Being a purist and a classicist, I have stayed away from “fusion” cuisines in the past, having previously been unimpressed by certain Asian specimens of these in London. However, with the opening of Shikumen, now one of my favourite places for Dim Sums in this city, I became more convinced that Chinese cuisine could be reinterpreted and modernized without losing its essence. I decided to try Hakkasan, Hanway Place at last, with a friend.
Finding the restaurant was an adventure in itself. Although the venue is right in the middle of town, just off of Bloomsbury, it’s hidden away in a bend branching off from a backstreet that could be easily missed. Other that the discrete signage on the brick wall, all that indicates a restaurant is huge doors with suggestively oriental metal ornamentation, opening onto a flight of downward mood-lit stairs, at the sight of which my English friend promptly remarked that she wouldn’t go down there without a proper representative of the culture. The den-like set-up did faintly remind me of Lopan’s lair. We descended the flights of stairs with pleasant anticipation.
Once we were downstairs, we may as well have been at a trendy Chinese restaurant in New York or Hong Kong. The place was buzzing that day, but the traditional southern style carved wooden screens helped to shield the noise, provide some privacy and create interesting twists and turns in the spacing, complimenting the low lighting and its mellow blue tones. The lacquered black panels painted with traditional landscapes and figures in gold, harked back to fin-de-siecle styles of décor typical of upmarket Cantonese restaurants.
We picked the Dim Sum lunch for two, as the most affordable, and part of the signature menu, in which the chefs should theoretically, excel. The set came in the form of two platters with a dish of baby broccoli and a plate Hakka Noodles, accompanied by a pot of tea. The two platters of pastries, puffs and steamed dumplings were pleasingly arranged in a nice balance of colours and shapes, a mixture of traditional dishes such as the Har Gau and Mooli Pastry, and reinterpreted Dim Sum, like the pretty emerald chive dumpling, the exquisite scallop Siu Mai. Pumpkin shaped Dim Sums traditionally tended to be sweet glutinous rice, but these smoked duck pumpkin puffs gave an interesting taste of savoury with a hint of sweet, rather reminiscent of the Ham Sui Gok.
With alternative ingredients such as venison, scallop and Tobiko Caviar, one can see why this selection of 6 Dim Sums per person with a shared plate of staple and veg has been marked up to £30. Fair to recognize that the noodles aren’t out of place, it being customary for the Cantonese to sometimes finish off their Dim Sum meal by sharing a bowl of congee or a plate of noodles. I wished the baby broccoli, which didn’t need their kale accompaniment, were not quite so saturated in sauce. The bean curd dumpling, which tasted refreshing with crunchy water chestnuts, could have done with a more defined texture to their Tofu skins. Having said that, all the Dim Sums were of substantial portions and mostly delicious with a good balance of flavours. Though I appreciated the leaves being taken out of the teapot to prevent over-stewing, both my friend and I found ourselves wanting a little more strength to the tea. I longed to know this Wu Long better, feeling that its full body of scents and aromas had yet to be unlocked.
The waiting staff were very attentive, from serving manners, enquiries into how the food was, to keen acceptance of our feedback. Whilst I was impressed they bothered to explain every Dim Sum served, I wish that equally they didn’t presume a complete lack of knowledge of the cuisine, considering I showed recognition of the term blue tea when one of them started to explain what the Classical Beauty was. And frankly, I look like I might know my Har Gau from my Siu Mai. It would only be a courtesy to check. I could see that a Chinese customer is a bit of a novelty, and a minority at this place. Seeing the experience through the eyes of my English friend has certainly added to the enjoyment.
My final test was the lavatories, an indication of what a restaurant really thinks of its customers, which Hakkasan passed with flying colours. Continuing with the “door in the wall” design, the fragrant loos really transported me back to the sleek marbled toilets decked with tropical flowers in Hong Kong’s high-end hotels and shopping malls.
Hakkasan certainly provides a different Dim Sum eating experience to the traditional one. Although the stylishly modernized multi-color Dim Sums perching in their luminous skins, is a familiar sight to us now (so much so as to make into Sainsbury’s Asian selection), Hakkasan Hanway Place, the original restaurant that spawned its now multiple sister branches, opened in 2001, and would have been a pioneer of such innovations. Its presentation, both in food and environs, had definitely set the benchmark for the emulation of places such as Yauatcha, Ping Pong and Dim T. I would return and try some of the restaurant’s other dishes, if my wallet was up to taking the damage. I would recommend it as a smartly decadent secret corner of central London for that special treat of the month, or with which to impress your business partners, and Western colleagues.
Posted in Commentary and tagged china, Chinese, cuisine, culture, Dim Dum, food, Hakkasan, restaurant, review