Rachel Seed navigates the mean streets of Mayfair to visit the second London outpost of Hakkasan.
The first time I visited Hakkasan, shortly after it first opened just over a decade ago, I nearly left before I’d even arrived. I spent a good 15 minutes scouring the grotty, urine-soaked back alleys around Tottenham Court Road seeking the entrance to this hot, new, lauded restaurant (as it was already, with a mere two months of trading under its belt) before finally stumbling across its entrance. There is no such problem with the second London outpost of this Cantonese fine dining eatery. Its location in the heart of Mayfair really doesn’t get more salubrious, opposite some of London’s smartest boutiques on Bruton Street.
The exterior is the usual understated, barely sign-posted affair – that ‘if you have to ask what and who’s inside, you shouldn’t come in’ sort of feel. As we pushed through the doors, we were hit with wafts of the Hakkasan signature scent (if there is such a thing – there should be) and were greeted by the couture-draped hosts/part-time supermodels.
Alan Yau was the creative mind behind the original eatery, and the chain (as it is now) has been taken over by investors in Abu Dhabi. Despite Yau’s departure, its new owners are admirably continuing to uphold his high standards. The new Hakkasan boasts two floors of eating: upstairs is more canteen-like, with shared tables and – albeit obscured through the ornate wooden panels – views onto the street, with none of the subdued lighting and sultriness of the original. However, descend the stairs into the basement and you’re back into true Hakkasan territory. The upstairs was packed, probably with tourists who’d rather be able to see out and remind themselves that they are, indeed, in London, rather than one of Hakkasan’s other restaurants in Miami or Abu Dhabi.
However, those who want to experience Hakkasan as it should be should ask for a table downstairs, with its low lighting, wooden dividing screens, glinting black lacquer surfaces and intimate banquettes. Even though we were there bang-on opening time on a weekday, the restaurant was already busy and the clientele was as glamorous as the place itself.
Across from us was a minimally made-up supermodel wearing the largest watch her skinny wrist could support, sipping signature cocktail after cocktail while her Blackberry-obsessed Russian boyfriend checked his emails and ignored the beauty before him. To our side was a table of wealthy Chinese tourists who could barely squeeze their collection of high-end shopping bags under the table – a pit-stop, no doubt, before the spending continued well into the afternoon. A sedate and effortlessly stylish John Rocha was sitting nearby, and by the time we left the restaurant it was full with more of the same.
Once I’d finished perusing my fellow diners, I settled in and took my time over the menu. I had to repeatedly ask our patient waiter for more time – the menu is enormous, and authentic – and I wanted to take it all in before regrettably narrowing down my choices. Had we been there for dinner, rather than lunch, the proceedings would have taken even longer as the cocktail list is almost as long as the food menu and just as tempting, with simple classics given a Hakkasan twist. From a lychee martini to the infinitely more complicated Walking Budda, with rum, tamarillo fruit, dried plum, dates, sake peach liqueurs and apricot juice.
There is an abundance of luxury ingredients featured throughout Tong Chee Hwee’s menu and, if you are willing to remortgage your second home, you can get find pretty much any foodie luxury your heart desires here: abalone, crab, lobster, truffle, wagyu, caviar. Our prawn balls filled with molten foie gras were, admittedly, incredible, but it was the simple stuff that stole my heart. The braised pork belly in double fermented soy sauce was toothsome and unctuous. However, it was the aubergine and tofu clay pot that was the unexpected wow dish of the meal. The slow-cooked aubergine and delicate silky tofu (why can I never cook it like this?) in a black bean sauce burst with flavour and sizzled tantalisingly on the sides of the dish. Even a meat lover like me felt that nothing was lacking – I loved this dish. And would go back for this alone. Our side dish of garlic shoots was fresh and simple and rounded off the meal perfectly, along with the steamed rice to make sure we didn’t miss a single finger-licking drop of the incredible sauces. Despite having no room for pud – and we thought we’d ordered modestly – we shared a fabulously refreshing jasmine tea and apricot sorbet, which cleansed the palate beautifully.
London’s second Hakkasan is a slick operation: the food is faultless (though, at times, over-priced); the design is fabulous; the staff, in their Diane von Furstenburg-designed clobber, are charming – just the right side of friendly, and they certainly know their stuff. Not only have the new owners done the original justice but they have, in my opinion, taken it to another level. Yes, it’s expensive – £10 for a side dish is expensive whatever you’re earning – but boy is it worth it.
Hakkasan Mayfair, 17 Bruton Street, London, W1J 6QB
Tel: 0207 907 1888