Restaurant Review: Underwhelmed by Hakkasan

A friend suggested meeting for a quick and early dinner last Thursday evening, before she went on to a show (which I declined). Having been before, and knowing I hadn’t, she suggested we dine at Hakkasan. Several years behind the hype, I was still keen to sample the delights of one of few Asian restaurants in London to win (and keep) a Michelin star.

It seems waiting until Alan Yau sold up was not a wise decision. Whilst we had a pleasant meal, I was distinctly underwhelmed by the Hakkasan experience. Certainly, I didn’t find myself nodding in agreement and appreciation, as I have when dining at other establishments which have been similarly recognised and awarded by the famous guide.

For a start, I wasn’t blown away by the space itself. Cool and funky, modern and classy it might be, but it was so dark it was hard to see let alone appreciate details of the decor. I found myself wondering just what the intense shadows were hiding? For restaurants-cum-nightclubs or even bar-restaurants, this kind of dim lighting is probably perfect but for me, it made a high-end restaurant seem low-end and tacky. The tables in the dining area did have bright lights suspended above them but these spotlights had such a small area of focus that the dishes placed in the centre of the table, between us, were brightly lit whilst our own plates remained in shadow.

The welcome from the reception team was warm and efficient. As I arrived a few minutes early I was shown to the bar, where the welcome was distinctly cooler. But I’d heard good things about the cocktails and, after some time browsing the extensive cocktail list, I ordered myself a Lost Heaven – fresh nashi pear, Gran Centenario reposado tequila, coconut, peach, lime and guava juice. It was duly delivered (with no hint of a smile or conversation) and was as delicious as it sounds. My friend arrived a few moments later and ordered her own cocktail. She chose a Kokohana – fresh pineapple, basil leaves, coconut rum and lychee juice. It was plonked down in front of her without a word. The bar was manned by 3 male waiters, all of whom were similarly abrupt and short on words.

I was asked if I wanted to run a tab or pay for the bar drinks separately. I explained that, as we were short on time, we’d like to transfer to our dining table as soon as we could, and could they put the drinks onto the restaurant bill, please. I was surprised to be asked for my credit card – as the bar is, I believe, open only to diners, I’d expected them simply to transfer the drinks tab across to our dining one. Furthermore, I hadn’t realised, as I handed it over, that they were going to keep it rather than take an imprint. I don’t even know whether they have a bar card safe or whether cards are accessible to all restaurant staff. Certainly, given the prevalence of card fraud, I hope it’s the former. A short while later, a hostess came to lead us to our table. I asked for my credit card back and was told it would be brought to my table. It was eventually returned to me about 20 minutes later.

Our table waitress was certainly friendlier and more helpful than the bar staff, though the level of service didn’t begin to match the very professional service I’ve received in many high-end restaurants. Even though we were sharing dishes, she’d take one person’s plate away whilst the other was still eating. She’d move to take away the serving dishes before we’d finished with the contents, though we did manage to stop her doing that. When she asked if we’d like more drinks (having both finished our lovely cocktails), I answered first and we had to stop her moving away (presumably to fulfill my order) before my friend had the chance to respond too. On the other hand, she was responsive and accurate when we asked how many dishes from the”Small Eats” section of the menu she felt would provide a good meal for two (five) and she always had a smile for us when she came to the table. She was fairly attentive – we never struggled to get her attention. I’d summarise service as friendly and reasonably efficient but more suited to a casual restaurant chain than a high-flyer like Hakkasan.

So what did we order and how was it?

Dim sum platter – scallop shumai, har gau, Chinese chive dumpling, shimeji dumpling (£11.50)

Handily, there were two of each dumpling so we could both sample all of them. All were well-made from good quality ingredients. The scallop shumai, har gau and chive dumplings were fairly standard and very much what you’ll find in good quality dim sum establishments. The shimeji (mushroom) dumpling was new to me and I really liked the earthy, very umami flavours. It was an open dumpling and there was a thick, rich sauce over the rest of the (vegetarian) contents – very nice.

