Reality-Based Gastronomic Opinions
311 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
Neighborhood: Hell’s Kitchen
Dine date: April 15, 2012
P.F. Ch-Ching’s? You have to wonder a bit about a self-proclaimed haute Chinese food ‘chain’ that serves a ‘lucky’ $888 entrée, especially when it’s a stone’s throw from Times Square. The original Hakkasan opened a decade ago in London, behind velvet ropes at the end of a swanky Mayfair alley, and has managed to attract stars both of the Hollywood (Nicole Scherzinger) and Michelin (one) varieties. But can it keep the same standards, momentum, and longevity – as well as food quality and general cachet – around the corner from the Port Authority?
Hakkasan would certainly hope so, after purportedly dropping a cool $10M to open the New York joint. Rumors from inside sources, however, put the figure closer to $17M due to building modifications needed to support the gargantuan 11,000 square foot 200 seater, designed by Gallic firm Gilles & Boissier of Buddakan and Wakiya repute. So yep. You have to sell a hell of a lot of crispy duck rolls to hit your ROI targets on a buildout of that magnitude. And Chef Ho Chee Boon is there to fire them up from his state-of-the-art kitchen, complete with 24,000 BTU woks (normal ones are 4,000 BTU).
Insider Tip: Hakkasan’s website doesn’t provide the full menu, but you can find it here.
An imposing iron door greets you on 43rd Street. After walking through it, you are greeted by the smell of incense as you trek down a crazy long and impressive all white Carrara marble hallway to the maître d’ stand, manned by two cordial pros behind large flatscreen monitors. The starkness of the hallway isn’t very inviting, but it does add a bit of theatrical tension to your grand entrance. The welcome is friendly and efficient as you are led to the bar around the corner.
The bar itself is almost as long as the entrance hallway (it’s parallel), but strangely its 22 bar seats are far too low to the blue-underlit bar top… not quite at shoulder level, but a good 4” too low for comfortable bar seating. Warning: the blue light emitting upwards at your gorgeous visage can be unflattering at night. The rest of the lounge area is comprised of six cocktail deuces and two 10-top communals. The bar’s back wall is illuminated by projected swirling light patterns, which comes off too bright and Vegas-y, but the knowledgeable and passionate care of the bar staff makes up for it as they guide you through the ornate cocktail list. The Pink Mao Mao (Grey Goose, sake, watermelon, strawberry, black pepper; $15) tastes girly but is served in a manly highball. It lacks the fruitiness you ordered it for, but the pepper and sake make for a smooth and spicy consolation prize. The Shiso Gimlet (Nolet gin, dry curacao, yuzu marmalade, lime and lychee juice; $16) is refreshing and complicated, and definitely a highlight option even if you’re not traditionally a gin drinker – balanced and delicious. A glass of the 2011 Bonny Doon rosé ($13) is another summertime thirst quencher that is of good quality and value.
Insider Tip: DJs play loud dance music every night except Sundays and Mondays, making for a more clubby and generally loud atmosphere; try the off nights if a quieter evening out is what you’re after.
A walk around the dining room is as requisite as it is impressive. It’s divvied up into several different labyrinthine sectors, each comprised of eight or so tables, so that you are not overwhelmed by the vastness of the total space. The bustling kitchen is glassed-in and visible from one of the corridors, so take a gander. Gold embroidered dragons adorn some of the banquettes. A cozy 10-top private dining room is encircled by wooden screens and embossed leather walls. Carrara marble panels that have been laser-cut into 5’x5’ lattices are omnipresent throughout the restaurant’s landscape, even at times on the ceilings.
The first section of the menu throws you off. Stir fried bird’s nest at $78. Braised emperor’s seafood at $160. Peking duck at $345. The aforementioned braised Japanese abalone at $888. Setting the scene with this sort of overpriced silliness is a bad move and makes the rest of the dining experience somewhat apprehensive and value-vigilant. Even the appetizer section raises your defenses with tiny items in the high $20’s.
The wine list is poorly organized. It’s strangely divided into sections describing the ‘vibe’ of the wine, so that the grüner veltliner options – for example – are scattered amongst various sections of the list and have to be hunted down manually. Can’t we just stick to presenting the wines by region or varietal… and letting the somm do their job in identifying the wine’s characteristics? Even the attending and friendly somm seemed to be confused by her own wine list.
