Suits you or just for suits?
Hakkasan was one of the restaurants that helped foster the idea that Chinese food in London wasn’t just greasy take away fare. HKK is a new City spin-off of the Soho original, but with an emphasis on expensive tasting menus that befits its location in the shadow of capitalism’s gleaming towers.
If you’re expecting the handsome dark woods and aromatic scents of Alan Yau’s other restaurants, then HKK’s surprisingly plain, understated decor will be a disappointment. The generally generic grey glossy gleam is designed to avoid offending the homogenous, monochrome, easily startled suits that prowl the nearby streets. The only real hint of character is the usual flower bulb-shaped ceiling fixtures in the centre of the room.
If there’s one odd thing about HKK, it’s the staff. Although exceedingly polite and attentive, they’re also very timid and softly spoken – so much so that it was often a struggle to hear our waitress, while other staff seemed positively terrified of our very presence. The proximity of the reception to the toilets, and the receptionists’ insistence on opening the door for me, made me feel as if my urinary habits were under inspection. I really shouldn’t have had that vat of coffee before eating. Still, the regular supply of refreshing hot towels was very welcome – all restaurants should have hot towels.
Although a shorter and cheaper tasting menu is available for lunch, for dinner only the full 15 course smorgasbord is available. The Euro Hedgie and I are irredeemable carnivores, but the kitchen does make alternatives where necessary for vegetarians and pescatarians, such as Hedgie’s friend Bambi.
The amuse bouche was an odd little thing of pickled root vegetables and enoki mushrooms wrapped in iberico ham and dressed with sriracha sauce. It could’ve been a potentially interesting fusion of Spanish and Chinese textures and flavours, but the predominant flavour here was the saltiness of the ham.
The pescatarian alternative was a mixture of pine nuts and what I think were beans dressed in a Sriracha sauce and served in an odd little pastry cup apparently made with dried anchovies. The pine nuts went surprisingly well with the Sriracha sauce.
Drunken chicken, where the meat is marinated in rice wine, and jelly fish is a very popular and traditional Chinese dish and HKK’s version doesn’t take many liberties with the original apart from the smaller, tasting menu-sized portion. The chicken is less fatty and has a cleaner aftertaste than is traditional, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do wonder what would’ve been the result if the kitchen had been a little more adventurous, perhaps trying to marry drunken chicken and chicken confit. But then, such potentially horrific thought experiments are probably best left outside the kitchen.
The vegetarian alternative was a lotus root, cloud ear fungus and lily bulb salad. The novelty of the crisp lotus root and the slippery fungus alone were good enough for Bambi who had never tried them before.
A full Beijing duck feast is an epic tasting menu in of itself and HKK will apparently have its own five course version of this feast in due course. I had to be content with a miniature version which, sadly, wasn’t carved at the table but behind us instead. A thin sliver of crisp skin had its dark, roasted sweetness emphasised by the trail of brown dipping sugar. This was followed by a small chunk of meat topped with a fattier layer of skin, best eaten with the sweet, mildly garlicky bean sauce which emphasised its savoury fattiness. Finally there was the duck and cucumber filled pancake which was a relatively refreshing yet still meaty finish to this surprisingly traditional feast in microcosm.
The vegetarian alternative was a much more innovative pairing of truffles and thin strips of rehydrated waxy tofu with rice pancakes and cucumbers. Bambi seemed unsure of the whole thing, but I almost wish I could’ve traded my duck, delicious as it was, for the veggie imitation.
The kitchen may not have tried creating a drunken confit chicken, but it did create a goji berry, confit chicken and dried scallop soup. This soup greatly resembled the traditional ‘medicinal’ broths served seasonally by Chinese housewives to their families. Despite the use of confit chicken, the clear, meaty, slightly sweet broth was considerably less oily with a cleaner aftertaste than a more homespun version. The Hedgie suspects this was due to the kitchen pressure cooking the soup rather than simply boiling it as well as the use of French poulet de bresse chicken meat. The use of what I suspect were heated rather than dried and rehydrated goji berries meant their taste was surprisingly muted though.
The vegetarian alternative of goji berry and hawtorn soup was the most bizarre dish of the evening. The sweetness of this thickened soup almost resembled a tomato or minestrone soup and Bambi was completely put off by it. The waitress kindly offered to find a replacement dish for Bambi, but it wasn’t necessarily bad, just unexpectedly and very oddly unsophisticated.
Hakkasan is well known for its Dim Sum, so I looked forward to HKK’s Dim Sum Trilogy course with a high degree of anticipation. The rice flour skin of the steamed prawn and truffle dumping had an exemplary level of viscosity despite its thinness, but the truffle taste was surprisingly muted. I was also unimpressed with the chicken, prawn and Szechuan pepper dumpling which barely had any taste of Szechuan pepper at all and the dumpling skin was oddly thick and stodgy (the pescatarian version lacked the chicken). The one unqualified success here was the crisp yet unoily fried turnip roll – the gently sweated shreds of vegetable inside were soft, moist and slightly sweet.
