of the year.
Sam is a genuine talent, and now knowing what he and his team are capable of, I’m keen to come back to experience their A La Carte menu, which offers three courses for £34.50 per person, which at this standard of cooking seems exceptionally good value for money.
Fine dining can sometimes be perceived as ‘style over substance’ but we leave feeling well fed, the size of portions perfectly judged and the taste and flavour more than matching the exquisite look of the dishes. It’s dining for people who love food, not just eating.
As we exit through the Royal & Derngate lobby I’m reminded of nights I’ve shared with family at the theatre and the memories we’ve made there. It’s really no different when it comes to food, and our night at Hibiscus will stay with us forever.
Hibiscus, 19-21 Guildhall Road, Northampton, NN1 1DP.
01604 911073 | www.thehospitality.co.uk/hibiscus