This week, Claude and Claire Bosi relocate their celebrated Hibiscus restaurant from Ludlow to London. Joanna Wood introduces our new Adopted Business and asks, are they really ready for opening?
The kitchen is covered in a thick film of plaster and cement dust. In one, very small, corner is a swathe of vertical red (like a VIP red carpet, only from ceiling to floor) in front of which stand two people posing for a photographer's lens. They're not totally at ease - they're restaurateurs, not models - and there are a few jokes flying between them.
"Claire's divorced me twice this morning," grins Claude Bosi, back-referencing in one succinct sentence to a less-than-smooth drive into London from their new home in Beacons-field, Buckinghamshire. "It would have taken 25 minutes on the train - not one-and-a-half hours," counters his wife.
Despite this exchange, the couple are, actually, pretty relaxed - a minor miracle, considering they're just a week away from launching the brand new version of their award-winning restaurant Hibiscus and the place is still buzzing with the sound of drills. Everywhere you look there are builders and decorators white-washing walls, soldering bits of metal.
Aren't they, I ask, at all worried that come launch night on 24 October, things won't quite be ready? "I did walk in yesterday and think ‘oh ' but I'm trusting the builders completely - they've done restaurants before and they say it's going to be finished," says Claire with a beaming smile.
She hasn't always been so serene, she concedes, since she and Claude sold the site of the original Hibiscus in Ludlow back in April. The Shropshire restaurant was a much-loved baby, a business they'd owned for seven years and which had netted two Michelin stars for Claude's innovative cooking. They had a very loyal local clientele, so the decision to close its doors and leave the Welsh Marches for the Big Smoke wasn't taken lightly - or quickly.
"We thought about moving before getting the second star, then when we got the star, it just didn't feel the right time to leave," says Claude, revealing that it was attending the Cateys last year that finally prompted them to take positive action on their back-burning idea. "We were walking through the streets after the dinner and just said, ‘we should do it now, before it's too late'," he recalls.
Tittle-tattlers in the industry, of course, would have it that their move out of Ludlow is fuelled as much by financial necessity as by a desire to progress their restaurateuring careers, but the duo categorically deny this. Staffing hasn't always been easy, they admit, but cash-flow was never an issue. "I'm sure we'll find we were making more money in Ludlow than we will be in London. We could have stayed there, but we wanted to move the restaurant forward and there was no more we could really do with the Ludlow site," says Claude.
Moving from the provinces into the urban metropolis of the UK's capital city, as the Bosis are very well aware, is a big gamble. The dining public have a multitude of first-class restaurants to choose from, and Claude is not a household name despite his undoubted culinary skills. His lack of renown outside hardcore foodies is partly because he hasn't clocked up TV appearances, but is also attributable to the paucity of national critics who have eaten at and written about Hibiscus.
During its seven-year Ludlow existence, says Claude, the restaurant was visited only by the Telegraph's then restaurant reviewer Jan Moir, and the Guardian's food editor Matthew Fort. Yet there's no doubt that the restaurant critics will be checking out the London incarnation of Hibiscus. "I'm scared the expectation is too high - I don't know if people are going to like what we're doing," confesses Claude.
He doesn't need to worry, so long as he and Claire continue to operate in the same way as they have done in Ludlow - and the indications are that they will. Wisely, they've resisted the temptation to change the direction and character of their business. They're opening with a menu that has a backbone of tried-and-tested Ludlow dishes - about 75% - and are keeping design links with the Shropshire Hibiscus.
There's a reference back to Ludlow's old wooden panelling, for instance, in the light oak sheets that will line part of the London interior: the panelling's lines are contemporary and streamlined, but it's a nice touch. And the London restaurant's 16-seat private dining room will showcase the same artwork that adorned the Ludlow walls. "I always had a clear idea of what I wanted and David Davies [of Davies & Baron, the restaurant's designer] came up to Ludlow to the old Hibiscus to have a look and get a feel for it," explains Claire. "I didn't want dark, corporate colours, or heavy leather all over the place. We're coming from the countryside and you can't get away from the fact that Claude's cooking is very seasonal, so I wanted to bring natural, neutral colours into the design. The carpet's a mossy green - sounds horrible, doesn't it, but I promise you it isn't."