The Hakka steamed dim sum platter ($28) is a good share for two people (there are two pieces of each item). The black pepper dumplings are nicely spicy and peppery but offputtingly gelatinous. The scallop dumplings are satisfactory but somewhat overcooked and overly firm. The prawn and Chinese chive dumpling are tasty and fresh but ordinary – the har gau dumplings are similarly stock.
The roasted mango duck ($24) is a menu highlight. Beautifully seasoned and perfectly cooked slices of duck are arranged sequentially with slices of fresh mango on a long narrow plate, making the perfectly sweet ducktastic bite in every chopstick-full. The temperature and presentation is spot-on, and the lemon sauce adds some nice sweet citrus elements – and even, somehow, a certain creamy feeling – to the crispy delicious duck and intermittent dill sprigs.
The jasmine tea smoked pork ribs ($22) did indeed pull off the fall-off-the-bone test successfully, but you wanted your socks knocked off by such a compelling-sounding preparation… and unfortunately the flavor profile was not very smoky, tea-y, or jasmine-y…but rather lifeless-y. The sauce was also too sparse to make this a winner.
The Sanpei chicken claypot ($24) features chunks of chicken mixed in with soggy cloves of garlic, but the Thai sweet basil adds a nice touch to the Sanpei sauce. Unfortunately, the dish overall isn’t far off from what you would get as a lunch delivery item from your local Thai place.
The stir-fry Chilean sea bass with Sanpei sauce ($39) is extremely tender and deliciously prepared, although it doesn’t merit its price point. It is, however, a simple and elegant preparation that fully features the quality and cut of the fish, which is exemplary; melts in your mouth and not too oily.
The stir-fry udon noodle with shredded roast duck and XO sauce ($18) is plated tableside for each diner in a small bowl. The noodles are fat, fresh and yummy. The modest amount of hard-to-place fiery spices is a bit of a teaser and leaves you wanting more. The duck is tender and gristle-free, but a bit sparse throughout your bites, and not served hot enough. Again, not far off from your local Chinese restaurant.
The sweet and sour pork tenderloin with pomegranate ($24) is fatty and crispy the way you like it. The pomegranate seeds add their sweet jelly-ish crunch effectively in nice contrast to the saltiness of the pork, which is a clever move. The common-ness of the stir-fried onion and pepper mix-in is a bit of a turn off.
The four-style vegetable stir-fry in Szechuan sauce with asparagus, yam bean, tofu and shimeji looks great on paper, but again is pretty standard in its delivery despite the interesting ingredients. This is also a very tame Szechaun preparation for those that are expecting a bit more Chinese heat.
So is the gimmicky $888 abalone entrée truly ‘lucky’? Sure – if you’re Hakkasan’s accountants. The kitschy party vibe can be fun but discredits what they are trying to be as a kitchen. Frankly, Hakkasan’s thing was cooler the first time we saw it in New York – when it was called Buddha Bar or Tao. Hakkasan is recommended for small-town weekenders, Times Square theater-goers, or a high-falutin’ meet-market cocktail if you’re in the area… but overall there are more tried and true options for over-the-top Asian dining in New York, especially if you are just looking for good, ordinary Chinese food. Sure, you will find that at Hakkasan, in abundance, but try a corner joint in Chinatown for a fraction of the cost… and possibly quite similar results.
Break It Down…
Typical Chinese-American fare that is neither mindblowing nor disappointing; some overpriced/inaccessible options that you would probably never order.
Attentive and omnipresent; a bit pushy at seating.
Some elements are elegant but are lessened by a Vegas-y feel; manages to feel intimate despite large space.
Excessive prices to the point of absurdity on keynote items; standard items still can overpriced for what they are.
Accommodation On Walk-In
We pretended we didn’t have a reservation. They were cool about it.
Bathroom: Sanctuary Or Minefield?
Clean; fresh; stocks Aesop products.
Ability To Have Sex In The Bathroom
Fairly small bathroom spaces, but dividers run from floor to ceiling; keep it quiet.
Seat Height Equilibrium
Banquettes are actually 1” higher than facing chairs; every table has banquette seating; bar seating 4” too low.
Affect Of Staff
Just a touch here and there.
Humor Of Staff
Cool and humorous without being overly familiar.
Wine Recommendation Honesty
Good choices albeit with little backstory or justification; didn’t know list too well.
Quality Of Music
Loungey electronica; somewhat dated/stock but appropriate.
Reasonable on Sundays and Mondays; very loud otherwise.
Laaaadies! Purse Hanging Options At The Table
Every table has a banquette and fair table spacing.