Jon and I ate at Alan Yau’s Hakkasan yesterday night. I tried to come up with some kind of American restauranteur analogy (“Alan Yau is the Danny Meyer of London”), but no analogy is quite right. The guy started the big London noodle soup chain, Wagamama, where you sit at long, sleek communal tables and slurp up big bowls of Japanese udon noodle soup on the cheap. And then, building on the success of Wagamama (whose soups are so-so, if you ask me, but whose Tower of London location is definitely the most scenic of the bunch), he launched Hakkasan, which serves high-quality Chinese food in a beautiful, glam dining room.
Hakkasan, by the way, has a Michelin star, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but when the Frenchies give a star to a non-French restaurant, it’s worth checking out, no? That’s what we figured, anyway, and we were craving Chinese food.
The restaurant is just off busy Tottenham Court Road, in a scary-looking alley called Hanway Place. Despite the dingy darkness (the rain didn’t help, either) and the sense that this alley couldn’t possibly be where Hakkasan is, the big guys in black guarding a small doorway (or maybe the lone silver Mercedes that squeezed its way into the alley) marked the spot. Finding Hakkasan is like finding a cool club. Alan Yau is a marketing genius, for sure. The bouncer-looking guy at the door even asks you if you have a reservation, and then he checks a list to “make sure” you have one. I assume he’s just for show because given how gorgeous the restaurant bar is, there must be tons of people who come by for drinks only.
Past the gatekeeper, you walk down three flights of dimly-lit, slate stairs, and then voila – double doors open onto a view of a so-dramatic-it’s-almost- like-Epcot-Center (a really chic Epcot Center) dining room with a heavy Chinese influence. The room is dark so that the pinpoint lighting can work its magic. Carved floor-to-ceiling dark-wood screens separate the otherwise enormous dining room into smaller dining areas. The restaurant has the noise and energy of a major social scene, but it also turned out to be surprisingly easy to have a conversation.
Jon and I were a little nonplussed that the maitre d’ couldn’t find our reservation in her book, but we hung out at the bar for just half an hour before a hostess actually pushed her way through the crowds to find us and tell us our table was ready. And the bar was definitely worth a stop – drinks were strong, creative and not-too-sweet. Jon especially liked his “zesty martini” (which used coriander syrup as the mixer), and I never say no to anything with star fruit in it (see photo).
Now to the chow: We ordered three appetizers (scallops, soft shell crab and duck) and three mains (sea bass, pork belly and snow pea shoots). (It was 10:30 pm before we started eating, so we were hungry.)
Technically, the scallops counted as two orders, because each order came with one lone scallop. Allowed to customise the sauce, we asked for a black bean sauce, and looking back, the scallop was bound to disappoint given how much it was hyped up. At £7 per scallop, I wouldn’t order it again. Although the scallop was sweet, and I did enjoy the salty je ne sais quoi that only black bean sauce imparts, it was slightly overcooked, making it not worth the money.
The fried soft-shell crab didn’t look like much (see above), but it was so well prepared, we devoured it seconds after I took my photo. [Brief aside - not only do I look incredibly lame whipping out my camera to take these photos, but also it turned out the restaurant has a strict no-photo policy. So I hope you all appreciate my heroic covert efforts here, despite my crap macro lens setting and poor photography skills, generally.] But back to the soft-shell crab – crispy, light breading and deliciously juicy, hot crab. A dish this good needs no dipping sauce. Perfect.
The roasted mango duck in lemon sauce was entirely forgettable. The irony is that it looked the prettiest of our three appetizers, what with the uniform slicing and alternating colors and all. The duck didn’t taste like much, possibly because it was overwhelmed by the sour crunchiness of slightly-unripe mango and lemon sauce.
We did much better with our main courses. I’d say we hit three out of three. Jon’s favorite was the “roasted seabass in Chinese Honey,” which arrived at our table steaming hot with a beautiful red-colored char sao crust. The flaky smoothness of the sea bass was infused with the sweet smokiness of the “Chinese honey,” and overall, it reminded me of that ever-present miso cod at Nobu. The fish was served with batter-fried mushrooms, which were extraneous and not particularly flavorful. But this plate was unarguably good stuff and worth the splash-out of £36. (New Yorkers, I don’t want to hear any more complaining about the rise of the$40 main course, please).
Snow pea shoots sauteed in garlic had been so carefully chopped up (well, the stems, I mean) that the dish was even smoother and more tender than it normally is. I can’t get enough of that vegetal sweetness you get from snow pea shoots, and while you can get similarly-tender snow pea shoots at most divey Chinese restaurants, Hakkasan took some care with what could have been a throwaway dish. And at £9, the dish didn’t cost more than what you pay at a dive (in London) anyway.
My favorite, hands down, was the “Duke of Berkshire pork belly with salted fish, dry chilis, szechuan peppers and baby leek” cooked and served in a clay pot casserole. A humble dish, normally, but raised to new heights here. (By the way, what goes through the Duke of Berkshire’s mind when he sees his name attached to the pigs his estate raises?) The pork belly was tender and not overly-fatty, but just fatty enough to have absorbed the sweet-and-salty goodness of the brown sauce (presumably the salty part of the sauce comes from the salted fish, of which you do not see any sign in the casserole).
The peppers gave off a subtle kick, and the baby leek were similarly subtle in their onion-y-ness. In fact, it never occurred to me to use baby leeks as a sturdy stand-in for scallions, which is how I think they functioned in this dish. What can I say – a humble dish for a humble girl. I’m looking forward to going back and getting me some more pork belly.
Service was efficient and neither friendly nor unfriendly. Mostly you go for the decor and food, both of which were excellent last night.
Our meal was a pricey £190 with wine and a few other bells and whistles, but I’m pretty sure you could go back and eat for a a third the price (for example, if you limited yourself to a mere two appetizers and just ordered the snow pea shoots and pork belly). And going back is something we will surely do.