As Chinese New Year approaches, we arrive at HKK on a cold February evening to taste the Michellin-starred Chef Tong Chee Hwee’s New Year story. Out of the newly gentrified Bishopsgate Quarter clutter, all flashy buildings and concrete mazes, the room was a calm, warm space. This outpost is different from the other harder-edged dark and masculine Hakkasan restaurants, where men with fat wallets bring mistresses or wives on anniversary dinners. HKK is looser, bathed in bordello red and framed in gauzy, foamy tissue thin curtains separating and softening the room. Confusing curtains actually, after the seventh glass of assorted matched alcohol. I soon learned where the openings were, but not until a couple at another table had to steer me away from trying to walk through unyielding fabric. Stylish move.
We were greeted warmly, sent to our table, and I informed the staff of my utterly ridiculous seafood phobia. The menu, as it turned out, was seafood-heavy, but the manager was completely unruffled by my late request, and presented me with gorgeous, well-balanced vegetarian or meat alternatives, each of which felt like authentic options and not hastily assembled substitutes. Even though I went off-piste, there was a consistent craftsmanship to each course for the both of us, and an overarching story spelled out in the accompanying illustrated notes. I didn’t feel like I drew the short straw at all. We were given an explanation of each dish by the waiting staff and a thorough, deeply detailed description of the drinks. The sommelier’s accent was thick and a little hard to understand, so we nodded enthusiastically and gave him the universal language of the glad eye when he came to top up, which seemed to work.
Notwithstanding our steadily increasing drunkenness, the Chinese New Year tasting menu was a joy. It was a surprising, elegant little journey of traditions and customs, reinterpreted by Chef Tong in a modern, elegant way and placed upon the kind of perfectly chosen plates that you just want to pop into your handbag and steal. The menu rolled out over languid hours, the spaces in between each course knowingly timed which gave us the chance to discuss A Little Life, our teenage screw-ups, fathers, and bosoms, and at the right moment the next course arrived.
Throughout the night the menu was presented with a little theatre – some courses required the pouring of sauces and garnishes by staff, some glittered with gold leaf or shone with crispy salmon skin, a seafood soup sat swirled in a yin and yang. The Peking Duck, an exceptional dish, saw the chef come out of the kitchen to carve in the middle of the room. This attention to detail made us feel like cherished, lucky guests.
For Kerry, the star of the show was a foie gras and scallop dumpling. So good, she let it sit for a moment, and told me it was the most unexpected, rich, delicate little thing she had ever eaten. While Kerry later had lobster, I was given a beautiful aubergine, cut and splayed like a sea urchin, fried and placed in a rich tomato sauce. Both were matched with a 2012 Bourgogne Blanc, a Burgundy wine which cut through the richness of the dishes with a minerally finish (at least, I think that was what the sommelier said). There was a mid-course sneaky little grapefruit-scented cocktail, and early on, a low alcohol sake so plummy and fresh, we thought we could learn to drink it instead of prosecco in the summer months, in an effort to mind the children a little more soberly. But really, what’s the fun in that?
Dessert came out in three parts; the first, tiny mango ice cream balls covered with a thin crackling shell, then an assortment of subtly sour green apple parfait and noodles with cardamom cake. Lastly, our server, reminding me of a 1950’s cinema girl, brought out a tray of tiny petit fours for us to choose from, and encouraged us to have just one more. Which we did, of course, full, but seduced by the little truffles and dusted fancies.
And so, hours and hours later, the courses were finished, the chef congratulated, the menu signed and the last drink was drunk. We managed to find our way out of the (by now) extremely hard to navigate moving walls, back into the cold, shiny, hard lights of Liverpool Street and faulty Uber connectivity. Happy Chinese New Year, HKK.
The HKK Chinese New Year Tasting Menu is available now and through the New Year. For more information and reservations, visit www.hkklondon.com.
Chinese New Year is celebrated on Monday 8th February 2016. For tips on how and where to celebrate and what to see in the capital, visit www.visitlondon.com.