As it celebrates is crystal anniversary, Jodi Bartle fights off caviar-laden canapés to find the heart of Hakkasan…
In 2001 some big things happened – the attack on the Twin Towers, an Oscars win for ‘Gladiator’, the Netherlands became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage, Apple released the iPod and Winona Ryder got arrested for shoplifting. In amongst this flurry of frantic activity, Hakkasan opened its first restaurant down a little back alley in Hanway Place. Over the next fifteen years Hakkasan has grown to include eleven restaurants, and globally. Naturally, Hakkasan threw a party to celebrate.
I got invited. Though, both pregnant and seafood-phobic, I was probably the most rubbish guest at the 15th anniversary bash. The party was held on a rainy Saturday afternoon to launch its exclusive Only At menus, the idea being that at each Hakkasan location, bespoke cocktails and dishes have been created to celebrate each restaurant’s individuality and location. Caviar-heavy canapes were generously free-flowing as were the speedy refills of the New Zealand sauvignon blanc – and all I could do was look longingly at it and sniff.
Frankly, the kind of guest you want at these things are those whose sense of taste and smell aren’t completely off. You want a guest who will enjoy quaffing bespoke cocktails and perfectly matched wine. A guest who can eat a few courses without having to undo her trousers. A guest who eats what you have prepared without going off-piste and getting all antsy about the posh caviar pilled atop the tofu. Sorry about that, Hakkasan. You were very patient with me and my bilious tendencies.
Luckily, I brought a friend. Three, in fact; all New Zealanders – a point to note because New Zealanders grow up in close proximity to Asia and so the concept of high quality modern Chinese food is not a new one. We could have been a tough audience but Hakkasan does a very good job of seduction from the off. We arrived via an incense-fuelled staircase, thrust a jaffa-scented posh cocktail and were sent into the mingling area to fuel up on the canapés.
These were very, very good – the right mix of crunchy and spicy and manageable to eat with a sloshy bespoke cocktail in your hand. The caviar application was a little heavy-handed for my fish-phobic tendencies and I did attempt to elegantly flick it off onto my husbands’s duck-skin but the ghosty essence remained. The best bits by far were the little puff pastry bites – one had a vegetarian spicy filling and the other was wagyu beef puff. They were tiny and pretty and crunchy and delicate and endless.
Once seated at the tables the roll-out of food began, spiked, as it was, with Only At offerings. We worked our way through the menu and those of us who were non-pregnant stomped through bottles of wine with proper hearty enthusiasm. Because of my phobia of sea-dwelling creatures, I got a few non-fishy substitutes which turned my lunch rather vegetarian. While the others were presented with an apparently astonishingly good dim sum selection, I got the veggie version which was a study in beautifully presented pouches of samey wallpaper paste. They were all underwhelming and utterly indistinguishable and I felt sorry for vegetarians anew, always getting the short straw just because they like a bit of green over everything else.
Another Only At dish was the impressively-named Golden Jade treasure Japanese tofu pouch, sat in a green sauce that was topped with the dastardly caviar again. I tried to scrape this off but it was a hopeless case and so, defeated, I passed it onto my husband. All agreed I didn’t miss much with this dish – gold leaf notwithstanding. But there were redeeming plentiful plates that made up for the few missteps – Hanway Place boasts a standout lamb with kumquat, ginger and garlic: big, tender, generous hunks of marinated lamb which was sweetly sour.The others were unable to leave the silver cod in the champagne sauce alone – apparently it was gorgeous. My vegetarian chicken (?) was peppery with a slightly weird rubbery consistency, but served with the perfectly cooked sugar snaps, all pregnant and fecund and full like my own belly, it was lovely.
Dessert was a total triumph. The spicy mandarin, another bespoke Hanway Place special, was a beautiful soft chocolate and citrus confection with a tart yoghurt and the crunchiest, finest little slivers of sesame brittle. The chocolate was moussey, the citrus sharp, the brittle a crunchy buttery hit which made all the flavours so much the better.
Few whinges aside, there really isn’t much not to love about Hakkasan – from the discreet private-members-club feel of the entrance, the beautiful, attentive and unpushy staff, the dark, sexy interior that feels a bit boudoir-ish; the restaurant is consistently good. Any place that transports you from a rainy Oxford Street Saturday afternoon into a 1930’s film noir setting is a better place to be than home. We didn’t want to leave, such is the welcoming embrace of the Hakkasan cave. After coffee and camomile tea we were informed what it really was time to go – that they had to set up for the evening service. It was such a shame to leave, but the goodie bags helped soften the blow. Happy anniversary, Hakkasan. May you continue to be consistent, but innovative, elegant and sexy. Ease up on the caviar and we shall still be the best of friends.
From humble beginnings in Hanway Place, Hakkasan Michelin-starred cuisine is available from Miami to Mumbai, Shanghai to San Francisco. For all restaurant locations, details of menus, and its accolades, visit www.hakkasan.com.