Is Hakkasan the sexiest restaurant in London, or what?
Even finding it provides a frisson of excitement. Go up Tottenham Court Road from the Oxford Street end. Take the first left, Hanway Street. Turn right almost immediately into Hanway Place, a Raymond Chandler mean street if ever there was one, with an air of invincibly seedy dilapidation about it. Don't mind that. Press on. At the top of the street, you will see a large man looking like a smartly dressed brick wall standing by a substantial but curiously self-effacing doorway. Go through it and descend the stairs inside. You pass from day into night, or from real night into more dramatic night. The walls are lined with charcoal-grey slate. At each step there is a square red light set into the wall. It is like something out of a James Bond movie. At the bottom of the stairs is Hakkasan, the latest creation of Alan Yau, the man behind Wagamama.
Hakkasan is about as far removed from Wagamama as it is possible to be. It is as suave as the other is sophomoric, as classy as the other is classless. A large dining room is divided up into discrete areas by oriental screens of geometric design. The lighting is what you might call nightclub subdued, with a kind of prevailing lambent, midnight blue. Waiters and waitresses pass and repass in silhouette, suddenly emerging into the third dimension when they bring your food. A metre or so above each table, a light throws reflected rays up off the dark wood, illuminating the lower halves of people's faces, leaving the rest in shadow. Anyone can look sexy when lit like that, even me haha - or so I was assured. There is even muzak, but for once its self-absorbed, repetitive, insistent rhythms seemed calibrated to reinforce the sense of sleek chic.
I have eaten at Hakkasan twice so far, once a solitary lunch of dim sum, Mr Yau's trademark noodles and some oddities such as congee, that invalid food of the gods; and once in the evening, when there's a menu of more substantial and elaborate dishes, many involving seafood in one form or another - steamed crab in Shao Hsing wine, soft-shell crab with hot and sour sauce, stir-fried lobster tail in XO sauce, roast duck with mango and lemon sauce, stir-fried jellyfish, squid and Chinese chives, pan-fried rib-eye beef with sweet soya and almond, roast pork with red rice, ginger and Shao Hsing, stir-fried asparagus with lotus roots and lily bulb with black pepper - that little lot rather overdid for three of us at dinner .
Of course, the food is Chinese, but it has been burnished with astute intelligence to sit comfortably with western tastes, with variations on rib-eye steak, poussin, ostrich, lobster and sardines among them. There are even a couple of dishes made with the very Chinese Windyridge merlot and Nicolas Feuillatte champagne. There's no point in going to Hakkasan in search of authenticity - but does it really matter?
Not very much, in my view. I am probably more in favour of the nooks and crannies of the deep-fried pig's oesophagus and steamed eel with preserved plum sort than most, but here much of the food was so delicious in its own right that I felt perfectly happy to eat more. And more. The lobster, steamed crab, roast duck and roast pork were outstanding at dinner; ditto the scallop shumai, tienging bun, cod congee and plum wine jelly, and lychee sorbet at lunch. If I have a criticism, it's that too many dishes on the dinner menu had sweetish overtones, which made for a certain monotony.
Needless to say, just as Hakkasan isn't your average slam-bang, quick, quick, in-and-out Chinese restaurant, so the cost isn't quite your cheap, cheap, dirt-cheap giveaway, either. Dinner was £142.10, including two bottles of nicely judged Pinot Blanc, three beers and a water, which accounted for £51.80 of it. My solitary lunch came to £31 (but I did eat enough for two), plus £11 on the booze. But for the sheer class of the place, it seems a fair price to pay - particularly if it makes you look sexy.