Restaurant Reviews

Hibiscus May Have Changed Chefs, But Our Opinion About Its Food Remains The Same

The first taste of the baked Dungeness crab dip provoked a moment of quiescence. The silence, short-lived, was followed by ravenous arm wrestling for more. The appetizer dip, served with shards of unleavened bread—think matzo par excellence—was a reward for the tortuous hunt for non-valet parking in the eatery-heavy Knox-Henderson district. Better suited for a party of four or more, the dip was a portent of the meal to come at Hibiscus, an unabashedly New American restaurant. Praise the West and its ability to meld super-sized portions and exquisite tastes! Here was no affected nouvelle shop. Here was American cuisine—with a Pacific bent—and its knack to push boundaries, be they of flavors or waistlines.

Hibiscus is a bastion of protein, illuminated much like a medieval hunting lodge wherein kings and knights, wrapped in animal skins, boasted of battles won and monsters slain, and wolfed blocks of meat with bare hands. The only reminder of the establishment's name was the tall, freshly cut flowers at the back of the raised booths lining the wall opposite the kitchen. Their pink hue added contrast to the browns and ambers framing them. The California redwood bar, bought in 2004, a year before Hibiscus opened with Nick Badovinus at the helm, reinforces the feeling. The bar faces a fireplace warming the crescent-shaped leather banquettes in the front room. In a word: comfortable.

In keeping with serving sizes, the bobwhite quail appetizer, eight prosciutto-wrapped quarters, is generous. The moist meat made up for the occasionally rubbery though wonderfully salty pork belly balanced by the other elements—arugula, Gala apples, cayenne-spiced pecans and a drizzle of sherry vinaigrette.

While the menu changes seasonally, not all product is in season. For example, tomatoes figure in several dishes, from the salads to entrées like the Maine lobster and Kurobuta (Japanese Berkshire pig) pork Milanese. I usually avoid tomatoes from October to June but was curious enough about Hibiscus' iteration of a Caprese salad to take the chance. Made with Gioia burrata (basically mozzarella-stuffed mozzarella) from L.A., the cheese was creamy. The chopped yellow and red tomatoes were juicy and meaty. The minced basil was almost imperceptible in flavor. Still, the miniature portion and lightness were a respite during the weighty meal. The same is true of the lump crab cucumber soup finished with a ring of olive oil.

When fried calamari is on a menu, I advise ordering it. Such a simple dish is an indicator of the kitchen staff's capabilities. This time, though, I eschewed the squid and opted for the daily ceviche. The Hawaiian big eye tuna and Florida rock shrimp mixture was a pyramid held together with an avocado salsa nestled in Bibb lettuce. My fear that the salsa would merely be green water was unfounded. It was indeed delicate. The finish it gave the melting cubed fish and snappy shrimp scooped from the bowl with tortilla chips was a delight that matched almost all the other dishes we sampled.

Another food that can be used as a marker of a chef's skill is asparagus. In season, it is a vegetable oft cooked into a green tire tube. The stalks Hibiscus offers come long and toothsome. Each bite provided an audible crunch.

The lamb osso bucco should be the gold standard for lamb and for osso bucco. The French-boned shank was begging to be held up and heralded by grunts of pleasure. Resting on smooth polenta, thinned by the jus, the lamb was presented with chubby Lilliputian roasted carrots and the gremolata. The meat needed no knife. The slightest pressure of the fork threaded the lamb apart. It was difficult to believe Hibiscus' other offerings could match the commendable lamb. I was wrong.

Like the lamb, the prime strip brick, as the name implies, is a hearty hunk of meat. But it's no heavy slab of muscle tissue. The "brick" is tender, juicy and cooked to the chef's preference—just under medium-rare. When Hibiscus was first reviewed in 2005, the Dallas Observer described it as "an 18-ounce bone-in sirloin hemorrhaging roasted garlic butter." The assessment still stands.

While I found the sole, crusted with Jack cheese and panko, a mild and no-fuss entrée, a relieving counterpoint to the other mammoth platters, one gregarious companion declaimed it nothing more than a marked-up Luby's offering. Fish deserves the simple treatment. Fish meet plate; fish meet mouth; fish meet happy stomach. The only thing fancy about the sole was the milky lemongrass beurre blanc on the side.

The staff encourages cocktails and wine (the latter favoring California wineries), but for craft beer fans there is plenty to quaff—from Chimay to Texas favorite Real Ale Fireman's Four Ale. One look around the restaurant will show that the people dining enjoy all forms of alcohol—though wine is the libation of choice, something enabled by the staff's knowledge of pairings. The only element missing, the one that would have nailed Hibiscus as a 21st century hunting lodge, was mead.

There are two dishes for which Hibiscus is lauded. And they aren't entrées.

The first, a deep-dish mac-and-cheese side, is made with Port Salut, cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano, dried Monterey Jack and fontina. It's gorgeous in presentation. The crispy Parmigiano Reggiano surface was promising. Hibiscus' version of the classic American comfort food is, however, a disaster. A gut bomb soaked in a vermilion pool of oil desperately in need of seasoning.

The other side is the tempura onion rings. The colossal yellow onion rings were hula-hoops that didn't slide out of the crunchy batter when bitten into. The waiter offered ketchup, further highlighting the balance of refinement and relaxation characteristic of Hibiscus. No aioli. No vinaigrette. Just ketchup and five surprisingly light onion rings, which didn't need ketchup.

I appreciate the presence of sauces on many of the plates. What is fine dining without the play of mother sauces? The blending and juxtaposition of classical and rustic elements is often smoothed with a refined sauce, and sauces applied adeptly mask errors. Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of sauces at New American restaurants perhaps has much to do with condiment-obsessed Americans. What are onion rings without ketchup? But much of the fare was flavorful enough without complements.

The dining room was sparsely seated on our initial visit. During a subsequent visit, the restaurant's main room had all of its tables occupied. My companion and I hadn't noticed that until dessert, when we finished shifting our attention between the exquisite meal and our discussion. Hibiscus is much like a hall of warriors, yes, with one exception. The full house didn't result in a din.

A slow pace is the only way to make it to dessert. The gingersnap crust cheesecakes with raspberries and white chocolate as well as the sour-cream apple pie with walnut crumble and lavender vanilla bean ice cream are rich but easy enough on the senses to prevent post-meal lethargy.

Clearly, executive chef Garreth Dickey (formerly of myriad Dallas restaurants, among them Jeroboam, Tucker, The Porch) replacing original chef Badovinus (now at Neighborhood Services Tavern) hasn't hurt Hibiscus.

Some balk at the food's price points. Worry not. You get what you pay for. And what you pay for is worth the price.

Hibiscus 2827 N. Henderson Ave., 214-827-2927. Open Monday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. $$$$
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José Ralat Maldonado