8 Hanway Place,
London W1T 1HD
Tel. 020 7297 7000
Food type: Chinese
Food rating: 4/10
Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road
A friend of mine once tried getting a summer job at a Chinese takeaway. Pretty straight forward you would think – after all he is a medical student (and thus has half a brain) and is Chinese. He did not get the job. You see, when he showed up for an informal interview with the owner, they soon realized that he could not speak a single word of Cantonese OR Mandarin. He was after all a British born Chinese (or BBC). The moral of the story here is that communication is important – with your clientele and with the kitchen, so speaking only English was simply not good enough.
So why have I bothered telling you that story? You see, coming to Hakkasan I was pretty shocked that none of my servers could speak a word of Cantonese… or Mandarin… or any Chinese dialect for that matter. I am not referring to the pretty blond Polish girl serving us, but the Chinese waiters (yes there was more than one). This is honestly a first for me, and I dine out quite a lot. Perhaps I have taken this language thing for granted. I mean, every French restaurant I have been to, there will be a waiter who speaks French (or at least English with the charming French accent). The same with an Italian, Japanese, Indian restaurant.
But is language very important? Well, in my opinion it is. It struck me when we were sat down and wanted some tea. Our waiter offered us a tea menu written in both Simplified Chinese and English. The problem is that the name of Chinese teas are as exotic as the leafs themselves and don’t translate well into another language. At best the hidden meaning of the names are lost, at worst, they are incorrectly translated. Not an actual example, but the tea Tie Guan Yin is often translated as ‘Iron Goddess of Mercy’ – sounds pretentious and poofy. Imagine the pain I was in when trying to order a pot of tea spouting words along the lines of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Ok so I’ve exaggerated a bit). Oh and before I forget, you order tea by the pot – no free hot water top ups.
My mood wasn’t improved when I was informed that we could not take any photographs in the restaurant. Now I have no problem refraining from taking photographs but it is evident that there have been plenty of bloggers who have visited prior to this and were allowed the pleasure of taking photos. After having a quick chat with the manager all was resolved – I would be allowed to snap away as long as I have my flash switched off (which I always do anyways).
Hakkasan was one of the brain childs of Alan Yau – the same gentlemen to bring you Wagamama’s and Sake no Hana. I use the word was because he has now sold Hakkasan, along with sister restaurant Yauatcha, to Tasameem, an investment company from Abu Dhabi. Mr Yau still remains on board playing an advisory role. Following a long flight of stairs down (be very careful not to knock your head if you are very tall) into the basement, the first thing which greets you is the incense being burned. The dining room designed by French designer Christian Liaigre is very dark. You lose all sense of time. Chinese motifs embedded in wood are all around in a sort of a gambling den meets night club manner.
The menu arrives bound in red crocodile leather with a smaller menu with the aforementioned tea lists and various assortment of dim sums. As we were visiting for lunch, it made sense for us to try the lighter dim sums on offer.
We began with their signature venison puffs which was delightful. The venison encased around buttery pastry sprinkled with a tiny bit of toasted sesame seed had superb flavour, with the texture of the meat which simply melted in the mouth. (6/10)
Abalone Taro Croquette
Croquette of abalone and taro (yam) was equally as good. A generous piece of abalone was encircled by light, fluffy taro – the presence of the shellfish more for texture than flavour. Abalone is of course an ingredient which is very tricky to cook properly – it needs to be cooked very little or for a very long time, and in the wrong hands because a big hunk of chewy gumball. Credit to the chef for handling this difficult ingredient well. (6/10)
Prawn Cheong Fun
Very disappointing was the prawn cheong fun. A personal favourite of mine, the noodles simply was too thick and did not have the silky smoothness that one would expect. With the best cheong fun, the noodle should literally be slipping down ones throat. (3/10)
Sadly, the har kow (prawn dumpling) followed the trend of having pastry which was too thick. Compare this to the ones at Min Jiang where the wrap was literally translucent, here you could barely make out what was being stuffed inside. The prawns stuffed inside were fine I suppose but uninteresting. (3/10)
Scallop Siu Mai
Probably the best item I had on the day was the scallop siu mai with a generous slice of scallop sitting on top a mixture of minced pork, prawn and brown crab meat encased in an almost translucent yellow wrap before being topped with golden orange tobiko. Even with the very tricky combination of ingredients, each individual piece of scallop was timed to perfection – soft, sweet and juicy. It really baffles me that the same kitchen which can produce such a beautiful siu mai can also produce such ordinary har kow and cheong fun. (6/10)
Char Siu Bao
Steamed char siu bao was decent – light and fluffy bun with decent tasting roast pork filling although this was unremarkable. (4/10)
Pi-Pa duck gets its name from the Chinese (pear shaped) lute which it is meant to resemble. The duck is spread out and (sometimes, but not always) pressed to look like said instrument before being dry marinated and roasted. Here, symmetrical squares of deboned duck, sat on top of the chef’s special sauce. The duck had very good flavour but suffered from skin which was as floppy as my ever growing belly. (4/10)
Lor Bak Gou
Fried radish cake was a witty take on the way Malaysians cook their radish cake. The Malaysian style calls for the the cake to be cut into smaller one inch cubes before being fried with bean sprouts, eggs and chives. Occasionally, at the customer’s discretion, a spicy special sauce is added. Here, the bean sprouts are omitted and the radish cake is only cubed after cooking with chilli dipping sauce at the side. By cutting the radish cake at the last moment, this allows the cake to retain some of its moisture without drying out too much. (4/10)
Tapiaco Pearl Pudding
Desserts at Chinese restaurants tend to be a the weakest aspect of Chinese cuisine. There is no denying that. They are fully aware of that at Hakkasan and as such they have employed a French pastry chef to design puddings which are loosely based on Chinese ingredients. We tried a couple of them and these were around 4/10 to 5/10 level, with the best being the tapioca pearl pudding with vanilla panna cotta, poached bananas and a passion fruit sorbet, topped with some (unnecessary) pop corn.
Service was pleasant although as I alluded to earlier, I was clearly not impressed that none of the waiting staff could speak a single word of Chinese. This is clearly an indication of the restaurant’s clientele and who they cater for.
Is the food bad at Hakkasan? No. Definitely not. Was it good then? I was certainly not impressed and even more baffled by it holding a Michelin star. I have no problem with the modernized Chinese food that they serve – after all that is where great new dishes come from. But if I were to compare this to Hutong in Hong Kong (which also holds one star) then Hutong wins hands down. Perhaps I did not order the right dishes – with an extensive menu in Chinese restaurants, there are bound to be certain ‘signature’ dishes which are much better than others. All I know is that I really, really did not enjoy my experience at Hakkasan right from the pretentious tea names I was forced to recite and the food which,while good, was grossly overpriced (I was fortunate enough not to have to pick up the tab). Don’t even get me started on the £9.50 beer… I’m pretty sure that many people will disagree with me, and to each their own. Maybe this deserves a second chance but they will first have to get rid of the horrible headache-inducing incense before I will even harbour any thoughts of returning.