HKK was underwhelming when it opened two years ago on the edge of London’s City financial district.
It was the new baby of Hakkasan, which wanted a creative Chinese restaurant rather than a clone, and HKK stands for Hakkasan Kitchen. It wasn’t at all bad, just fussy.
There were elaborate tasting menus requiring explanations in a part of London where the premium is on speed and lunch is a business meeting by other means. When Hakkasan shut down its Chrysan Japanese establishment next door, Peking duck looked like it might become dead duck.
What a difference a year makes.
HKK has picked up a Michelin star and while it is still not difficult to get a table, this restaurant is serving some of the finest Chinese food in London. The Peking duck, in particular, is a match for any I have tasted in China.
One of my meals at HKK was with the Fat Duck’s chef, Heston Blumenthal, who once visited Dadong restaurant in Beijing in search of quacker perfection.
The key is moist meat and crispy skin. That’s not easy. Even China Tang at the Dorchester didn’t achieve it when I visited twice last month. Hutong and Min Jiang in London do an admirable job. Yet I’ve never tasted better than at HKK, where the duck is cherry-wood roasted and the skin perfectly brittle.
At lunchtime, there is a range of menus, including a five-course duck option for 42 pounds ($70). You get a lotus-and-mango duck wrap; Peking duck; truffle-duck broth; jasmine rice with roasted duck claypot and wagyu beef; and salted cashew nut and milk-chocolate parfait.
Greater variety comes in a combination of the two four-course menus, one of which focuses on seafood. These cost 28.50 pounds each, and for two diners, it makes sense to order one of each and share. I also order the dim sum platter (10 pounds) and the Peking duck (16 pounds) on the side, which is plain greedy.
The seafood includes minced lobster in black-bean sauce; seafood soup; monkfish in Italian white truffle sauce with egg rice; and almond brulee tart with wine-poached plums. The other features a crispy duck salad and a truffle poulet de bresse soup, with a superb smoky flavor.
There’s also a Jasmine tea smoked wagyu beef with egg rice. I’m not a great fan of the wagyu beef here in terms of the taste or texture. That doesn’t matter much at lunch, but becomes more of an issue in the evening when there is no choice of menu.
Here, in the main dining room, you have to order a 15-course tasting menu, meat or vegetarian, which costs 98 pounds. Some dishes are superb: the duck, the truffled seafood soup, the dim sum, the braised organic Duke of Berkshire pork and the seared organic lamb among them. Others interest me less.
I’m not the sort of eater who wants three desserts, even though pastry is one of HKK’s strong suits. There’s a kitchen out back that produces the pastries so many people enjoy at Yauatcha. A shorter tasting menu is served at the bar.
The wine list offers some unusual and inexpensive options, such as the German 2012 Pinot Noir, Stepp (42 pounds) and the Greek white 2012 Santorini, Hatzidakis (32 pounds). I find the way the wines are listed thematically -- rather than geographically -- confusing even before my first glass.
It’s worth persevering.
HKK has grown into a great restaurant at lunchtime. I can’t immediately think of a lunch in the City that offers such quality ingredients and cooking for so little. You won’t be distracted by the decor, which is heroically understated.
I wish there were an a la carte option at night. Having said that, I went along on a miserable Saturday evening and the place was packed. If I owned a restaurant, I might be happy to fill it without offering inexpensive options.
As a diner, I’ll stick to lunch.
HKK, 88 Worship Street, London, EC2A 2DQ. Information: http://hkklondon.com/menus/ or +44-20-3535-1888.
Rating: 8/10 for lunch; 7/10 for dinner.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)