The original Hakkasan opened nearly a decade ago, in 2001 – the same year Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. Since then, the popular image of Chinese culture, cuisine and competence have changed greatly.
Alan Yau was the original mastermind behind the groundbreaking restaurant, ambiguously located underground in an alley near Tottenham Court Road tube. His interpretation of Chinese cuisine was refreshing, bringing Cantonese cooking and fine dining together into one sexy package.
Of course, Hakkasan was not the first to posh-up Chinese food – Mr Chow in Knightsbridge was doing it for decades before Yau came on the scene – but it propelled the cuisine back into the spotlight. The first-class cocktail bar, serving up highly original drinks and quality sakés, helped too.
In an interview with Time Out three years ago, Yau commented: ‘No one really imagined that Chinese food could be sophisticated, not in the way that they view Japanese food and places like Nobu.’ While Yau is no longer associated with the brand he created (Hakkasan was sold to Abu Dhabi investors in 2008), the quest to articulate Chinese food as an internationally recognised beacon of fine dining continues. Yau is currently opening his first restaurant in the IFC Mall in Hong Kong, incidentally, and there are also Hakkasans in Miami and Abu Dhabi now.
This second London branch is conspicuously located among the riches of Mayfair, with windows looking out on to the streets and into the designer boutiques opposite. But the romance of descending into an opulent underworld – as in the original – can still be realised by requesting a table in the basement dining room.
Here, it’s pretty much a carbon copy of the original design by Christian Liaigre at Hanway Place, but by a different designer; upstairs is brighter, less clubby and miles more inviting, looking more like the ground floor space of sister restaurant Yauatcha. The sleek, short red dresses worn by the glamorous female staff are designed by Diane von Furstenberg, whose boutique lies just across the road.
The (cheaper) dim sum menu was brought out along with the à la carte . We enjoyed the simpler items the most – benchmark har gau dumplings were plump and fresh, if unconventionally large, while xiao long bao had thin, delicate wrappers and a rich porky broth, though none of the flavours of the advertised dried scallop.
Luxury items were folded into the dishes with shameless abandon: bouncy prawn balls burst with a molten centre of liquid foie gras, a playful twist on Fuzhou fishballs (normally stuffed with minced meat), while prized ingredients such as abalone, crab, lobster and wagyu feature heavily.
Most of what we tried was decent, and a cut above most Chinese restaurants, but often seemed to be less than the sum of its parts.
A new dish of black truffle roast duck with tea plant mushrooms comprised of beautifully cooked duck breast, moist and tender with crisp skin, but the truffle element was muted and failed to add anything to the plate. Braised pork belly in double soy sauce (soy sauce that has undergone two fermentations for a fuller, richer flavour) with osmanthus flower on the menu made us think fondly of Dongpo pork, but it was barely recognisable when it came to the table – it tasted more like sweet-and-sour pork without the tang, the delicate aromatic flowers lost among the overly sweetened soy.
Desserts are more Western in style, beautifully executed. A jasmine tea and apricot sorbet was exceptional, but the jasmine tea-smoked chocolate crémeux alongside tasted acrid. For £3.60, the glutinous rice balls filled with sweet black sesame paste from the dim sum menu is a cheaper, more traditional and enjoyable dessert.
It’s telling that the simpler dishes seemed to work the best, as though the kitchen were not quite au fait with melding certain ingredients and techniques together. But there is no doubt that Hakkasan will do well in the area, even if it didn’t quite live up to the expectations raised by the sensation the original caused.