Penda had been looking forward to this. A promise of an up-market dining experience in Northampton for less than £30 a head? Yes please.
Hibiscus is tucked away upstairs in Royal & Derngate’s building, in the former Crown Room, a secret hideaway where journos used to interview the stars. Now it’s a 30-cover dining room with a silvery grey colour scheme and proper table linen. Your place is set with an envelope containing the menu – either a several course taster menu for £45 a head or, our choice, an a la carte of starter, main and dessert for £29.50 a head, which is extraordinary value. The choices change frequently.
A minor issue here – Penda can’t have vinegar as it can trigger a swollen gob, and the starters all had a whiff of acetic acid about them. The waitress seemed quite unsure of the ingredients so I took a chance on Aged Beef Tartar, with mushroom ketchup, quails’s egg (perfectly cooked with a runny yolk) and sourdough croute. Penda’s friend chose Goat’s Cheese Mousse, with beetroot carpaccio, mushrooms al la grecque and truffle honey vinaigrette, delicious and exquisitely presented.
Before our starters arrived we were brought an unexpected ‘amuse bouche’: a tiny bowl of soup – or rather butternut squash veloute with parmesan and chives, and homemade roll with lemony butter. Utterly delicious.
For mains we both had Gloucester pot roasted belly pork, with mustard pommes puree, grilled spring onion, apple, crackling and black pudding and fennel granola (main picture). There were two other options – a cod dish or gnocchi and mushroom fricassee. The wine list, much like the menu, isn’t over-long and we enjoyed an Italian pinot grigio for an astonishingly reasonable £18.50 (mark-up on wine in high-end restaurants is often horrendous).
Desserts, again, were beautifully presented, a 70% dark chocolate mousse with orange, and a burnt Cambridge cream with textures of rhubarb, ginger and a raspberry sorbet. It wasn’t ‘burnt’ until it came to the table to be set alight by a waitress. The flavours were sublime – I found myself dipping a pinky finger in each tiny blob of sauce to get the intense flavours.
We had a couple of coffees and whiskeys to finish, bringing the total bill with drinks (plus the complimentary soup and some wonderful chocolates with coffee) in at ten pence shy of £100. Very reasonable, when you consider the quality and quantity.
However, a few observations for the management: the service wasn’t absolutely perfect. The chap who greeted and sat us offered water but didn’t bring it. One of the coffees was meant to be decaffeinated but the waitress wasn’t sure which one and wasn’t that bothered about checking. Our whiskeys arrived with ice, which didn’t matter to us, but they shouldn’t they have asked? We had to move a large candle holder that dripped profusely and were not keen on the plasticy coffee mugs. But now we’re really being picky.
All that is fixable and this was a really excellent meal and worth a highly recommended tag. An early booking is recommended if you’re going before a theatre show, and staff do ask on arrival if you’re doing so.
Hibiscus is open Wednesday to Saturday evenings with some Sunday openings planned in December. Booking through their website hibiscusfinedining.co.uk is advised and I really recommend you go: we needed something like this and will certainly be going again. Bravo!
By NQ Penda