ack in 2001, the London restaurant scene was a very different place. Deliveroo was a twinkle in some tech mogul’s eye; fast casual was a term more often used to describe dating encounters; and the closest the capital got to 'authentic' Chinese cuisine was lurid orange sweet-and-sour sauces served to a soundtrack of Spice Girls hits in packed Chinatown restaurants. Then, along came Hakkasan.
When founder Alan Yau opened the doors to the original Hanway Place outpost in April 2001, it was immediately obvious that this was Chinese food – but not as we knew it. The chic, Christian Liaigre-designed underground space, whose interiors feel as fresh and relevant today as they did two decades ago, served all the Cantonese big hitters – Peking duck and pancakes, sesame prawn toast, chicken satay – but the experience was entirely modern. There was a fully formed and well thought-out wine list, a top notch cocktail menu, a brilliant front-of-house team and quality ingredients on par with any of London’s upscale restaurants.
Accordingly, Michelin plaudits shortly followed, sending star gazers, who had previously assumed the culinary world’s most revered prize would be reserved solely for European-style restaurants, into quite the flurry of excitement. The first Chinese restaurant in Britain to receive a star, it paved the way for venues such as Kai Mayfair, A. Wong, and Yau’s follow up restaurant Yauatcha, in the process introducing Londoners to a more varied, exciting culinary landscape.
Twenty years on, and now with locations in Mayfair, Dubai, New York, Miami, Shanghai and more, as well as a five-storey nightclub in Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, Hakkasan is celebrating the place where it all began with a limited-edition anniversary menu at the Hanway Place restaurant. So, is the original game changer everything it’s cracked up to be?
The menu is billed as a journey through the restaurant’s greatest hits of the past two decades. Which means if you’re visiting for the first time, it's a great introduction to what Hakkasan does best. Take, for example, the Hakkatini – a cocktail devised specifically for the anniversary menu. Blending orange-infused vodka with apple, Campari, Grand Marnier and orange cream bitters, it lies somewhere between an Aperol spritz, martini and negroni, perfectly encapsulating the restaurant’s signature way of elevating the familiar into something surprising and memorable.
The theme continues throughout the tasting menu, with Hakkasan dispensing with classic dim sum fillings in favour of scallop shui mai, langoustine har gau and abalone. Stir-fried black pepper rib-eye beef comes in a deep fried noodle swirl, in a witty nod to the bird’s nests anyone who’s ever ordered crispy shredded beef from their local takeaway will be familiar with. The supreme stock braised lobster with egg noodle nests, meanwhile, is decidedly not your average chow mein. In fact, Hakkasan’s expert way with seafood – ingredients commonly used in traditional Chinese cooking but oft overlooked in Westernised versions – is something the restaurant is clearly keen to show off, with fish and shellfish appearing in four of the seven dishes on the tasting menu.
The star of the show – much to the surprise of those whose experience of Chinese puddings extends only to tooth-achingly sweet pineapple fritters – was dessert. Offered up as a firm caramelised chocolate cream topped with plum and raspberry jelly and sake vanilla foam, alongside a scoop of plum sorbet and morsels of plum sponge, this was classic Asian flavours pressed into the service of properly skillful pastry work. Being the kind of restaurant-goer who normally skips dessert, my advice here is to save room – you won’t regret it.
Of course, a restaurant experience, especially at the Michelin star level is about more than just the food, and Hakkasan is running a slick operation you’d never know had recently been disrupted by a global pandemic. Service is efficient but friendly, with waiters deftly juggling a full house and the demands of a private dining area clearly enjoying the ability to meet in large groups again on the evening we visited. Suffice to say this reviewer will always be grateful to the staff member who, even in a darkened dining room, spotted the warning signs of someone about to wander into the kitchen while searching for the bathroom.
So, after 20 years, does Hakkasan still deserve its place on the top table of London’s Chinese restaurants? As far as we’re concerned, it’s a resounding 'yes'.
The Hakkasan 20th Anniversary menu is available now at all Hakkasan restaurants globally, visit hakkasan.com