Sinfully Delicious

Hibiscus executive chef Nick Badovinus steps into the upscale spotlight with bold flavors served in sensuous surroundings.

 

 

My car came to a stop at Henderson Avenue and Central Expressway, just down the street from the restaurant. I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath, lost in post-coital—oops, I mean postprandial—bliss.

The floral scent of lavender danced across my memory, changing partners at whim. A spirited jeté entrelacé of warm, cinnamon-coated apples was followed by the seductive embrace of rich vanilla and sweet cold cream. Then the harsh honk of an impatient driver knocked me back to reality. The light was green, and it was time to move on.

“Great food is like great sex—the more you have, the more you want.” That’s what famous restaurant critic Gael Greene once said, and now I know what she meant. A meal at Hibiscus is as arousing, comfortable, sensual, and satisfying as sex.

Minutes before, I’d been scraping the bottom of a dessert plate at the tony California-tinged spot brought to you by Consilient Restaurant founder and CEO Tristan Simon and rising star chef/partner Nick Badovinus. The lingering memory of the meal made me want to turn back and eat it all over again.

Badovinus and Simon (who opened Hibiscus in the same block as their successful ventures Cuba Libre, Sense, Candle Room, and Fireside Pies) have become inseparable. They are locked in a daily, obsessive dialogue about food, wine, design, concepts, and “looking into the soul” of their customers. Both are passionate and probing, and like Masters and Johnson, the duo psychoanalyzes their customers, looking for their gustatory G-spot.

The sour cream apple pie served with vanilla lavender ice cream obviously hit mine. But it’s not just pastry chef Dawn Thomas’ sweet stuff that seduces. The top-selling sea bass is driving diners wild. That’s where I differed from the throbbing crowds. To me, sea bass, the new chicken, isn’t sexy anymore. I found Badovinus’ version—crab-crusted and bathed in a warm roasted yellow tomato cioppino—overwhelmingly salty and mushy. Conversely, after cutting into the burnished lemon chicken, my senses were inflamed by the scent of oak and hickory, and the delicate meat of the lowly bird thrilled my mouth like a hot, juicy kiss.

The menu reads like a food lover’s fantasy. Badovinus’ creations are not overly tricked up, and he offers diners plenty of pleasurable choices. Still, like most restaurants right now, meat takes center stage. Fresh sea salt glistening on the slightly charred surface intensified the flavor of a prime flatiron steak, cooked medium rare. T. Boone’s Tenderloin & Tomato, named after Consilient investor T. Boone Pickens, was a delightful layering of seared tenderloin, fresh tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil spiked with the creamy tang of Point Reyes blue cheese.

Speaking of cheese, baked Dungeness crab dip is served in a buttery cream sauce thickened with Reggiano. The deep-dish side of mac and cheese is sinful: pasta protrudes from a quagmire of hot, gurgling aged cheddar, Dry Sonoma Jack, Parmigiano-Reggiano, cream cheese, Port-Salut, and fontina. The massive portion—enough for eight—was (almost) overwhelming, a sight not unusual in a classic steakhouse, but a bit jarring in an upscale dining room.

But sharing, interacting with your tablemates, is exactly what Badovinus and Simon encourage. The relatively straightforward, homey food is designed not as me dishes but as we dishes. Servers suggest sharing salads and “for the table” sides, which is fine if your party is enamored with the same choice. Luckily all four of us feasted happily on the bungalow salad: crunchy chopped iceberg tossed with tomato, avocado, apple-smoked bacon, candied pecans, and crumbled blue cheese and lightly coated with a mustard vinaigrette.

Another evening we tried the rocket salad and found the bitter arugula contrasted beautifully with the sharp taste of red onion and sweet red pear tomatoes. Not much sharing there—more like a battle of forks.

The interior of Hibiscus, like the food, is designed to emanate quality and durability. The restaurant, in a 75-year-old building with an A-frame ceiling, with exposed planks and oversized iron trusses, is enriched by reclaimed wood and chopped moss stone. There are three rooms, each with its own vibe. The warm and rustic lounge area is highlighted by a redwood bar. But not just any redwood—Simon bought a 1,600-year-old tree in Mendocino, shipped it to Dallas, and had it milled into a bar top. The main dining room is more traditional. Deep booths covered in brown leather rest against walls finished in white sand stucco. Modern touches, like the copper-trimmed exhibition kitchen, provide some flash. Lit by an overhead skylight, the back room has the indoor/outdoor feel of a verandah. All the spaces blend together seamlessly to create serenity—an atmosphere seldom found in trendy restaurants.

The wine list is definitively American, predominately West Coast, and priced reasonably with an across-the-board 50 percent mark-up. Servers are well-trained and eager to interact, perhaps prompted by Badovinus’ menu writing. How can you help but open up a conversation with your server when you have to ask what “broken balsamic vinaigrette” means?

Gael Greene is right: great food is like great sex. But we all know there are varying degrees of greatness. Dining at Hibiscus is not about falling in love—it’s not a giddy, dizzy, what-shallwear, when-will-he-call rush of nervous lust. There’s no performance anxiety. This is a comfortable romance, a love affair with someone you know will want you back. 2927 N. Henderson Ave. 214-827-2927. $$$.

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