Hakkasan Is To Cantonese Cuisine As Hermès Is To Haute Couture
“Quand on déguste ses plats, c’est de l’érotisme; mais quand on regarde ses prix, c’est la pornographie.” -Romain Gary
Foodie that I am, this is of course one of my favorite lines in French literature, which roughly translates to: “the taste of his food is erotic, but the prices on his menu look pornographic!” Hakkasan is probably the most expensive restaurant we’ll review in Treasured Tables, but I won’t let that cloud my judgment as it inevitably has in Adam Platt’s review for New York Magazine and Pete Well’s review for the New York Times. Sure, it can – and should be – held to a higher standard, but objectively Hakkasan easily makes the cut into that select and exclusive club of those very few extra-special restaurants in New York which excel far beyond their peers of a particular genre. When you buy a Birkin bag from Hèrmes, you (your wife at least!) will enjoy it. You may think about the price tag beforehand, as you probably should when considering a visit to Hakkasan. Plan on dropping a lot of money. But once you’re committed to it, it’s all about the pure pleasure of treating yourself to the absolute best of the best regardless of relative value. Can $28 be justified for eight perfect dumplings for which an equivalent cannot be had outside Hong Kong, Taipei or the other Hakkasan outposts (London, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai, Miami…)? $39 for 10 “tea-bag” sized pieces of Pi-Pa duck, as described by Pete Wells? Let’s set the record straight that the harsh criticism and uninviting reception of Hakkasan by New York’s foremost food writers thus far is the culinary equivalent of slamming the arrival of Hermès to Madison Avenue for daring sell a purse for $10,000. Let’s get past the price tag and have an intelligent conversation about the purse – or the food in this case – and inevitably revel over the divinely luxurious dim sum, expertly executed Chinese classics and décor reminiscent of a contemporary Forbidden City.
Used York City firmly believes that Hakkasan is the only restaurant in New York to stand on the shoulders of the true giants of Chinese cuisine, that is: the centuries of complex flavor and wok-crafted marvels developed by China’s master chefs. Fusion is confusion – Buddakan, Tao, Chinatown Brasserie and even Dieterle’s Kin Shop can be delicious at times, but are characteristically American as designed to please and appease the western palate. Hakkasan, on the other hand, is rare in its adherence to the flavors and intricacies of high-end authentic Chinese Cuisine. In fact, Hakkasan manages to move the dialogue of Catonese cuisine forward with the introduction of luxurious ingredients otherwise reserved for the highest-end European kitchens, while staying true to time-honored and time-consuming techniques rarely practiced outside the best restaurants in Hong Kong.
We’ve heard the taglines from our favorite celebrity sushi chefs about the grueling apprenticeships required for what is (likely?) a much more “simple” cuisine – 5 years to master rice cookery and 10 years before you’ve learned how to slice the fish… and as a result we’ve been conditioned to the normality of paying upwards of $5 per piece of nigiri (nay, $10, the new standard for a sliver of “o-toro”) at Manhattan’s temples of sushi of which there are many – Yasuda, Neta, Masa… If that is a guilty pleasure to which you will sometimes succumb, then may I suggest you try Hakkasan’s scallop shumai? Three pieces are available at the lunch dim sum service for $14 and two of eight pieces are included in the steamed dim sum assortment at dinner for $28 – either way, much better value and far more memorable than any perfect sample of sushi available in NYC. In fact, I dare say it’s the most delicious morsel of food available in New York today. Imagine… a luxurious purse constructed from an impossibly thin dim sum wrapper encasing a succulent prawn layered with a perfectly steamed scallop and flying fish roe. When it was created by Alan Yau’s Executive Chef Tong Chee Hwee at the original Hakkasan in Tottenham Court Road, London, it was a culinary revelation equivalent to the signature dish of any well-known western Michelin-starred chef, be it Boulud’s paupiettes of seabass or Jean Georges’ egg-caviar.
