Cecilia Chiang, who in 1968 mounted the first upscale, northern Chinese restaurant in America called The Mandarin, and ran it for 23 years, perpetually complains about the dearth of Chinese restaurants in San Francisco that have gracious service, appointments and decor. So when Hakkasan, the new, high-end Chinese restaurant from London opened, we went right over for lunch.
The scent of jasmine wafted in the air as we walked into the lobby of the 1 Kearny building, just off Market Street, on the edge of the Financial District. As we emerged from the elevator on the second floor, we were embraced by a jasmine cloud. Hakkasan engages all the senses from the moment you step inside its territory. We were led past a long, blue, under-lit bar into a clubby den of a dining room demarcated by carved wooden lattice work, furnished with embroidered leather banquettes, and populated with an army of managers and staff, a number of whom we recognized from other restaurants around town. Though San Francisco’s Hakkasan may be a branch of an upscale international chain, the management is local and has drawn on some of the best fine dining talent in the city. Even Cecilia was impressed by the table side attention, the striking blue porcelain plates and bowls, and the post-meal hot towel. A luxurious Chinese restaurant had finally returned to San Francisco.
Elegant dim sum are a strength of the Hakkasan menu, particularly at lunch when you can get a steamed or fried assortment, followed by a choice of main course and a dessert for $29, a fine introduction to the restaurant.
The fried dim sum are breathtaking, the multi-layered and shatteringly crisp pastries have delectable fillings of scallops or duck or daikon. Some are crescents; another, the shape of a fat little carrot. One filled with duck looks like a miniature pumpkin. The steamed dumplings have the tenderest wrappers. One that happens to be bright green is filled with expertly proportioned minced pork and Chinese chives. A scallop har gow is delicately seasoned with sesame. The wrappers on xiao long bao ($9), Shanghai soup dumplings, are the slightest bit thick, though the pure pork filling is buttery and juicy. (Yank Sing still reigns on these technically challenging dumplings.) However Shanghai pan fried dumplings ($10), golden on one side with succulent pork and cabbage filling, served with dark rice wine vinegar and ginger threads, are luscious.
The large Hakkasan bar goes into high gear with the after work crowd, making tasty and balanced, if expensive, cocktails, such as the signature Smoky Negroni ($15) that uses aged gin and Carpano Antica. The impeccable mixed drinks are worth the price, especially since they were created to go with the best Hakkasan dishes which tend to be rich with dark, reduced sauce, and excitingly salty. Stir fried mushroom lettuce wrap ($9) brings a taro leaf cup of chopped mushrooms, pine nuts and pistachios, in an intense brown sauce. You spoon it onto crunchy little center leaves of romaine. Crispy duck salad ($18) turns out to have a similar flavor profile, with finely chopped bits of duck and duck cracklings tossed with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds, threads of kaffir lime leaf, grapefruit segments, and tiny sprouts. It’s a taste sensation.
Pipa duck ($36) is the distillation of Peking duck: two rows of crispy tiles of burnished skin over velvety flesh, on a plate smeared with plum sauce. A little pile of pickled ginger refreshes the palate. It is easy to eat and easy to share, as most dishes are here. Even vegetable dishes like French green beans stir fried with dried shrimp and minced pork ($11) have that dark, addictive saltiness.
After this kind of eating–and drinking–Hakkasan’s huge psychedelic fruit plate ($18), enough for four, tastes like heaven. It is fantastically, luridly colorful and so much fun to dismantle with chopsticks. House made sorbets and ice creams ($8) in tropical flavors also beckon, as does a lovely coconut milk pearl tapioca pudding at the bottom of a stemless wine glass with hunks of caramelized pineapple and cubes of caramelized brioche ($10).
Hakkasan is not a serious temple of Chinese cuisine but a high flying, soignee fantasy that promotes dress up, cocktails and stylish, indulgent, Asian-style eating. Cecilia Chiang might pooh pooh the authenticity of the dishes, but she can’t deny that she had a great time. I’m looking for an excuse to go back.
One Kearny Street, San Francisco 415 829-8148; www.hakkasan.com/sanfrancisco/
Lunch Monday through Friday; dinner nightly; brunch Saturday and Sunday