What is Hibiscus, anyway? Why is this restaurant so marinated in hype? Is it the special effects? Partly. In the beginning there were those black headbands with the bright red hibiscus blooms in the center that were worn by the kitchen crew. They were a chic trademark. They created buzz.
Now there are no headbands. "They're all depleted," says Hibiscus chef Nick Badovinus, who is part of the Tristan Simon hospitality combine (Sense, Cuba Libre, Candle Room, Fireside Pies and the upcoming Porch) that is crushing all competitors on Henderson Avenue and seems bent on building a dining trust. "They became the fashion accessory du jour for '05." Sure. In Dallas dining, the trends distill and diffuse with such rapidity the head no longer has time to spin. It simply forms sweat beads.
And Hibiscus is a trend. It's stuffed with 175 seats, and that butt real estate is often in short supply. Though it may seem like just another Dallas prance parlor, there are facets that crack the mold. Sure, local celebs such as Troy Aikman and Stephan Pyles slide into the leather banquettes every now and again. But there are also modestly dressed older couples huddling over small tables. Extended families cram around larger ones. On one visit, a thirty-something guy in specs, khaki shorts and a polo shirt stood near his place setting, bouncing an infant who was delivering a potent screed. On diaper technology. Do these scenes arouse the fickle, trendy flock?
Another question: After the food fetishists and trend-sweaters tire of suckling this chic teat, will there be anything left? Much, perhaps. One of my dining companions said that Badovinus looks like Han Solo. Star Wars pre-dates her by some 18 years. So maybe like the best movies, restaurant durability emerges not from dazzling special effects and buzz, but from good dialogue, like discourse on tomatoes, for instance. "We're always talking about tomatoes," Badovinus says. "They're an issue with us...At least 50 percent of my bitches are tomato-related." Does Badovinus actually pay attention to what comes out of his mouth, or is he this funny on purpose?
If Badovinus is oblivious to what exits his mouth, he most certainly isn't clueless as to what goes in, though sometimes it is overwrought. Take the deep-dish macaroni casserole--comfort food gone speed metal. The all-American elbows are robust and perfectly cooked. The yellow tar locking these elbows is compelling: sharp cheddar, Reggiano Parmigiano, fontina, port-salut, cream cheese and Sonoma dry jack cheeses. Panko bread crumbs and flecks of Reggiano form the crust. Sharpness, sweetness and a rotten fruitiness pound each other for advantage in this exquisite dumb drama.
But here is where American hubris can take a lesson from French pomposity. For example, the sublimity of crème brûlée (the Hibiscus version sings) hinges on the hot, bitter and brittle aggressiveness of singed sugar married to a smooth cool underworld of custard. When the flavors are tight, the textural contrast propels to transcendence. But this mac thing never reaches the next level. The crust isn't chewy enough. The cheesy underworld is more stiff and glutinous than silky and smoothly relenting. Plus it needs a swift kick of cayenne or something to stir it.
The mac highlights a Hibiscus eccentricity: It's named after a showy blossom, but the restaurant is shamelessly masculine--nearly unheard of for a restaurant that doesn't have some combination of "steak" and "house" on the shingle. Hibiscus is dim, but not dark. Crossbeams are blackened steel. The surfaces are stone, wood and copper. The bar top is a trunk slice from a 1,600-year-old California redwood (downed by natural causes), heavily polyurethaned into an impossible sheen. Banquettes are brown leather. Candles the size of brake drums flicker in the fireplace. Threaded pipe fittings serve as napkin rings. You almost expect the place to have lobster bibs stitched together from discarded boxing gloves (lobsters lounge on crushed ice in the open kitchen). Badovinus says the place has broad shoulders, though chest hair is evident, too. Hibiscus squeezes metrosexuality like a ripe pimple, and for this alone it should be revered (you think Han Solo uses cuticle cream?).
Hibiscus has steak, too. Big steak. Even the name hits with a dizzying thud: prime strip "brick." It's an 18-ounce bone-in sirloin hemorrhaging roasted garlic butter. Badovinus contends that steak is easy because cows do all the work. Yet the hard part is finding cows without a French work ethic. Badovinus has found them. He's hired them. He's paying them overtime. This steak is stunning: brilliantly red with a huge flavor bandwidth wrapped in shimmering silk. Bob, Del, Rick, Kirby, Pappas and Smith should be quaking in their boots.
So should the good ship Oceanaire. Badovinus wrestles with the sea as well as any toothless mariner. Sample: barbecue-spiced lobster scampi. Description: "It's really obnoxious. I feel the authorities are going to shut us down at any point in time just for this kind of wanton disregard. It's extremely reckless." That it is. Halved lobster tails are surrounded by a perfect sprawl of orzo fragged in Reggiano Parmigiano grains. They all struggle in thick butter ooze. But this is no ordinary ooze. Badovinus roasts lobster bodies, hacks away the meat (including the green tamale) and purees it into a paste. He whips this paste into compound butter with chamayo chile, garlic, Dijon and white wine. Then he liberally smears the tails with this goop, creating a flavor profile that is vigorously rich, yet lithe.
Then there are the crab cakes, the bane of contemporary dining. Most times, crab cakes seem bred from Underwood deviled spreads and Shake 'n Bake. Hibiscus crab cakes are fantastically minimalist; a blend of backfin lump for texture and Dungeness for creamy sweetness. The cakes are loose and messy, with only chunks and shavings of meat to bind them into shape. The cake part comes from a bronzed coating of Panko bread crumbs blended with crushed Ritz crackers.
Yet a couple of dishes leave the head ripe for a scratch. The much prattled about tuna & foie is one. I've always believed that foie gras--like fine caviar--should be left the hell alone, especially this foie gras. It's flash-seared, leaving a stiff charred crust on the outside sheltering a creamy lushness on the inside. The lobe is brushed with hibiscus/fruit tea-infused honey blended with soy. This creates a subtle floral breeze coiled with a delicate fruity mist, a more appropriate treatment than the extracted and distractingly dense fruit reductions usually paired with foie gras. With foie gras this delicious, why bother with anything but a few greens and a wedge of passion fruit? Not that the coarse-chopped tuna tartare blended with lime juice, soy and sriracha (chile paste) mayo isn't stellar. It is. Yet it's difficult to see how the two relate. These are two completely different shades of richness that talk over each other when forced to converse. The sum is less than its parts--much less.
There are inconsistencies as well. On one visit the osso bucco--brilliantly paired with a blue cheese polenta that stabs with a searing tang--was dry and sticky. On another, the meat was rich and moist. Yet the best part of this dish is the topping: a split shank bone with the exposed marrow smeared with a foie gras gremolata. Skip the veal and just serve a bowl of bones for God's sake. Likewise, the spicy lobster cocktail, with healthy claw chunks soaked in lime, tangerine and OJ and paired with amazing Canton tomatoes and avocado, had barely a peep of citrus. On a second visit, the acids were pumped up, and the dish hummed.
Long-bone pork chop isn't slapping pink. My dining companion even pronounced it overcooked. But it's still an impressive slab with a tender sternness and a cured intensity as chile stabs duke it out with dry rub sweetness. "Pork is a love," Badovinus says. "I'm so down with the hog it's not even funny. I think I ingest pork six different ways seven different days." He says this after admitting he pan-sears fresh-caught salmon in bacon grease. Someone cut his Han Solo hair before he grows Hasidic curls. 2827 N. Henderson Ave., 214-827-2927. Open Monday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. $$$$
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