There are other strong links with Ludlow and Shropshire. Teapots, trays and bread-baskets are all being made for the Bosis by artisans working in the town, and Claude is sourcing rose veal, pork, smoked olive oil and much of his other produce from the Welsh Marches. Even more importantly, most of their Ludlow staff have transferred down to London with them. "We wouldn't be moving without them," stresses Claire. "You can't get a bigger compliment than having your staff want to come with you. They're the biggest support we have. We'd be in a mess without them."
There are other, personal, ties with their former base. The duo still own a pub, the Bell Inn at Yarpole, just five miles from Ludlow which Claude's brother Cedric manages for them, and they're keeping hold of their house for weekend visits, preferring to rent accommodation for themselves and their two-year-old daughter Paige in Beaconsfield. In addition, Ludlow provided the key to joining up with the couple's new business backers, one of whom was a regular customer even though he was based in London. He, in turn, brought on board two more City backers. Without them, the Bosis wouldn't have been able to fund Hibiscus's expensive move to the capital, because despite gaining nearly £250,000 from the sale of the Ludlow premises the new venture is clocking in at about £1m. It sounds a lot, but that's pretty much the norm when setting up from scratch in London these days.
Given the financial outlay being pumped into the move to London, it's admirable that the Bosis have kept faith with their Shropshire menu-pricing - three courses, lunch and dinner, from the full menu will still be offered at £49.50. It's not a snip, certainly, but the cost of a similar meal at any of London's current two-Michelin-starred restaurants is likely to hit £80 or more.
There's no doubt the Bosis' insistence on keeping a continuity with Ludlow will help to give their new restaurant a different feel to its competitors - be it in decor, pricing or style of food. However, the most singular difference between them and many other operations in the capital will be the fact that it will be a family-owned business, and it's that personal touch which could well prove to be their most valuable asset.
The story so far
Claude and Claire Bosi put their two-Michelin-starred Ludlow restaurant, Hibiscus, up for sale in August 2006, having decided to relocate in London. They sold the premises to chef Alan Murchison in April this year, then spent the summer gearing up to reopening Hibiscus on a new-build site in London's Mayfair.
The London premises had been found in the autumn of 2006, but niggles with planning permission and licensing meant the deal didn't fully complete until August. Opening was originally planned for the end of August, but building delays resulted in the new London Hibiscus finally opening its doors last night (24 October).
- What is it? A 45-seat restaurant on a new-build site, with an 18-seat private dining room and a 700-bin wine list
- Where? 29 Maddox Street, London W1
- Proprietors Claire and Claude Bosi
- Cost "around" £1m for site, and kitting out restaurant
- Funding from sale of Ludlow site (£247,000), the Bosis' savings and three backers, all City businessmen
- Site lease 25 years
- Opening times Monday-Friday lunch and dinner, closed at weekends
- Pricing £49.50 for three courses (lunch/dinner) à la carte, £25 for three courses for shorter lunch menu
- Key personnel Head chef Marcus McGuinness front of house Simon Freeman, Natalie Hadley
£49.50 for three courses, lunch and dinner
- Savoury ice-cream of foie gras, warm emulsion of brioche, balsamic caramel, fine beetroot and and orange tart, iced feta, Isle of Skye herbs
- Carpaccio of sea bream, black radish and truffle, almond oil and autumn truffle vinaigrette
- Confit of line-caught mackerel, salad of young carrots, escabeche of rabbit, Morteaux sausage jus
- Ravioli of langoustines, onion and cinnamon, Granny Smith salad (supplement £5)
- Elwy Valley lamb's brain, wild watercress salad, native oyster dressing
- Grilled rack of Shropshire rose veal, fricassée of old variety root vegetables, parsley root and cumin purée, fresh goats' cheese
- Choux farci of Welsh lamb, foie gras and apricot, anchovy and apricot jus, Jerusalem artichoke purée
- Herefordshire suckling pig in two services: roasted with Irish sea urchin, kohlrabi and fondant sweet potato then in a warm sausage roll, autumn salad, truffle dressing
- Roast Mortimer Forest venison, smoked chocolate, Savoy cabbage purée, confit of pear in red wine
- Sea bass stuffed with wild mushrooms, creamed chestnut, cardamom oil
- Organic salmon cooked in olive oil, caramelised pig's head terrine, barigoule sauce, eucalyptus milk
- Tarte au chocolat, Indonesian basil ice-cream
- Warm sabayon tart of Clun Valley whimberries, Earl Grey tea ice-cream
- Cinnamon millefeuilles, dried fig ice-cream, crushed figs
- Iced sweet olive oil parfait, caramelised chickpeas, date purée