June 25, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

A Contrarian @ Hakkasan


It’s not especially Chinese but duck salad with citrus and greens is a lively starter
It’s not especially Chinese but duck salad with citrus and greens is a lively starter.


          I can’t deny it. Hakkasan is easy to hate. It sprawls there in a ridiculously ungainly spot on West 43rd Street just begging to be kicked and bullied. That unfindable door. The bruiser guarding it. (Even though he seems to be there to point it out, not keep you out.) The burning sticks of incense in that shadowy long, long, long march to the hostess stand. Are we supposed to think we’re in a temple? Quick, get me to a mai tai.


You can sit in the blue of the bar and sing the blues about ridiculous price-tags.


          I’ve never been to the original Hakkasan in London or its seedlings elsewhere, but I must admit, this supposedly $15 million ark across from a parking lot looms like a miscalculation. Truth is, I like the food. I almost actually love most of what I tasted in two visits. It’s the perfect place to go when your son the hedge fund genius is treating or if your best friend is dating a Russian oil oligarch.


Dim Sum this elegant are rare indeed. At $22 for eight, that’s $3.50 each


          I’m thrilled by the feverishly peppery and aromatic strands of Ma La Chicken with cucumber, both cooling and spicy under shards of skin as crisp as any Peking duck. And while the menu is pocked with ridiculous prices, this bird is just $26. If only I hadn’t eaten every last bite of each surprisingly expert dumpling on the steamed dim sum platter — the variety of skins, the clarity of scallop and shrimp. Very impressive.


I like my mai tai less sweet. Take two and don’t fret about what’s seemly on 43rd Street.


          “I guess they have taught the Latinos how to do the dim sum,” Michael Tong, my dining companion observes, his seat facing the dumpling station. He has to ask for black vinegar. The waiter rushes off to fetch it. Duck with black pepper in a wonton skin is new for him too.


Sweet, smoky and falling off the bone, once the ribs came with a pansy, once without.


          If only I had resisted the second Jasmine tea smoked rib with its sweet, smoky, fatty meat fairly falling off the bone, a “Small Eat” for $22. But we’re only two tonight and the portion is four ribs. (My mouth made me do it.) The season for soft shell crab is so fleeting. Of course I have to demolish the last crunchy appendage, but I didn’t really need to shovel up all those slivers of its shredded egg yolk nest. Surely it was just for decoration. I’ve already forgotten the $48 misunderstanding: the “traditional” lamb shank with Chinese herbs, a tasteless haunch we sent back barely sampled. Did anyone notice? No comment.


A master hand cooked our soft shell crab. It’s layered in a nest of egg yolk threads.


          Then, as a coda, at the end of sane eating, it’s delicious torture when a generous bowl of stir fried udon noodles — laced with shreds of roast duck and a lively dose of XO sauce — lands in front of us, gamey, salty and hot. I can barely find room for one swirl of noodles. And then another…and another. “Don’t force yourself,” says Michael. “You can take a doggie bag.”


This neutered lamb shank is pitifully dull but forgotten once the chicken arrives.


          We’ve both been recognized at the entrance.  It seems, he tells me, that whenever a restaurant company from Taiwan or China or Hong Kong contemplates taking on Manhattan, they check out Tong’s Shun Lee East or West to survey what works in upscale Chinese. The team from Hakkasan made the reservation in the name “Hakkasan.”  “It was mostly young guys, not the owners,” he tells me.  “They didn’t introduce themselves or ask questions.”


All bets are off when Chef Ho Chee Boon moves on to the next Hakkasan somewhere.


          So you can say my Hakkasan outing is privileged. Clearly we’re getting the full chili blast out of respect while The Post’s anonymous Steve Cuozzo and the Times Pete Wells, under some nom de forchette, were served dumbed-down versions deemed safe for ghost-people palates.


Would we have loved the $38 braised lobster noodles more for $10 less? Probably.


          On an earlier visit, the service had clearly not found a dignified pitch. How slow it was. Happily, one of our couples, aggrieved over some slight, did their “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” routine.  Still, our fussy sixsome stopped to appreciate the crunch and tang of the crispy duck salad with pomelo and pine nuts — an aggressive $29 — that I’d want to have again anyway. 


What are we supposed to do with these teeny lettuce wraps? Hang them from our ears?


          We got a giggle from six tiny trimmed lettuce leaves — aprons for Barbie — to wrap the wild mushroom stir fry, a measured amount. And anyway, the grilled Shanghai dumplings were better, not the soupy dumplings we expected, but expertly made potstickers.  Lily bulb and almonds with spicy prawns got an A minus once the dish finally arrived. The distinguishing characteristic of the $39 lobster was that aggressive price. We had to practically trip a bus boy to get someone to wipe off the spills and condensation on the bare table.


Ribeye, she said. I expected a steak. Even so these tidbits are pretty good.


          Of course we squealed and snorted in outrage over the three digit prices of the “Supreme Special Dishes” like braised Japanese abalone with black truffle at $888 (Chinese consider 8 a lucky number). But we weren’t tempted for a second by “Supreme Abalone in Royal Supreme Stock,” (though always nostalgic for The Supremes). And what does caviar have to do with $345 Peking duck other than boost the cost to $345?


          But after that second mai tai, our "Eva Peron" insisted on ordering the $58 turbot with crispy pork belly and chunks of black pepper rib-eye deglazed with Merlot at $39.  I, the selective penny pincher, gave up trying to get anyone interested in a $24 clay pot chicken and watched the tab climb to $185 a couple. But even I agreed most of the food was good. Of course we noted the Carrara marble, carved screens and gold-threaded peacock embroidery and rolled our eyes at the $15 million supposedly spent. But we’re basically eaters.


It’s dessert enough for me: Gold leaf, orange sorbet, shower of chocolate, marshmallows.


          The waiter poured chocolate sauce onto a chocolate-orange confection in a giant balloon glass. Spoons dipped deep into dark bittersweet mousse with blood orange and returned for a marshmallow, followed by murmurs of approval and more digging. As one critic wrote, the gorgeous free macarons are disarming but hardly free after the sting of the tab. The caramel was plump and sublime, oozing its salted caramel filling, but the lemon was slightly stale.


          We agreed we’d probably never come back but thought maybe tourists would, especially those for whom 43rd Street is not that far from their hotel. So, you might ask, what was I doing there months later with Michael Tong?  He’d reported eating there once and liking the food. I thought the place deserved a second bite.


          Now Chef Ho Chee Boon (the master hand from Singapore behind the Michelin one star in London) came out. He did not have the air of a man taking a bow but rather of paying respect. The two spoke in Chinese. The chef was enjoying New York.


          “It’s good for people to see that Chinese food can be expensive too,” Tong observed.  He insisted it was his turn to pay. I guess my secret for a happy outing at Hakkasan might seem frivolous. Persuade the captain you want it spicy. Don’t miss the steamed dim sum. Be sure it’s the other guy’s turn to treat.


311 West 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. 212 776 1818.  Lunch daily 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 pm to midnight. Thursday to Saturday to 1 am.

Photographs may not be used without permission of Gael Greene, copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

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