Sept. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Hutong, which has opened on Level 33 of the Shard, is one of London’s finest Chinese restaurants.
It’s 400 feet (121 meters) above street level. You pay for the amazing views across the capital in high prices, yet these prices also reflect the quality of the ingredients and cooking.
Northern Chinese cuisine is little known in London. Peking duck and other dishes have made it onto menus, yet most restaurants are based on the Cantonese cuisine of the south.
And so it has been since London’s first Chinese restaurant opened more than a century ago. There is debate over the date and location, but a name that often comes up is Maxim’s, founded in 1908 by Chung Koon, a ship’s chef on the Red Funnel Line.
Shandong cuisine (from the coastal province south of Beijing) is robust, using vinegar and chilis. It’s spicy, which makes it suitable for a country where Indian and Thai food are both popular. Red Lantern (28 pounds/$43.76) is a great dish at Hutong if you like it hot: Crispy soft-shell crab is served in a large bowl of Sichuan dried chili. Consume with care.
I like to start a meal at Hutong at the end of the menu, where the dumplings are listed. There’s a range of meat and vegetarian options, all good. I enjoy an excellent dim sum platter that features two pieces each of rose Champagne shrimp dumpling; scallop and pumpkin; crystal crab meat; and vegetable and bamboo pith. In quality and price (15 pounds) it’s up there with Hakkasan’s dim sum platter.
Among the starters, shredded chicken with Sichuan coriander and pepper is a fresh and delicious cold dish that delivers a kick via peppers that will numb your lips like novocaine.
The Peking duck is carved tableside and is as good as you’ll get anywhere, including in Beijing and at London’s finest, Min Jiang. The skin is crispy and brittle, the meat soft and sweet. And just when you’ve filled up on the pancakes comes a second serving, with minced duck wrapped in lettuce.
Other memorable dishes include steamed cod fillet with Sichuan peppercorns, and spicy minced pork with string beans.
Hutong is the first offshoot of the restaurant of the same name in Hong Kong owned by Aqua Restaurant Group, the company responsible for a venue off Regent Street and for Aqua Shard, a sister establishment two floors down in the new skyscraper.
(I had one dinner at Aqua Shard and my main memory is of the cost. If you’re told that Hutong is full but you can have a table at Aqua Shard, I recommend you try for Oblix upstairs.)
My main criticism of Hutong is that it lacks buzz. Oblix is hopping, while the bar at Aqua Shard is a whole scene of its own, with some inventive cocktails such as Heaven on Earth. Hutong is more sedate.
The commercial decision to place overflow diners in the bar area also doesn’t help. (The main dining room is Beijing, the overflow is Shanghai, better known as Siberia.)
There’s also a general problem with the Shard restaurants that you exit the lift into a space that looks like it belongs to an empty office building. (Appropriate, you might say, but hardly the experience you want at smart restaurants.) Oblix is “distinguished” by the greeters with clip boards and earpieces; a few young women hang round the entrance to Aqua.
I recommend drinks at Aqua (on level 31) or even at the Oblix bar (32) if you can talk your way past the elegant bouncers in Ted Baker frocks, followed by dining at Hutong.
Yes, the prices are high and carefully calibrated: dim sum at same price as Hakkasan, Peking duck on a level with Min Jiang. But this is top-quality food that is worth it.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Expensive. Easy to spend 40 pounds a head on food.
Sound level? The quietest spot in the Shard, 70 decibels.
Inside tip? Go for a drink at Aqua Shard.
Special feature? The view.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Yes.
Hutong, Level 33, The Shard, 31 St. Thomas Street, London, SE1 9RY. Information: http://www.aquahutong.co.uk/ or +44-20-7478-0540.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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