Before you can taste the culinary marvel that is scallop shumai, though, you’ll enter through one of the most decadent restaurant spaces in New York. But even before that, you’ll have to deal with the nuisance of navigating Times Square as Hakkasan is, after all, located on 43rd and 9th. That’s one of my only complaints though (#1 of 2) – a very poor choice of location, as this mecca for connoisseurs of Cantonese cuisine is extremely out-of-place amidst the throngs of tourists and tireless traffic characteristic to this unfortunate part of New York, which we New Yorkers love to hate.
A blue glow beckons from the street. Transported by a barrage of exotic incense down the red carpet of smoky gray Carrera marble, you’ve arrived at one of the most enchanting rooms in the city. Luxurious silk-embroidered sofas flow like a dragon around the large room, while a maze of intricate dark oak woodwork cages small groups of tables into privacy. Find your throne and take a seat… First order of business: drinks.
Drinks? What to drink with Chinese food… I’d pass on the wine despite the notable effort to put together a well-curated list and go instead with Hakkasan’s expertly crafted cocktails ($15) – of which the Shizo and Hakka are especially tantalizing. If you were in Hong Kong though, you may even skip the cocktails altogether and stick with tea – of course, I’m not suggesting that you do that, but you should know that Hakkasan features one of the best and most refined tea offerings in New York including the rare high-mountain Tie Guan Yin ($15) which translates to “Iron Goddess,” an oolong tea of unusual smoothness where the characteristic smokiness and profound earthy notes are completely devoid of bitterness – a veritable treat.
I’ve already whetted your appetite with the scallop shumai. During the dinner service, access to this transcendent culinary revelation is granted by way of the steamed dim sum assortment ($28) on which you’ll also discover New York’s most perfect har gau (the proverbial rockstar of dim sum) where a slim translucent wrapper of wheat and tapioca starch encases the most succulent prawns known to a steam-basket, which are heightened by the sweet bite of bamboo shoots. Equally succulent, though, is the pork and prawn shumai, clad in a sexy green wrapper with shredded scallop sauce atop – a wonderful interplay of land and sea in one bite. Not quite ready to wake up from your dreams of heavenly dim sum? Continue then with the steamed vegetarian assortment ($26) where a collection of four new pairs of mushroom-centric oeuvres can be enjoyed. Critical to the dim sum experience are Hakkasan’s accoutrements – an addictively spicy XO sauce of dried fermented scallops and chili oil, as well as an ethereal tomato-based chili paste that perfectly balances its piquancy with acidity and a welcome sweetness.
A brief interlude to discuss service while we await our entrées – on recent visits it’s been a bit spotty (this is complaint #2 of 2). There’s an army of beautiful ladies costumed in Diane Von Furstenberg to wait on you, but their knowledge of the menu is lacking as is their command of the finer points of high-end service. For example, upon delivering a (second) seafood dim sum platter instead of another variety ordered, the server returned to the table, recollected it, and delivered it to another table nearby (gasp!). To the receiving party: you would be pleased to know we did not yet touch these dumplings… We can all agree that re-using a breadbasket is a big no-no in any kind of restaurant – I’m having a hard time rationalizing how this would be any different. That said, we’re probably splitting hairs at this point: the service is nonetheless relatively sincere and does not take away from the overall enjoyment of an evening at Hakkasan. It is just perhaps not yet commensurate with the price point. I trust that it will get there though…
Presentation; however, never ceases to impress at Hakkasan – which is especially the case when the head-turning Dover Sole ($52) passes by, as perched atop a fine slice of its fried carcass. Personal favorites, though, are the soft shell crab ($22) fried with curry leaves and shards of egg yolk – a wonderfully exotic way to enjoy this aquatic delicacy during its fleeting season. You can be a cheap date (relative, that is) and order the deceivingly simple-sounding steamed snapper ($35) where a clean-tasting white-fleshed fish is wrapped in banana leaf and thoroughly permeated by a delightful chili essence.
