Nothing introduces you to a foreign culture quite like a feast. Good company brought together in celebration of the people’s most prized cuisine – it’s the perfect way to immerse yourself in another country’s way of life.
Hakkasan clearly relish hosting a feast in China’s name. Every course in their Chinese New Year menu is enlivened by little touches; a smear of gold leaf here, an embossed rooster there, all adding to the festivity.
Yet Hakkasan know better than to shove these things down your throat. You could quite happily dine here without noticing any of these touches, and still walk away impressed. There’s a lot of theatre on the tabletop, but the food is first-rate.
In the west, Chinese New Year has yet to fully enter public consciousness. For most it’s a quaint oddity, a brief incursion of eastern superstition into the mundane British winter. But even if your knowledge of Chinese custom is limited to fortune cookies, you can’t fail to enjoy a good old fashioned feast. A fleet of aromatic, exotic dishes, colourful cocktails, and ingeniously inventive desserts dominate your table from start to finish. It all amounts to a parade of dishes, a celebration of a cuisine too often executed poorly on these shores.
These ambitions are announced by the specially-created cocktail, the Waltzing Collins. Arriving in a long glass adorned with mandarin and a clip-on golden rooster, it’s one of those cocktails with multiple layers of flavours. The first icy sip brings an opening salvo of citrus, courtesy of mandarin and lemon. These topnotes are swiftly followed by the gentle refreshment of cucumber. Tart baiju and grenadine, silkily woven together, close an excellent mouthful.
Despite the fanfare, the opening dish brings a welcome taste of real China, in the form of a double-boiled fish maw and chicken soup. It’s one of the only dishes that you can actually imagine being eaten in a regular Chinese home. It’s also surprisingly refreshing, despite a touch of oiliness. Chunks of coconut add fibre, cutting through the soup’s saltiness. Boiled chicken tastes like itself. Silky ribbons of fish maw bring a lovely textural contrast. It’s a satisfying, appetite-awakening start to the meal.
Crunchy, layered, refreshing: Hakkasan know how to make a salad. Their roasted chicken and jellyfish salad, with carrot and mooli, which our waiter covers in plum sauce and lime juice, impresses with every mouthful. It’s delicious. Chilean abalone with wind-dried oyster arrives while we’re shovelling the salad into our mouths. A rich mahogany in colour, it’s very, very rich. Abalone has that indefinable metallic taste, verging on the flavour of liver, giving it a uniquely powerful taste.
And these are just the small eats. They’re followed by three main course plates: delicate chunks of lobster in a surprisingly well-suited white peppercorn marinade, beautifully sticky sauteed duck the colour of molasses, and mushrooms whose flavour is skilfully drawn out by a savoury abalone sauce. Partnered with duck egg rice, they each make a strong claim for best dish of the day.
Yet Hakkasan only reveal their hand with their desserts. In sly understatement, the menu lists the first dessert as ‘Golden Feather’ with panna cotta and ginger. What arrives is a beautifully formed ‘egg’ sitting on a ‘hay’ mound of fried vermicelli. An outer shell of white chocolate shatters to unveil a wobbly panna cotta. Dig deep with your spoon and you’ll be rewarded with a gooey ginger yolk. This golden centre brings spicy ferocity to the gentle panna cotta.
Rarely do you come across such a joyfully playful dessert. Not only is it a fitting tribute to the Year of the Rooster, it’s also a tasty and inventive pudding. It’s followed by some deep-fried sesame balls filled with vanilla custard, and which vanish so quickly that it’s hard to ascribe any attribute to them beyond ‘delicious’.
A pair of koi carp sculpted out of rice cake and filled with red bean paste finish off the meal. Complete with little black eyes and a gold leaf emblem, they’re almost too cute to eat. My partner scoops hers up, names him Herbert, and makes him dance along the rim of my plate. As I take the first bite of my own rice cake carp – a dense, resinous texture with a lilting sweetness – she makes hers mourn its friend on my plate. People might be looking, but food this theatrical provokes play. Especially after a bottle of wine.
In a final gesture of festivity, we’re prompted to write a message for the new year on bookmark-shaped cards decorated with golden roosters. It’s a fittingly artistic conclusion to a meal packed with flourish and spectacle, without overshadowing the quality of the food. From the delicate starters through to the fanfare of the desserts, it’s a real feast for the senses.
Hakkasan’s Chinese New Year menu is available until 11th February
8 Hanway Place
Tel: 020 7927 7000