REVIEW: Hutong at the Shard

 
Steve Dinneen
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RESTAURANT
33rd Floor, The Shard Tel: 020 7478 0540
FOOD Three stars
VALUE Two stars
ATMOSPHERE Three stars
Cost for two with wine and cocktails: £150

A restaurant up a skyscraper! Ha! Only tourists eat in those. Or idiots. Or both. And Hutong isn’t a restaurant in just any skyscraper – it’s in THAT skyscraper; the one you’re not supposed to like, because, you know, weird pointy bits and oil money.

Well I like the Shard. I like that someone thought: let’s build a massive spike on top of London Bridge station. I like its simplicity and I don’t care who paid for it.

Hutong isn’t at the top of the Shard; it’s just under half way up, on the 33rd floor, which means the view isn’t quite as spectacular as the one from Heron Tower’s Duck & Waffle, which is on the 40th floor. On the other hand, the food in Duck & Waffle isn’t very good and the food in Hutong is pretty decent.

“Hutongs” are narrow alleys, usually associated with Beijing, which lead to houses built around courtyards. Hutong the restaurant has about as much in common with hutong the method of city planning as the Fat Duck has in common with an overweight mallard. Hutongs are crumbling, higgledy-piggledy, impractical and beautiful. Hutong is polished, expensive and brash; more Chinese-themed than Chinese. But what do you expect – it’s half way up the Shard – it’s hardly going to be some little family-run place, is it?

The original Hutong restaurant is up a skyscraper in Hong Kong. It specialises in Sichuan cooking, with an emphasis on dishes that blow your socks off with ma-la (a paste largely consisting of Sichuan peppercorns), which numbs your mouth in a way we’re not used to in the West.

I spent a few weeks trekking about China last year and ate a shed load of the stuff, often by accident. In fact, it is responsible for one of my worst ever culinary experiences. I was visiting a tiny temple hours from anywhere in a region where people live in houses carved directly into sandstone hills. I had a stinking hangover after a night drinking a rice spirit called baiju, during which we had been snacking on flat noodle parcels filled with ma-la. Barely holding it together I was invited into one of the cave houses for some tea, only for the host to rustle up more ma-la, which I had to smile and eat, all the while thinking being dead would be a better option.

On that front, Hutong didn’t have that much to beat. I was meeting El Pye for dinner. At least I was supposed to be. I got there on time. She turned up about an hour and a half late. This gave me plenty of time to sit and watch the sun set and drink cocktails. There is something melancholy about watching a city from above. There is something even more melancholy about watching a city from above and wondering if you’ve been stood up.

The front of house staff were sympathetic for about 10 minutes, after which their attitude turned to outright suspicion. At one point they even did that thing where you go “don’t look now, but that guy at the window…” It wasn’t my sodding fault I was sitting alone in a restaurant. Blame El Pye, she was the one who was late. I upheld my side of the bargain. I’m starting to think she’s playing a game of restaurant chicken, seeing how late she can turn up before I stop inviting her.

Anyway, the cocktails were bloody good. I had the comfortably numb, which is a pretty miserable song to name a cocktail after, given that it is about a guy being medicated following a mental breakdown over the collapse of his marriage. It was from the section of the drinks menu featuring beverages based around ingredients used in Chinese medicine. The comfortably numb was supposed to help my spleen, which it may or may not have done – I have no idea about the health of my spleen.

Hutong’s clientele is rich, in a louche way. The guy at the table next to me was wearing a purple satin shirt and a pair of iridescent boots, and most of the women looked like extras from Made in Chelsea, which is what you expect in a restaurant up a skyscraper. Thank god; all is right in the world.

Finally El Pye arrived, blahing on about some blah or blah that made her 90 minutes late. By this stage I was so hungry that I could have eaten just about anything.

We got a decent table by the window and I was grudgingly impressed by the view and she spent the night taking pictures on her iPhone. The cuttlefish arrived as the last of the daylight disappeared. It comes cold, smeared with ma-la. It was alright but the bed of greenery it came on was excessive. The dim sum was much better – light and moist.

The red lantern soft shell crab is impressive. It comes served in a giant wooden... well, lantern (the clue is in the name). The lantern is filled with dried chillies, from which you pluck the crab, tombola style. The meat was delicious: crispy, full of flavour and only ever-so-slightly too greasy. The monkfish with Chinkiang vinegar and pickled chilli was packed with large, succulent hunks of flesh but was a little over-powered by the black bean-heavy sauce.

It’s no offence to the other dishes that the best thing I ate all night was the side of beans. What a plate of beans. I asked the manager how you can make beans taste so good: deep fry them for two seconds before pan-frying with pork, garlic, shallots and shrimp. “We cook it properly,” the manager said. “Other restaurants are lazy.” So there you go.

Sure, Hutong is a bit gauche, and a bit pricey, but you get a nice view and the crab is delicious. It’s a good place for a date, so long as the other person turns up.