Though heavy for summer, the claypots – assam seafood ($42) or tofu-aubergine-shiitake ($19) – are both superb and layered with complex, profoundly intense earthy and umami-esque flavors through a slow cooking process. [Note: there is also a Hakka pork belly claypot ($24) which is probably delicious too, but I’m staying true to my campaign against the unnecessary consumption of pork fat…]
On the other side of the spectrum there are some sensational vegetable options. Notably: luxurious soft-braised zucchini lined up as soldiers and topped with a clear elixir generously studded with fresh crab meat and fragrant orange crab roe ($22) for which you’ll need the masterfully executed wok-fried scallion rice ($8) to sop up the last few spoonfuls of sauce.
Don’t even bother looking at the dessert menu. You want the exotic fruit platter ($20). You need to have the exotic fruit platter. You must not miss the exotic fruit platter. If a serious foodie is recommending that you order a plate of fruit, then you can bet on the fact that it will be pretty special… dragon fruit, mangosteen, starfruit, longan, cleverly spiked with micro-herbs as if the exotic and mystical flavors of these tropical treats weren’t enough to end a perfect meal in bliss… A light and satisfying conclusion to a wonderful journey.
A parting thought from the creator of Hakkasan: Alan Yau is probably the most successful and influential restaurateur of our time. He inextricably changed the way we think about food in the west – first by way of Wagamama in 1992, a “fast-casual” restaurant in London featuring authentic high-quality pan-Asian noodle dishes with quick service in a hip, communal space at a price point well within the bounds of a casual meal. Wagamama has since grown into a serious chain that spans the globe with 100+ units, but not before changing the urban mentality toward fast food, having defined the trends that led to the proliferation of fast casual restaurants featuring ethnic, better-for-you foods in fashionable spaces. The bar was forever raised. Yet, Yau went further as he began to chip away at our deeply rooted and highly misconceived notion that fancy or fine cuisine must characteristically be western (be it French, Italian or new-American) with the opening of Hakkasan in 2001 and its sister restaurant Yauatcha which expanded upon Hakasan’s highly acclaimed dim sum menu in 2004. While Yau is no longer involved with Hakkasan (Hakkasan and Yauatcha were sold to Emirati investors Tasameem in 2008 for £30 million (!), who will ultimately bare the fruit or failure of Hakkasan’s fate in New York), others like Floyd Cardoz and Gaston Acurio have tried nobly to trail his coattails in celebrating ethnic foods at the highest culinary levels, albeit none as globally successful in elevating ethnic cuisine to the same pedestal of sophistication and succulence when practiced in their purest art-form…
I think that people tend to think that ethnic food, especially Chinese and Indian food, should be cheap. They don’t see that kind of cuisine as being served at a fine- quality level. That, culturally, has always been the case – and particularly with Chinese food because of the early proliferation of Chinese restaurants in Britain at a very bad level: the greasiness, the MSG and everything else has tainted people’s attitude. My point about ethnic food is that I think ethnic food should be more expensive at a fine-dining level than, say, French or Italian food. To do it at that level we have to import everything and it’s harder for us than the Europeans, because to do it properly, we have to buy the best and ship it from the other side of the world.
Read the full interview with Alan Yau and near-equally brilliant restaurateur Mourad Mazouz of Momo’s, Sketch and le 404 at The Independent.
WHERE: Hakkasan Times Square: 311 West 43rd, between 8th and 9th $ Nosebleed expensive.00 …plus tax and tip (Not under $100 per person for dinner; dim sum a relative steal at lunch service for $35-50 per person) Rating: X – for mature audiences only. A transcendent experience where Cantonese cuisine is celebrated in the highest and hippest form; an experience unknown outside of Hong Kong and the other Hakkasans
Honorable mentions in the splurge for non-Western foods category:
Sushi Yasuda Midtown East: 204 East 43rd Street, between 2nd and 3rd $60-140 per person Rating: A Sushi purist’s paradise – there is nowhere to procure more perfect raw fish in New York, yet nowhere to receive more imperfect service at the fine dining level… to be discussed in a future review
Junoon Flatiron: 27 West 24th Street, between 5th and 6th $60-100 per person Rating: Elegant and refined Indian fare, perhaps the best we’ve sampled in NYC
By: Adam Gross