A very traditional stir fry of gailan, lily bulbs, mushrooms and dried shrimp in XO sauce was considerably less oily than the lesser, inferior stir fries served elsewhere. The crisp greens, tender bulbs, silky mushrooms, salty prawns and musky sauce came together beautifully.
One of the highlights of the evening for me was the lobster claw. It’s difficult to describe its beautiful texture without sounding like more of a raging ponce than I already am, but the kitchen somehow managed to make the crustacean claw both tender and slightly crisp at the same time and this combination was nothing short of extraordinary. The bed of mildly nutty yellow bean sauce and the unremarkable flat-sided egg noodles were anticlimactic though.
I’m always slightly perplexed by the odd insertion of a sweet course in between savoury courses that’s increasingly common on fine dining menus, but at least this one tasted good. Here, a very sweet herbal jelly was paired with a crisp yet quiveringly soft, nutty and slightly sweet water chestnut cake. I could eat several large chunks of the cake alone which was a remarkable combination of taste and texture. The sweet, crisp apple leaf successfully captured the taste and texture of that fruit and proved to be a unifying element in this odd, but very accomplished dish.
The savoury courses resumed with a monkfish fillet that was golden and slightly crisp on the outside with a quiveringly pink, just-cooked inside. The use of the poor man’s lobster made this fishball-like dish especially tasty – the use of soft, small grained rice in a slightly sour and tangy rice wine broth made it even better.
Hotpots are an under appreciated part of Chinese cuisine, but HKK’s kitchen hasn’t forgotten about them. Although the alleged pumpkin flavour of the tofu was muted at best and the addition of bonito flakes added little, the fluffy, airy texture was delightful and was complimented nicely by the sharp, fruity sauce.
Wagyu beef might be so overused in fine dining menus that it’s now cliched, but the meaty chunks here were very tender and pulled off in delicate strands. Their meatiness was enhanced by the earthy, musky, sweet sauce which I enjoyed greatly, although the Hedgie found it a little too strong for his taste. We both agreed that the addition of water chestnuts added little though and the water chestnut crisp was just plain odd as well as generic tasting – it could easily have been a parsnip crisp.
The vegetarian alternative was a soya-based imitation duck, although its meatiness was more reminiscient of clams than duck in a way.
The final savoury dish of razor clams wasn’t bad, but it left me non-plussed. The small bitty slices of clam were a little too soft for my liking, but the mild chilli vermicelli topping was pleasing enough. The addition of sticky rice was odd though and stuck out like a sore thumb.
The Euro Hedgie generally hates Asian desserts, but even he seemed pleased with the first dessert of lychee tapioca with passion fruit jam drizzled in – the two fruity flavours meshed together very well. The highlight element was clearly the passion fruit flavoured cream though – the exceedingly light, wispy cream nonetheless tasted strongly of passion fruit.
Since this dessert uses beef-based gelatine, the vegetarian version substitutes the passion fruit flavoured cream with a passion fruit flavoured ice cream. The overall effect is pretty similar, but it’s not quite as interesting in terms of texture.
The vanilla ice cream was an uninspiring blob of white, but it was thankfully paired with a small slice of sweet, sharp pomelo and a delightfully constructed pineapple fritter. Thin, crisp, deep fried strands of pastry, thankfully unoily, gave way to a soft, chunky fruit center. Satisfying.
I think it’s slightly cheeky to count petit fours as a course, but at least the ones here are distinctive. The one that seared its mark on my brain had to be the durian petit fours. You either love or hate durian and I love it. The durian petit fours captured the distinctive creaminess of that fruit as well as replicated the soft, tender, slightly viscous skin that encases the fruit. A spectacular finish.
HKK also has a bar where you can cool your heels while waiting for errant members of your party or for picking up a cheeky drink for the road. The Euro Hedgie was unimpressed with the French Quarter, a cognac-based cocktail that’s easy drinking thanks to its light, grape-like flavour, but this also makes it rather unremarkable for him. He was more pleased with the Hakka, a trademark fusion of lychee, passion fruit and coconut imported from Hakkasan.
The drinks menu literally only has two non-alcoholic options. One of them, the oddly-named Washed Potatoes, is an unremarkable concoction that tastes mostly of lime and lychee. Not bad, but overpriced for what it is.
HKK may have opened at around the same time as Bo London, but the two couldn’t be more different. While both are Chinese fine dining restaurants, Bo is much more modernist than HKK which turned out to be surprisingly traditional with relatively few innovative flourishes. HKK’s understated style proved to be far more successful than the hit and miss Bo, but even so only a handful of dishes really captured my imagination and those familiar with traditional Chinese cuisine may feel that some of the dishes are overpriced versions of familiar, homespun classics.
Still, HKK is the place to go if you want refined, classy Chinese cuisine for that special occasion.
Address: Broadgate West, 88 Worship Street, London EC2A 2BE
Phone: 020 3535 1888 (Triple eight? How superstitious of them.)
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday, noon-14.00 and 18.00-21.00. Saturday 18.00-21.00.
Reservations: essential. Credit card details taken for all reservations. Fee for cancellations less than 24 hours in advance – £40 lunch, £80 dinner.
Total cost for one person including drinks: £130 approx.