Few dishes outclass the portable feast that is Peking duck.
The gamy meat, crispy skin, sweet plum sauce and cool scallions enveloped in mu shu pancakes make for an elegant yet populist meal. Not surprising, it’s the first item on the menu at Hakkasan, newly arrived in Manhattan’s Theater District.
The bird isn’t terribly different from the $50 versions sold around town. Hakkasan justifies the higher price by including 30 grams of good, farmed Kaluga caviar.
That much roe retails for $125 at Russ & Daughters, so throw in $170 worth of those pancakes and I suppose it’s a deal, if not a very good one.
Hakkasan is a global chain of luxury Chinese restaurants that debuted in London and spread to Mumbai, Miami, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The original has one Michelin star. All the locations share a more telling trait: No online menu prices, which makes sense, because if there were any, who’d eat here? People willing to pay $888 for a portion of truffled abalone.
In New York, the menu currently isn’t on view at the entrance, so you’ll have to walk down an 80-foot corridor suffused with jasmine incense before reaching the host stand. There you’ll discover that a single crispy quail costs $28, which the average diner can finish off in a minute flat.
Wakiya, New York’s last high profile Chinese import from London, closed shortly after it opened. Hakkasan is marginally better.
Late arrivals are accommodated and drink tabs are always transferred. Gosset Rose ($35 the glass) is served in elegant L’Atelier du Vin flutes and there are good bottles of Riesling under $74. Bartenders alternate sugary signature cocktails with excellent classics, like a negroni amped up with Grand Marnier-flavored smoke for a pleasant nose.
Such conveniences soften the edges of the overpriced pedestrian food. Finger bowls might appear with four forgettable tea-smoked pork ribs ($22) and waiters might give you hand towels following a course of obscenely chewy ostrich, a false effort in curried exoticism for $38.
There are also inconveniences. Six-foot-tall diners will find the bar comfortable; shorter Tom Cruise types will point their elbows up at odd angles to reach the counter.
A Hong Kong-born companion was impressed with the $28 steamed dim sum platter. Gossamer sheaths of dough encase barely cooked-through scallops and shrimp. And five-spice pork belly ($24) sports a Goldilocks ratio of 75 percent soft meat to 25 percent silky fat.
Then you spoon some duck and fish maw soup ($15) thickened with so much cornstarch it could qualify as pudding. Ma la chicken ($26), whose name refers to the Sichuanese sensation of numbing-spiciness, is an epic case of false advertising: Hakkasan sends out slices of breast meat and crispy skin, lacking much pop or pizzazz.
Almond-coated soft shell crabs ($22) are gritty and tasteless. Black bean lobster, with no aromatic shell or stock, might as well be $59 worth of maritime mystery meat.
Hakkasan is less about exposing New Yorkers to traditional Chinese luxuries, than using expensive Western ingredients in vaguely Eastern dishes as a DJ plays club music.
Australian Wagyu, whose spiderlike marbling makes it the pinnacle of that country’s beef industry, is wok-fried into grayish slabs and paired with peanut sauce, a $78 misdemeanor. The subtlety of Dover sole, prized for its mild flavor, is stir fried away in a spicy XO sauce ($52). Insane.
Sesame shrimp toast contains a filling of foie gras that does a fine job of burning your tongue. Black truffle duck ($88) boasts gorgeous black truffle flavor; too bad the kitchen can’t render out the bird’s fat correctly. And truffled noodles taste like any other noodle, a problem when you’re paying $59.
Smart diners will finish with the $15 lemon tart, to be followed by “free” macaroons, which aren’t quite “free” when you’re easily spending $200 per person for dinner.
Hakkasan’s excellent service, lumbar-supportive seating and a respectful reservations policy make you wish for such comforts at small, ambitious spots like Red Farm or Mission Chinese. If only Hakkasan’s food wasn’t so stratospherically worse than at those fine restaurants.
Rating: 1/2 *
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: If you have to ask. . .
Sound Level: Often 80 decibels or above, but tolerable.
Date Place: A guy at the bar asked my date out, so maybe yes, maybe no.
Inside Tip: Skip the sugary signature cocktails.
Special Feature: Chinese-style barbequed whole suckling pig for $295.
Back on My Own Dime: For cocktails.
Hakkasan is at 311 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-776-1818; http://www.hakkasan.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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