I’ve heard all sorts of tart, snarky (and, in hindsight, deadly accurate) comments from my dining companions as we’ve sat down to eat over the years. But none in recent memory has been quite as pointed, or foreboding, as the one uttered by one of my wiseguy guests as we made our way down the tunnel-like entrance of the new Times Square branch of the famous London Chinese restaurant Hakkasan. The walls and ceiling of the long, dark passageway were covered with white polished Carrara marble and decorated here and there with guttering candles set in little red jars. There was a thick, vaguely unsettling smell of incense in the air, and several of the hostesses, who were smiling hopefully by the restaurant’s entrance at the far end of the tunnel, were dressed all in black. The coat-check girl was dressed in black, too, and as we dropped our coats on the marble counter, my friend smiled a thin smile. “I feel,” he said, “like I’m visiting Grandma Ethel’s ashes at the crematorium.”
This weirdly funereal entrance is one of several odd design choices at the New York outlet of the Hakkasan chain (there are two of the restaurants in London and one each in Miami, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai). The windowless bar area is entombed in marble, too, and the dining rooms are separated into a maze of little boxes by the kind of intricately carved latticework that you used to see in classically grand Chinese homes centuries ago. Unlike in a grand Chinese home, however, there is no peacefully meditative courtyard garden here, and instead of the sound of crickets and burbling fountains, the rooms are filled with the thudding backbeat of an endlessly respooling techno-lounge dance track. There can be grandeur to this kind of Las Vegas spectacle (see high-volume big-box Chinese restaurants like Tao and Buddakan), but in these tight quarters, the effect is disorienting and even claustrophobic, like you’re dining in a loud, not very well-lit chicken coop.
This sense of disorientation is compounded by the restaurant’s uneven, excessively priced menu, which seems to have been designed less for Broadway-going New Yorkers than for packs of high-rolling gamblers in Macao. The Supreme Special Dishes section of the menu (listed prominently on page one, before the soup and small-plates items) includes a platter of Japanese abalone and black truffles for $888 and an elaborate $345 version of Peking duck garnished with spoonfuls of Kaluga [sic] caviar. The first small-plates appetizer we sampled was a dainty $28 helping of crispy fried quail, which was crispy enough, I suppose, but cost roughly $7 per bite. It was followed by squares of $25 prawn toast speckled with sesame seeds and bits of foie gras (very good, provided you pick out the foie gras), and a festively colored assortment of classic Hakka dim-sum items ($28), which would have worked better if they hadn’t all been as hard as galvanized rubber.
“This is like Ruby Foo’s for really rich people,” said Mrs. Platt as we searched the menu in vain for a reasonably priced choice (eleven of the fourteen items in the fish and seafood sections cost $37 or more) that sounded vaguely appetizing. My stir-fry lobster with mushrooms and XO sauce ($59) contained four meager nubs of lobster tail set in a prefabricated “nest” of dried noodles, so if you’re in the market for shellfish, I recommend the scallops, which are tossed with fresh chives in a rice-wine sauce and cost $21 less. Some people at my table claimed to enjoy the soft, wet strips of stir-fry ostrich (tossed in an oily yellow-bean sauce for $38), although I thought they looked (and tasted) uncannily like the equally soft, equally oily strips of Mongolian-style venison ($42). The jasmine-tea-smoked chicken ($26) didn’t taste like jasmine at all, so try the jasmine-tea-smoked pork ribs instead, which have no tea taste either but are at least covered in a sticky, sweet barbecue sauce.
Seasoned chowhounds know that the less you pay for a dish in places like the markets of Hong Kong or Guangzhou, the more satisfaction you tend to get from it, and that seems to be the rule at this branch of Hakkasan, too. My $59 braised truffled-noodle dish turned out to be a wan, soggy mess of scallops and noodles topped with what appeared to be bits of crunchy Chinese black truffles poured from a can. The $15 Hakka steamed noodles (tossed with mushrooms and chives) were a gourmet event by comparison, and so was the simple egg fried rice ($8), which the kitchen serves steaming in a white porcelain bowl and leavens with fresh spring onions. The vivid, orange sweet-and-sour pork tenderloin at Hakkasan looks like one of those shiny plastic displays in the front of a Japanese restaurant (it’s flecked with pomegranate seeds for good measure), so order the rich, fatty chunks of Hakka pork belly instead ($24), which are simmered with cloud-ear mushrooms in a clay pot.
If you have the cash (or, preferably, if someone else does), there’s a predictably elaborate selection of high-roller wines and cognacs to help you ease your way through Hakkasan (twelve cognacs by the glass, bottles of $172 Gosset Grand Rosé), and, if you need further calming after eating at this cacophonous restaurant, the roster of bespoke teas includes the famous Guan Yin high-mountain blue tea from Taiwan. The conspicuously un-Chinese desserts on my party of four’s $558 (pre-tip) tab included scoops of chalky yuzu parfait stuck with sprigs of mint, and a brandy snifter filled with orange sorbet drowned in a lukewarm puddle of chocolate sauce. If you ever find yourself stranded in Delhi or Dubai, however, the dessert to get at your friendly neighborhood Hakkasan is the signature apple tarte Tatin. But be warned: At least one of the snarky New Yorkers at my table thought that the iridescently green green-apple sorbet accompanying it tasted faintly “like chemicals.”
Address: 311 W. 43rd St., nr. Eighth Ave.; 212-776-1818
Hours: Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Thursday to Saturday to 1 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $28; entrees, $18 to $888.
Ideal Meal: Hakka steamed dim-sum platter, sesame prawn toast, jasmine-tea-smoked pork ribs, stir-fry scallops with Chinese chives, Hakka pork-belly clay pot, apple tarte Tatin.
Note: Parties of twelve to 30 can reserve the unfortunately named Dining Cage; the choice seats for smaller groups are by the 43rd Street windows.
Scratchpad: One star for the handful of classically simple Cantonese dishes, minus a star for the dim, cramped room and ludicrous prices.
This story appeared in the June 4, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.