Of all Britain’s adopted cuisines, Chinese has been the most mistreated. Having never been to China, I’m left to imagine what true Chinese food tastes like through the greasy, sarcastic imitations of my local Noble House. Unless you take pleasure in fishing large chunks of onion out of an unidentifiable yellow sauce, it’s not a particularly encouraging introduction.
Michelin-starred Chinese food, then, can be tricky to imagine. Yet Hakkasan’s celebrated interpretations of Chinese classics, realised with a good bit of flair and creativity, will appeal to anyone who hankers after the fragrance, delicacy and spice of good Oriental food.
Judging by the elaborate basement interior, Hakkasan are loathe to let just their food do the talking – although given the unimpeachable quality on offer, they could quite easily serve up in a bus shelter and still draw admiration. A labyrinth of finely-detailed stencilled wood panels separates diners into dimly-lit lagoons, bracketed by an eye-catching bar and the now-requisite DJ booth.
It’s the kind of ambitious dining space which fosters an upbeat atmosphere, with the feel of both a preposterously swanky nightclub about to really get going and the reverential, polished calm of a private members’ club. It might feel oppressive if it weren’t for the waiting staff, whose friendliness and grace is faultless.
Hakkasan are keen advocates of China’s Golden Week celebrations, serving a specially-curated holiday menu throughout the festivities (£88.88 for two, incl. cocktails). A Golden Ice Tea starts things off, although not on the best note – its slicing stroke of citrus is too sharp, the subtlety of iced tea lost. Still, you can’t fault its strength, which stirs the appetite as promised.
Crispy duck salad is disarmingly good. It’s one of those exasperatingly simple dishes which make you ask, why didn’t I think of that? Sure, there are six different types of cress in there (how many kinds are there?) and refreshing bursts of grapefruit, but at its core it relies on shredded duck breast. In contrast to pancakes, the carby-ness of which diminishes duck, a salad feels like a much more complementary partner. It helps that the duck is outrageously good, marinated in homemade hoi sin sauce which clings sweetly to the meat. As with the rest of Hakkasan’s Golden Week oeuvre, it flits between sweet and savoury neatly and dexterously.
Dumplings are fine, looking better than they actually taste. Beautifully parcelled, each dumpling is exquisitely crafted, some featuring a little quiff of caviar or a dusting of truffle. The problem is, when seafood is tightly ensconced in a pastry (even when the pastry is thin, as it is here), it has a tendency to become rubbery and overdone. Nonetheless, there’s still much here to enjoy, not least with an impressive dover sole and truffle incarnation.
Just as you’re beginning to think that Hakkasan can’t hack it, the main dishes romp to victory. They’re unimpeachable. Stir-fried black pepper rib-eye beef with baby lotus root and mustard seed, served inside an edible nest of noodles reminiscent of an upturned flower pot, is superb. All the delicacy you’d expect from rib-eye is elaborated and expanded by the rich, sticky umami sauce. Paired with perfect steamed rice and stir-fried baby broccoli, crispy seaweed and diced abalone, it’s a roaring success, a classic fellowship of protein-carb-vegetable with undeniable rhythm. Our other main dish, curried prawns with spring onions, holds its own without ever really dragging our attention away from the beef.
Honeycomb macaroons, served on a rubble of cocoa, are an excellent choice of dessert. Given the heaviness of the preceding dishes, Hakkasan have wisely chosen for the fluffiness of the macaroon, convincingly subduing any I’m-too-full-for-dessert notions. Swathed in gold leaf, it’s as decadent a pudding as they come, but these macaroons are no imitation. They’re as good as any I’ve tasted, and proof that Hakkasan is more than able to shift the flavour towards European tastes when appropriate.
Hakkasan is plush, swanky and unashamedly courting the kind of people for whom even loading the dishwasher is a task for the servants, but more importantly it serves genuinely great food. And with dishes this good, it’s almost enough to single-handedly erase years of terrible Chinese takeaways. Almost.
17 Bruton St
Tel: 020 7907 1888
Golden Week menu is available until 18th October