Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hakkasan NY: Excellent Chinese Food Worth the Price of Admission (food)

The food at Hakkasan was excellent. But I'll get back to that. When discussing Hakkasan, most of the attention tends to go toward the cost. Some early critics were bewildered by the $888 Japanese abalone with black truffle and the $345 Peking duck with kaluga caviar. But in reality, it is not uncommon for certain single dishes at high end Cantonese restaurants in Asia to cost more than entire 3 Michelin star meals. Depending on the size and quality of the abalone, that price may even be a relative bargain! That's not to say that Hakkasan isn't expensive. As someone born and raised in Hong Kong and well versed in high end Chinese food, I was more appalled by the $3 price tag on the jasmine rice. But then again, that's the price of admission.

The usual retort is "I can eat better for much less in Chinatown/Flushing." But to really put the difference in perspective, let's look at Peking Duck House. They have a midtown location and a downtown location. The prices for both are explicitly listed on their website, and in general the exact same dishes cost about $5-10 more at the midtown location. But you know what? I'd rather pay the premium and eat comfortably in midtown. I'd rather have the elbow room than be packed like sardines in Chinatown. I'd rather be in a space where they can actually carve the duck in front of you and professionally wrap it tableside than barely get a glimpse of the action while having the table overflow with food because it's so small. That's the price of admission.

At its core, the cooking at Hakkasan is Southern Chinese/Cantonese in origin. There are also some fusion-y touches to some of the items, and they have a nice dessert selection one is very unlikely to encounter in Chinatown/Flushing. The thing about Cantonese cuisine, though, is that it's probably more about enhancing the umami of the core ingredients than any other Chinese cuisine. Even though the difference can be subtle even to an experienced palate, the importance of ingredients is magnified in Cantonese cooking. You get what you pay for, and I just can't imagine that the places in Chinatown/Flushing are using better ingredients than the ones at Hakkasan.


HAKKA STEAMED DIM SUM PLATTER: SCALLOP SHUMAI, HAR GAU, PRAWN AND CHINESE CHIVE DUMPLING, BLACK PEPPER DUCK DUMPLING
VEGETARIAN STEAMED DIM SUM PLATTER: MOREL CRYSTAL DUMPLING, BAMBOO DUMPLING, LOTUS BEANCURD ROLL, CHIVE FLOWER DUMPLING
We started with two of the dim sum platters. While Hakkasan has excellent Chinese food for NYC, there are still flaws and it's not really comparable to the better places in Hong Kong. The dim sum were a bit too large and not as delicate as I would have liked. The skins were also a bit too thick for my preference, and a lot of the textures were too repetitive to be put together in one platter. That being said, the quality of the fillings was excellent and there were some interesting combinations in the vegetarian platter.

STIR-FRY MUSHROOM LETTUCE WRAP WITH PISTACHIO AND PINENUT
I tend to find lettuce wraps serviceable but never amazing. This one was no different, although it was interesting how the mushrooms and nuts managed to anchor the savory flavors without meat. Although many would frown on serving just the very tiny delicate hearts of the lettuce (instead of something that can really be wrapped), I found it a nice touch of detail and a good reminder of the quality of the ingredient you're paying for.

WOK-FRY SEA PRAWNS WITH LOTUS ROOT
Our first main of sea prawns was excellent, with sizeable crustaceans and great texture complements in lotus root, mushrooms, and scallions. The presentation could have been better, as it needed more bright colors and there were actually a good number of prawns hidden within the stir fry.


PIPA DUCK
BLACK TRUFFLE ROASTED DUCK
For our meat entrees, we had two duck dishes that came highly recommended by friends. The pipa duck, named after the Chinese musical instrument that the duck resembles as it hangs, is a traditional preparation where the duck is boned and butterflied before roasting to maximize crispiness. The skin was indeed some of the crispiest I've had, and reminded me of really good Cantonese style crispy skinned chicken. Similar to the way Chinese roast suckling pig is served, the meat was more of an afterthought, and the dish came with a sweet sauce for dipping. The black truffle duck seemed at first to just be roast duck that you would get at a Chinese BBQ/roasted meats place served with a clear truffle sauce and shavings of truffle. The truffle flavor, however, managed to attach itself to the meat, which was well seasoned and pretty tender for duck cooked well-done. The aroma was wonderful and the sauce carried the flavor well. If they used truffle oil, I would like to know which brand as it did not have that overly pungent artificial smell to it that I usually associate with truffle oils.


STIR-FRY SUGAR SNAP, CLOUD EAR AND WATER CHESTNUT
TOFU, AUBERGINE AND SHIITAKE MUSHROOM CLAYPOT WITH CHILLI BLACK BEAN SAUCE
We also ordered two vegetable entrees to round out the meal for the 3 of us. The stir fry was cooked well, with each vegetable retaining its freshness amid a medley of crispy and crunchy textures. I thought the claypot was stellar. The aubergine still retained some crispness and was not oily at all, which is something that happens easily to eggplant, and pointed to deft cookery and good attention to detail. The sauce was deliciously savory and just coated all of the tofu, which was firm yet silky, with a full texture similar to egg tofu.


BLACK SESAME CREMEUX WITH YUZU ICE CREAM
EXOTIC FRUIT PLATTER
Individual components of the black sesame dessert were fine, but it just didn't come together for me as the black sesame and yuzu flavors were both very assertive in their own ways. The exotic fruit platter, however, was a showstopper. It was gorgeous and filled with large helpings of fruit, including exotic items such as dragonfruit, rambutan, and white currants.


The kitchen is huge, which makes sense since the space is about 11,000 square feet.

DECOR & SERVICE
We enjoyed the meal, which was made better by the excellent service. We were seated at a large comfortable round table with a banquette to one side and our own dangling light. A couple of us were running almost half an hour late, and the server kept our lone waiting diner company. The decor is chic and while the clubby music wasn't my thing, it wasn't loud and didn't interfere with dinner.

Overall, I thought there was skillful cooking and excellent ingredients at Hakkasan. It's expensive, but the prices have come down a bit from when they opened and I feel the food compares favorably to familiar "upper east side" Asian restaurants such as Tao, Shun Lee, Mr. K, Mr. Chow, etc. that are at a similar price point. I just don't see why some people think it's ok to spend $17 for fried rice at Mission Chinese but consider Hakkasan overpriced. I'm just glad there's a high quality Chinese restaurant in NYC featuring great ingredients that focuses on the subtleties of Cantonese cooking as opposed to the in-your-face flavors of Mission Chinese or the numbing qualities of Sichuan food that people seem to rave about these days.

Hakkasan NY
311 W 43rd St
(between 9th Ave & 8th Ave)
New York, NY 10036

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