17 Bruton Street,
London W1J 6QB
Tel. 020 7907 1888
Food type: Chinese
Nearest tube: Bond Street
It has been 7 years since I last visited Hakkasan. Back then, the restaurant was still owned by Alan Yau and the had not been a massive proliferation of branches all over the world. I did not really enjoy my first time at Hakkasan, where we tried their dim sum menu. The food, for me was what I would consider ‘gwei lo Chinese’ – what white people think Chinese food should be. Nothing I would consider authentic, and nothing I would be able to find in Hong Kong/ China. Anyhow, the resident gwei lo in the house aka my wife was keen to try the restaurant and with a newly opened branch in Mayfair, just a few doors away from the Square, I booked us in for a Sunday night dinner.
The new branch has a similar vibe as the original located at Hanway Place. The decor, dark with lamps hanging from the ceiling providing lighting for each table. This is definitely a place for the young and hip with upbeat music piped in the background. The menu prices are, well, impressive. You are greeted with a front page of supreme special dishes at supremely special prices. Peking duck with Qiandiao caviar (we will get back to this in a bit) is a bargain £218. You get the option to upgrade to Beluga caviar for another £65 (so £280). Braised abalone (10 head) with sea cucumber is a mere £350. Just for comparison purpose, I paid £250 for 10 head abalone when I dined at 3* Lung King Heen in Hong Kong which is not the cheapest city in the world. There are a couple of tasting menus (called signature menus) available here. However, since we were dining as a couple, the only one available to us was their prestige menu which was priced at £128 (with a glass of Louis Roderer champagne) which was what we went for.
We began our meal with har gau and their take on sesame prawn toast. First, the prawn dumpling came in a little bamboo steamer and topped with gold leaf. Completely unnecessary and pointless but I guess it adds the bling element to the dish. You can easily tell a good dumpling from how translucent the skin is and how many pleats there are. Their har gau fails the litmus test – the skin having a consistency more akin to that of a chiu chow fun gor which has a doughy and slightly chewy texture. For comparisons sake, I have attached a picture of the har gau at 1* Man Wah in Hong Kong and the difference is night and day. The second part of the dish was sesame prawn toast enriched with a little foie gras served on a bed of crispy ‘sea weed’. You remember when I mentioned the food at Hakkasan was gwei lo Chinese? This is what I mean by that – until I came over to England, I had never heard of these Chinese classics. The prawn toast was a nice guilty pleasure.
Our next appetiser was the crispy soft shell crab which was cooked ‘Lai Yao’ style. The dish has its roots in Malaysian Chinese cooking. The thin crispy shreds are created by passing egg through fine sieve into hot oil and flavoured with curry leaf. The soft shell crab was crispy and grease-free. On the side was some chilli dipping sauce if you needed to give the dish a bit more kick.
The final appetiser, and one that I was looking forward to was the Peking duck served with Qingdao caviar. 3 generous slabs of skin was served to each person on top of a flat bread (a twist on their version of a man tou) with the condiments and sauce already applied. On top was a small dollop of caviar. Qingdao caviar is an excellent product. It is farmed caviar but produced in the same waters used to produce Russian caviar. When I dined at HKK, I felt the peking duck there was one of the best I had tasted in England. Here, the duck comes pre-sliced and depending on your luck you may get ‘good skin’ (skin from the neck and breast area) or ‘rubbish skin’ (skin from around the thigh area which is rather scraggy). The skin was rather ordinary. No where near the memorable one we had at HKK and I don’t get the point of the addition of the caviar since the skin itself was salty enough.
We now began our sequence of main courses. Stir fried lobster with black bean featured reasonably tender Australian lobster tail meat (a completely different specimen to the native lobsters) and crunchy bamboo shoots. For me the dish was rather salty which was a common theme with many of main course dishes. Also this was the second dish which made use of the deep fried crunchy flour bits which would again feature later. Grilled Wagyu beef was correctly cooked and reasonably flavoursome. The remaining duck meat was prepared as a second serving as a stir-fry with XO sauce. The duck here was completely overcooked to the point it had a liverish taste. I don’t know whether this was because the duck was already very well done during the roasting process or it had too long in the wok. Either way, this was not a very nice dish to eat and we left most of it untouched. This was also the third dish which featured the deep fried crunchy flour bits and even my wife commented that they must have had a good deal from their supplier. We did enjoy their signature grilled chilean sea bass in soy and honey. The fish was perfectly cooked and flaked effortlessly with the gentlest pressure. Finally the last dish was a stir fry of lotus root and asparagus. This being August and not the season for asparagus, they were unsurprisingly flavourless.
If there is something they do well at Hakkasan, it is their desserts. After all, the desserts here have very little to do with Chinese cuisine and more French pastry. A coconut semifreddo had good coconut flavour with the richness and nuttiness balanced by a lovely lime and yoghurt sorbet. Finally, a deconstructed black forest gateau had a rich layer of chocolate cremeaux and cherry jelly with some financiers on the side. All in all, it was a nice end to the meal.
For me, not much has changed since I last ate at Hakkasan. The food here is just not my cup of tea – Chinese food for white people with their signature menu highlighting this fact very well. Sure, there are plenty of luxurious ingredients used in their prestige menu, but at the end of the day, the main course showed very flawed technique. Chinese cuisine is simply more than just stir fry much like British cooking is not all about roasts. Even then, the stir fries were not impressive. There was a lack of ‘wok hei’ which most humble ‘dai pai dong’ (hawker stalls) in Hong Kong would get right. In addition, the overcooked duck was just a complete no go. Of course, it doesn’t matter what I think because Hakkasan caters to a different crowd which was evident by the dining room filled with hip, young beautiful people. My wife summed it up best when I asked her what her thoughts were at the end of the meal – “I’m glad I got to try it to see what the fuss is all about, but I am in no hurry to return.”