Claude and Claire Bosi closed their two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Ludlow and reopened in London in October. Joanna Wood charts their arrival in the capital
In the time-honoured tradition of restaurant openings, Claude and Claire Bosi were pushed to the wire in the lead-up to the launch of their gleaming new reincarnation of Hibiscus, the two-Michelin-starred temple of gastronomy that put them on the restaurateuring map.
Although their move from Ludlow, Shropshire, to London's Mayfair took a total of 14 months from making the decision to door opening, the final countdown was condensed into a matter of nail-biting "will it or won't it be ready?" hours.
Claude's kitchen "went live" a mere five days before the first of two friends-and-family services, and Claire's front-of-house team got the run of the dining room only on the day of the initial soft service. Paying customers came in just two days later.
"We literally had the place given to us at midday by the builders and we were doing a service at 7pm," recalls Claire, with a grimace.
Given the set of circumstances, it must have been a relief that most of the mechanical gadgetry in the restaurant worked without a hitch. However, there were two minor problems: the air conditioning and the electric sliding doors that separate Hibiscus's kitchen from its dining room.
"The doors decided they were going to slice people in half as they went through them, and the air conditioning was too powerful at first - it was either the Sahara or Siberia," recalls Claire.
With so little time to bed the staff in before the paying public poured through the doors, it was no surprise that the first few days of trading were a pressurised time for the Bosis and their staff. And the punters did pour through from the word go. Evenings are fully booked and lunches are heavily subscribed right through until Christmas.
The great and the good
The stress levels were hitched up a notch or two by the fact that the great and the good of the restaurant reviewing world stampeded through Hibiscus's doors as soon as they swung open.
"People did warn us, but I never really expected so many journalists to turn up so quickly," says Claire. "We got hit straight away. We had seven journalists in between lunch on our first opening day and dinner on our second day. Actually, it was really, really humorous. I'd be pouring one journalist's water out, then turn around and see another one, then another one, at adjoining tables. It was ridiculous."
"You'd think that they would have given us half a week," chips in Claude. "Don't get me wrong, I'm very glad of it - we're very proud that they wanted to come, but it would have been good to have had a week first."
It has to be said that the Bosis are, perhaps, the only people in the industry who didn't anticipate the intensity of media interest that surrounded their opening. After all, it's not every day that a two-Michelin-starred restaurant moves into London from the provinces. Usually, it's the other way round.
So what did the reviewers make of the London Hibiscus? On the whole, the reaction has been positive, although not unanimously so. Some critics talked about the delay in service others felt that the opening price of £49.50 for three courses on the à la carte was steep, although Charles Campion was one of the few who considered it fairly pitched in terms of charging.
Among those who zeroed in on the service delays were the London Evening Standard's influential Fay Maschler and the Daily Telegraph's Mark Palmer. The latter didn't like the food, either, and gave the restaurant a low rating of five out of 10. Maschler, also, didn't go overboard in praising Claude's food - she liked some dishes but was underwhelmed by others - and suggested that the Bosis would have done better to have lowered their menu pricing for the initial preview period - at least until the opening service gremlins had been sorted out.
Other restaurants have successfully done this in the past, but Claire and Claude argue that, in real terms, they were already offering a preview pricing rate because the three-course cost of £49.50 was the same as they had previously charged in Ludlow six months earlier.
"We're the cheapest two-star in Europe," contends Claude. "And it's not as if Hibiscus is a new restaurant. We've got the same menu as we had in Ludlow, pretty much, it's just that we're on a different site. Fay didn't like some of the food - that's fair enough - but the food would have been the same whenever she came in.
"I understand if critics don't like the food, but what I find difficult to understand is when they accept that its quality is right and they still give us a low score. If you read Mark Palmer's review, he doesn't say the food's badly cooked he seems to have marked us low because he didn't like it. The food wasn't to AA Gill's taste, but he recognised the work that was put into it and gave us four stars out of five."
Luckily for the Bosis, Maschler, Gill and Palmer's less-than-glowing reviews were in the minority. The positive corner included Giles Coren of the Times ("already very good indeed"), the Observer's Jay Rayner ("welcome to London, Hibiscus. We're sure you're going to run and run"), the Independent on Sunday's Terry Durack ("Bosi is an effortless cook. This is a small, fully-formed restaurant of great charm"), the Daily Telegraph's blogging critic, Jan Moir ("Hibiscus is chic and rather fabulous") and Time Out's Guy Dimond, who pronounced Hibiscus to be "an epicurean restaurant that takes a very serious interest in flavour, texture, appearance and ingredient quality without being completely up itself" and proceeded to bestow a maximum six-star rating on the Bosis' dining room.
Somewhat surprisingly, one dish that has really lit these critics' fires is a suckling pig "in two services", the second instalment of which is a perfectly formed, entirely English sausage roll. Rayner dubbed it "a colossus among sausage rolls", adding: "The pastry was so buttery I heard my heart making an appointment with the cardiologist in the morning. Inside was not the standard pork mush, but something gently spiced with real texture. With it came a slick of dark sauce, a rush of savouriness that made the blessed roll so much bigger than itself."
"Everybody's asking for it," laughs Claire, "and it was all our daughter Paige's idea... she was eating one in the car and Claude just said, 'That's it, I'm going to put that on.'"
It just goes to show that out of the mouths of babes can come the best money-making culinary ideas.
The story so far
After selling the Ludlow, Shropshire, site of their two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Hibiscus, in April, Claude and Claire Bosi spent the summer months gearing up towards relaunching it in London in the autumn.
Frustrating niggles with planning permission and licensing meant that opening night was put back twice, but the restaurant finally opened its doors on 24 October in London's exclusive Mayfair district. In the month that followed, restaurant reviews came thick and fast - some good, others less so.