The original Hakkasan opened in 2001, situated in a basement at the end of a grotty alley near Tottenham Court Road. Yet Alan Yau’s inspired choice of French interior designer Christian Liaigre’s delivered stunning décor (reportedly the interior cost £4 million) that immediately brought in the cool London crowd, who stayed for the somewhat westernised but terrific quality Chinese cooking, which gained a Michelin star in 2003. Alan Yau sold most of his stake in early 2008 to Tasameen, a property arm of the Dubai Investment Authority, but the original restaurant has continued to pull in the crowds without dropping its standards, a rare thing in this era of restaurant over-expansion. There are also Hakkasan siblings in Miami, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul (the latter folded in 2010 - thanks JW), but in November 2010 a second Hakkasan opened its doors in Bruton Street.
This time there is a separate ground floor bar, which just a few nights after opening was already packed out. The basement dining room looks very similar to the original, with its wooden screens dividing the large (220 seat) dining room into manageable sections, and the same skilful lighting – the room appears dark as you enter, yet each table setting is brightly lit from precisely directed spot lights.
The wine list has many top growers, though there is little in the way of bargains. Planeta Plumbago 2008 was £37 for a wine that you can find in the shops for around £9.50, Charles Melton Nine Popes 2007 was £88 compared to a shop price of £23, while the superb Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2008 was £109 for a wine that you can pick up for £30 retail. At the higher echelons of the list, Vega Sicilia Unico 1987 was listed at £486 compared to a retail price of £179, and at the investment banking end of the spectrum Romanee Conti La Tache 2002 was £2,888 for a wine that can be bought retail for £1,304. Some mark-ups seem hard to swallow e.g. the admittedly lovely Antinori Tignanello 1997 was a steep £377 compared to a retail price of £93. A bottle of Yebisu beer costs a little matter of £6.20.
The menu is not quite identical to the Hanway Place branch, but is very similar. We started with the dim sum selection (£13.50) and soft shell crab. Four pairs of steamed dumplings appear served in a bamboo steamer: prawn, scallop and prawn, chive and prawn and shimeji mushroom. The quality of these dumplings is hard to fault, with carefully cooked, good quality prawns and superbly light dumplings; you will be hard pressed to find better dumplings in Hong Kong (6/10).
Soft shell crab (£12.50) was cooked well in batter, and garnished with crisp brown crumbs made from cooked egg yolk and butter. This was good, but the overall effect was a little dry; for me a sauce of some kind would have lifted the dish (4/10). Chilean sea bass with Szechaun pepper (£35) had carefully cooked pieces of fish, garnished with shredded vegetables and a few pieces of Szechuan pepper to add a bite. I am not personally a huge fan of this particular fish (which is really an ugly fish called Patagonian Toothfish, which used to thrown back by fisherman until it was brilliantly re-marketed as Chilean sea bass) but the cooking of it was excellent (5/10).
Even better was spicy prawn with lily bulb and almond (£19), which featured excellent prawns that had been beautifully cooked so that they were superbly tender (6/10 seems a mean mark). Steamed gai lan with garlic was excellent, with delicate young stalks that retained their texture yet were tender (6/10). Singapore noodles were a million miles away from the versions we are familiar with in Chinatown. The noodles here had excellent texture, garnished with small shrimps and pieces of tender squid (6/10).
Chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream (£8.50) was a comfortingly rich dish, using Valrhona chocolate. The soufflé had a dark liquid centre and light texture; moreover the vanilla ice cream had real depth of vanilla flavour as well as smooth texture (7/10). Cardamon crème brulee was served with a competent orange almond tuile and a good carrot and orange sorbet, which fortunately tasted more of orange than carrot, garnished with cranberries (5/10).
Service has always been a strength of Hakkasan, with staff carefully drilled and highly attentive. I witnessed a tiny example of the attention to detail at the Hanway Place branch some time ago when I went off to the bathroom, and noticed as I walked past the bar one of the bar staff crouched down on the floor. I realised that she was having a drink of water, but had crouched down to avoid this being visible to the customers in the dining room. At the Mayfair branch the service tonight was extremely slick, with our waiter seemingly genuinely interested in our experience. At one point we asked for a top-up of fresh hot water for the jasmine tea, and this did not immediately appear. When our waiter next walked past he came over without prompting and apologised for the delay in the water appearing, yet we had barely noticed the slight delay ourselves.
The bill came to £95 a head included service at 13%, and this is not cheap. Yet given the combination of lovely décor, slick service and excellent food I was unable to feel aggrieved. To be able to produce food to this standard on such a scale, and within just days of opening, is really remarkable. Neither the service nor kitchen missed a beat tonight. Doing a second branch of a restaurant is rather like a movie sequel: such is the expectation that it is almost set up to disappoint. Yet this is one of those very rare cases where the sequel may actually be even better than the original.