Muddy Reviews: Hibiscus Fine Dining, Northampton
As Hibiscus triumphantly re-opens after a second lockdown, we don our stretchiest waistbands to have a go at their tasting menu and find out how they've bloomed since opening in the grounds of Delapré Abbey just weeks before the pandemic hit.
Historic, stately and super fancy, Hibiscus is the very definition of hidden gem, tucked away as it is in the grand Billiard Room at Northampton’s Delapré Abbey. There is no chance of stumbling across Hibiscus by accident, so you need to be in the know. This is the restaurant’s second incarnation, having relocated in Feb from it’s previous home within the Royal and Derngate theatre, the new site is something of a sea change in the sense that it allows Head Chef Sam Squires’ stunning cuisine to be the star of the show, rather than a pre-theatre afterthought. It’s destination dining and what a destination.
Close to the centre of Northampton, Delapré Abbey dates back 900 years, with history emanating from every wall, from rebellious Cluniac nuns and gruesome battles in the Wars of the Roses to being requisitioned by the War Office in WWII and later used as a Public Records Office. More recently, the abbey has undergone an £8m refurbishment before opening to the public in 2018.
Hibiscus is one of a rather impressive portfolio of hospitality businesses with entrepreneur Tom Hewer at the helm, which also includes The Griffin’s Head in Mears Ashby, The Artizan and John Franklin’s, but this is certainly the swankiest of the bunch, not just in terms of it’s spectacular setting, but also through the culinary magic served up by Sam and his dedicated team. Sam’s provenance is rather impressive, having started his career at the Ritz in London where he worked his way up from Commis Chef at just 17 to Chef de Partie at 24 before leaving to work under a three Michelin starred chef aboard cruise ships. So there is a refreshingly fancy vibe here that necessitates getting a bit dressed up, which is something that can be a bit lacking elsewhere in Northampton.
By day, the rooms here are used by the Orangery Cafe, which is a slick but much more casual lunch spot and afternoon tea destination, but on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings they are transformed into this sumptuous dining space, which sets the stage for reams of artistically presented dishes.
“Would madame care for the 7 or the 10 course tasting menu?” I paraphrase, but this is more or less what the fabulously knowledgeable restaurant manager Elliot asked when we booked our table, and it was at this moment I knew I would be needing to arm myself with a chic smock dress to allow some extra room for expansion. Of course, I wanted a nice round 10, but I was slightly worried my review would turn in to a list of food, rather than anything very meaningful, so we opted for a mere 7 courses with wine pairings.
We kick off with a glass of Ultimate Provence AOP Cotes de Provence 2019 rosé wine to accompany soft, warm brioche buns with a choice of onion butter or salted butter. I always know it will be a mistake for me to start a meal with bread, my absolute downfall, but I simply cannot resist shovelling it excitedly in and it’s worth it. I tell myself that the 7 courses will be small, so I need not worry. Who am I trying to kid?
A rich and tangy mango, tomato and coriander curry is served with posh popadoms and and a cup of chilled Enter Junmai Ginjo sake, which is an unexpectedly delightful pairing. Never having had this combination of Indian flavours with Japanese sake before, it was a tastebud tingling way to set off on a culinary adventure, and I did wonder how on earth the kitchen would be able to follow it up with anything as flamboyant.
I needn’t have worried. Next up, a deeply rich celeriac dish with truffle, leek and mustard is served with an elegant Austrian Weingnut Nittnaus Kalk and Schiefer Blaufrankisch 2017. This course is utterly divine with every mouthful as the tiny mustard seeds pop on the tongue and cut through the velvety truffle intensity.
Course number 3 is pigeon with red cabbage, blueberries and rice, paired with a dark and fruity Chilean Garage Wine Lot 82 Co Cabernet Franc 2016. I’m a pescatarian so my plus one gave this one a whirl and Sam rustled me up a fabulous halibut with raisins, cauliflower, caviar and dill and I was pretty blown away by his ability and willingness to produce this incredible dish at no notice. The delicate and refined flavours were nonetheless substantial enough to hold their own as a follow-up to the robust celeriac.
I failed to photograph the cod, which was next on the menu, because I just couldn’t wait to tuck in (and because I got a bit flustered when I forgot to mask-up as I dashed to the loo between courses – don’t worry, Elliot was quick to remind me but, for me, this was the only point during the course of the meal that there was any real sense of anything being dramatically different to normal). This was a really hearty dish served with lentils, mushrooms and pancetta and accompanied by a Huia Single Vineyard Gruner Veltliner 2019. I love New Zealand wines, having spent a year living over there, but this is one I hadn’t tried before and the light floral notes complimented the fish beautifully.
To finish the savoury dishes, Sam prepared duck served with butternut, baby fennel and spiced jus, creating a spectacular veggie plate for me of butternut, fennel and cabbage, which is frankly right up my street. My well-traveled, gourmand plus one raved about the duck, saying it was the best he’d had and the accompanying wine, a classic Chateau Peyrabon Haut Medoc 2006 from Bordeaux, was also a big hit.
Dessert courses were up next and even if they hadn’t tasted like heaven on a plate, they would simply have been beautiful things to look at. Firstly, a sumptuous Baileys dark chocolate is served alongside a glass of sweet Lafage Maury Grenat 2019, which is light and velvety and compliments the chocolate perfectly. Next there’s a quince and almond tart with a spiced sorbet that really blows my mind with it’s vibrant, Christmassy flavours. I have to ask about the spices and am told they include pink pepper and red chilli, it’s delightfully playful and not overpowering. This was served with a glass of Palmer and Co Nectar Reserve NV Champagne, which has quite a zesty, fruity character. I think this one is my favourite dish of the evening and I’m not a massive pudding person; it’s like a firework of flavours. You can’t go far wrong with chocolate as far as I’m concerned, but the quince was an unexpected delight and different to anything I’d had before.
We rounded off the evening with coffees (courtesy of Northants’ finest The Roastery), which were served with cinnamony sweet marshmallows and, as we headed home past the beautifully lit abbey, we were already planning our next visit.
OUT AND ABOUT
Delapré is a twenty minute walk from the centre of Northampton, where St. Giles Street and Derngate in the Cultural Quarter offer some of the town’s best independent shopping, but the beautiful abbey it is an attraction in itself. Take a tour and learn all about it’s varied past and stroll around the walled garden and 500 acres of grounds, which also boast an 18 hole golf course.
Read more about Delapre Abbey here.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: A touch of luxury, something a bit special and sensational cuisine that you will remember for all the right reasons. Hibiscus would make the perfect destination for a low-key family celebration or a romantic dinner for two.
Not for: Rowdy get-togethers would feel a bit out of place here, it’s certainly not stuffy but it’s somewhat reserved. Not a great place for toddlers and young children either, especially considering the price tag.
7 course tasting menu £65 a head or £115 with 8 course wine flight.
10 course tasting menu £95 a head or £145 with 8 course wine flight.
Hibiscus Fine Dining, Delapré Abbey, London Road, Northampton, NN4 8AW. Tel: 01604 760817