17 Bruton Street, W1J 6QB
Tel: 020 7907 1888, www.hakkasan.com
Cost per person without wine: £55
LAST week I gained half a stone. It all started (relatively) modestly with a couple of (gastro) pub meals. And it ended modestly: eating a cheeseburger and chips while standing up at the crowded, faintly sticky Market Tavern in Shepherd’s Market on Friday.
It’s the in between bit, though, that I’m going to dwell on. The bit that involved very high-class Chinese food, swanky cocktails involving yuzu and puddings in textures I’ve never encountered.
To prepare myself for the new Hakkasan, I had to go to the old one. Obviously. The old one, on Hanway Street, is a dark, throbbing nest of cool, with lots of dark wood in faintly Chinese designs and lots of cool media people celebrating various contracts.
The new one is pretty much the same, only with hedge funders celebrating. The bar is a bit different (bigger); there’s an upstairs and a downstairs, too, and some of the special dishes (ones you have to pre-order and cost over £200) are different.
The point is: the second you enter Hakkasan, you enter the world standard of global “in-ness” – where Russian supermodels, Hollywood A-listers, City boys done very good and media tycoons look as natural as fish in a pond. London, as a friend from New York is always pointing out to me, tends to be a little more relaxed, more scruffy, less het up about looking the part than her city, or indeed LA, Hong Kong and Dubai.
Well, if you’re feeling like a scruffy Londoner, don’t go to Hakkasan Mayfair. But if you’re feeling like a super-cool citizen of the world, with a hankering for good cocktails, delicious food and a setting that says: “I’ve made it on as many levels as you care to name”, then do go.
Being a fan of jeans and hoodies, I dwelled on the food. Now, here comes a tidbit of truth that – no doubt – won’t cause too much of a stir. Despite being a “Chinese” restaurant, the food isn’t strictly Chinese. It’s based on Chinese staples, but veers off very sharply at many points.
I only know this because I went to Hakkasan with a Chinese friend. She laughed at the inclusion of “jasmine foam”, champagne marinade, and beef in merlot sauce (merlot sauce she could not get over) and mused on what her grandparents in Peking would have said.
GOES WELL WITH RICE
She laughed, I chuckled, but we stopped when the food arrived and our mouths began to grapple with the array of fried parcels (not un-Chinese, in fact; just less so when foie gras is inserted), laquered meat and aromatic fish. The main requirement for Chinese food is “xia fan” which means, poorly translated, “goes well with rice” – no complaints there. And, as my friend admitted, Hakkasan delivered well on the sixth taste, umami, which is a particularly delicious type of savouriness and a crucial part of Chinese cooking. She also enjoyed her glutinous rice and gave it the “authentic” stamp of approval.
There is no dim sum at night (apart from a rather limited “platter” in the “small eat” section), and I was sad to forgo this enormous category. Somehow moving on from this sadness, though, we ordered the crispy duck salad with pomelo, pine nuts and shallots – an elegant dish of clover-like greens which the waiter tosses and further shreds at your table – and sesame prawn toast with foie gras. The latter was undistinguished – wonderfully decadent, of course, but heavy in the way that a takeaway might be. The salad was gorgeous to look at and very nice to eat. I also recommend the pumpkin tofu puffs – lovely light, orange cubes tossed in a fluffy mound. The tea-smoked pork ribs (ordered at Hanway Place) should delight, too.
For mains we opted for a Chinese classic: pepper beef. Only ours came with the aforementioned merlot sauce, served in a nest of prawn cracker. At first I found it a tiresome rendition of a dish you get in every takeaway in the country – the beef too chewy, the sauce a kind of mask. But as I persevered, its aromas and umami unfurled, the meat softened and it became a wonderful dish, the merlot giving it a touch of the European winter warming stew.
Fish at Hakkasan is utterly mind-blowing. At Hanway Place I had the roast silver cod in Chinese honey and champagne, and it was like eating fish in a kind of posset; the sauce rich and gel-like and completely delicious. In Mayfair we had the stir-fry Chilean seabass with Szechuan pepper, sweet basil and spring onion and it felt like another version of the silver cod, which in itself is related to Nobu’s famous black cod. Genius.
About dessert, I’ll just say: skip it. It’s horrid. Judging from the small waistlines of most of the diners, I assume most people do that anyway.
For a fancy schmancy place, portions at Hakkasan are generous, making its prices not unreasonable – although the wine is very steep. But the bottom line is this: don’t come here if you’re pinching pennies. It wouldn’t feel – or more importantly look right – would it now?