Travels with a Gourmet

a food lover's travels, memorable meals, culinary trials and gastronomic experiences

I did a girl’s holiday with my friend  T in New York a few weeks back and on our first evening we booked an early table at the newly-opened Hakkasan.  Although they got slammed by the NY Times, we decided to give it a go as we had fond memories of our last girl’s holiday together in London and our wonderful lunch at the original Hakkasan off Tottenham Court road.
The interiors (see photos from the NY Times here) are dark with rich colors, lots of reds and purples, and cozy corners making this one of the sexiest Chinese restaurants ever.  There is a long runway-like white marble hallway for an entrance that leads to the dimly-lit bar and further on to the screened-off areas making it seem like different rooms in a home instead of a large restaurant.  We opted to sit at the far banquette nearest the frosted glass windows to enjoy some of the summer evening light and so I could take photos of our dinner without using a flash.
Hakkasan’s dinner menu is bound in a leather-covered book and as expected from a Chinese restaurant, lots to choose from.  Along with the regular menu was the prix-fixe menu offered for NY Restaurant Week (most restaurants had a lunch prix-fixe for $24.07 and a dinner one for $35).  As there were three of us for dinner, we decided to go for the bargain $35 menu and add another dish from the Small Eat section and share everything family-style the way Chinese food is supposed to be eaten.  The 3-course prix-fixe dinner menu had a choice of three appetizers, three main courses and three desserts plus either fried rice or steamed rice.  To make it easy and to give us a chance to taste the most dishes, we chose one of each along with some Riesling by the glass.
First up was the selection of appetizers: fried dim sum, steamed dim sum and the salt and pepper squid. The steamed dim sum was excellent – four pieces of delicately flavored beautiful steamed parcels – a classic har gao (steamed prawn dumpling), scallop siu mai topped with shrimp roe, black pepper duck dumpling and an all-vegetable chive flower dumpling.  The fried dim sum starter had roasted duck and pumpkin puff, crispy prawn dumpling and XO seafood puff – all three were different in shape but quite similar in taste with the ribbed crispy prawn dumpling having the best flavor mix of salty crunch. The salt and pepper squid was less successful and quite bland for a traditional Chinese dry-fried dish – not enough salt or pepper or spice.  The extra order of our favorite fried soft shell crab with curry leaf and chili ($19) was also served with the appetizers.  One of Hakkasan’s signature dishes the battered and deep-fried soft-shell crab chunks came tossed in curry leaves and chili, and topped with shredded crunchy egg-yolk threads.  The soft-shell crab was a burst of flavor with each sweet-salty-crunchy-seafood-umami bite making it quite hard to stop popping more in the mouth.
We took our time finishing off the appetizers as the portions were quite big for a prix-fixe menu.  The main dishes came next – sweet and sour pork tenderloin with pomegranate,  spicy prawns with lily-bulb and almonds in a light curry sauce and the vegetarian stir-fried sugar snaps, water chestnut and cloud ear mushrooms and the spring onion and egg fried rice for all of us.  Surprisingly, the sweet and sour pork was very good and interesting with the pomegranate seeds providing the sour crunch to the dish.  The vegetables were not soggy and overcooked but crisp and fresh with the sugar snaps retaining their crunch and sweetness, the water chestnuts like crispy turnip chips and the addition of the cloud ear mushrooms giving the dish a smoky twist.  The dish that was a letdown was the spicy prawn which was not spicy at all and quite bland with the prawns looking and tasting like they were just steamed then tossed in the curry sauce and almonds.  The egg-fried rice was, again, bland.
Dessert was much more refined than anything one would ever get at a Chinese restaurant – apple tatin with green apple sorbet, summer cherry ganache and the PB&J.  The classic tarte tatin was served in a perfect rectangle along with a tart green apple sorbet to complement the sweetness of the caramelized apple layers.  The cherry dessert was a long slice of dark chocolate ganache over a chocolate dacquiose (chocolate flavored meringue) with 2 dollops of sorbet – white tea and cherry.  Finally, the PB& J, a riff on the classic peanut butter and jelly which was modernized into a peanut butter parfait, raspberry jelly and passion fruit sorbet concoction.
Dinner at Hakkasan was ok.  Several hits but also lots of misses which shouldn’t be the case for a high-end overpriced Chinese restaurant especially in New York where a short subway ride downtown can mean a fantastic Chinese meal sans the sexy fine dining ambiance of Hakkasan.  Could it be because uber-chef and creative founder Alan Yau is no longer involved in the Hakkasan group of restaurants or because they haven’t worked out the kinks in their menu yet since they opened in less than six months ago?  Whatever it is, Hakkasan has lost some of it’s shine food-wise and in a super competitive high-end restaurant environment like New York, their tried and tested formula needs reworking.
311 West 43rd Street
New York NY 10036
Telephone: +1 212 776 1818
*Open daily for lunch and dinner from 11:30 till late.  Dim sum brunch served on weekends.

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