Jasmine tea smoked organic pork ribs (£11.50)

The ribs were tasty though I can’t say I could detect the jasmine tea smoked flavour. Perfectly pleasant but no better than their counterparts in many Chinese restaurants up and down the country, and certainly overpriced in comparison.

Roasted mango duck with lemon sauce (£11.00)

I enjoyed this dish, though the portion of six very small slices of duck separated by the same number of mango slices, was smaller than I’d have liked. The mango and lemon sauce was tasty, and had a better depth of flavour (and less cloying texture) than the overly sweet lemony syrups beloved of Chinese takeaways.

Stir-fry edamame with pickled vegetable, beancurd stick and salted duck egg (£8.80)

This dish was, without a doubt, the single stand-out dish of the meal. Fresh edamame beans were mixed with a smattering of pickled vegetables, slivers of crispy beancurd and a sprinkle of salty, savoury powder which we assumed must be the duck egg. The combination of textures and flavours worked fantastically well and both of us continued to make noises of appreciation through to the last mouthfuls.

Sesame prawn toast (£13.00)

£13.00 bought us 4 sesame prawn toasts served with more slivered beancurd sticks and a small pile of crispy seaweed. Instead of the usual flat triangles, Hakkasan embedded whole, tail-on prawns within a dome of prawn paste set onto a circle of toast (covered with sesame seeds and deep-fried as usual). The tail stuck out of the dome providing a nifty handle. So presentation was definitely unusual. Taste was a little disappointing; I’d rate this dish as average against a selection of prawn toasts from a range of Chinese restaurants and takeaways. The seaweed too was nothing special. The beancurd sticks provided an additional salty crunch but were somewhat superflous against the crunch of the toasts themselves.

For our second cocktails, I went for more of the same and remained lost in heaven. My friend tried a Jasmine Fon Fon which I think included fresh strawberry, passion fruit, pink grapefruit juice, rum, cinnamon and champagne. Not only beautiful to look at – ruby red, served in a globular glass and topped with a thick white foam – it also packed a punch flavourwise.

Although we were pleasantly full we decided to order one dessert to share.

Tapioca pearl pudding – with vanilla panna cotta, poached banana and passion fruit sorbet (£8.00)

The tapioca pudding itself was lovely. The glimmering little pearls sat in a thick sauce flecked with real vanilla. On top floated a ball of passionfruit sorbet, a single tiny slice of poached banana and several pieces of salted popcorn (not mentioned in the menu description). Initially we thought the vanilla sauce of the tapioca pudding must be what the menu was referring to as panna cotta, failing to spot anything more solid, but towards the end, at the bottom of the dish, we found a few scant fragments of what was probably the hidden cooked cream. The dish mostly worked but we both agreed that whilst the passionfruit sorbet was perfectly nice on it’s own, it clashed horribly with the sweet, creamy vanilla pudding. It seemed like an interloper in a set of components that otherwise gelled well. The poached banana slice was tasty – I’d have liked a little more of it, so it was more than a mere garnish. The salted popcorn was an unexpectedly successful surprise – it contrasted in taste and texture with the creamy vanilla without clashing, like the sorbet. A good way to finish, along with the final slurps of our cocktails.

I can’t share any photos of our dishes with you, as apparently photography is not permitted in the restaurant, as I was told on taking a snap of my cocktail, at the bar. One member of staff helpfully told me that the owner, Mr Yau, was quite insistent about this. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she knew that he’d sold the restaurant several months ago! Nor were staff permitted to give me a photocopy of the menu which would surely have been preferable to my having a notepad and pen out at the dining table in order to record the names and descriptions of the dishes we ordered! My friend, who’d been before, told me that the no photography rule didn’t apply only to the food – she and her husband were stopped from taking photos of themselves enjoying a special evening out.

Our bill came to a whopping £115 (including service, added automatically to the bill). I’d happily pay that price for a fantastic restaurant experience but Hakkasan failed to deliver that for me.

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