hakkasan

IMG_1093Part of the allure of Hakkasan is that you’d walk on by if you didn’t know it was there. A large steel door on a grotty stretch of 43rd Street – which was not too long ago a major thoroughfare for the dispossessed, the deranged, and the deviant – is your only clue. In fact, I strolled past not once but three times, wondering if I had gotten the location right. It’s a peculiarly British fashion, this ramshackle exclusivity designed to be enjoyed like a secret among those in the know. In Hong Kong the idiom reaches a highpoint as a lingering legacy of a restrictive class system: the city is pockmarked with private dining clubs secreted down blind alleyways and atop skyscrapers, where the price of admission demands a secret knock or password. Though an import from London – with outposts in Las Vegas, Doha and Mumbai – Hakkasan feels less like the former and much more like the latter. Opening that steel door is akin to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. A long, ghostly illuminated hallway leads you to a check-in desk, watched over by a pair of grinning Cheshire cats. You wonder yet again if you’ve come to the right place and suddenly have a sinking feeling that perhaps you might get turned away because you don’t know the password. No worries, this is New York: democracy and dollars rule. You have a reservation; you’re warmly greeted and ushered through an expansive marble-clad bar area, thumping with techno music, turning past the kitchen and down another hallway before arriving in the land of the lotus eaters. It’s disorienting, but I expect that’s the objective; you’re so relieved to be seated that the excessively priced menu doesn’t make you blanch: an $888 plate of Japanese abalone? $345 for a Peking duck, albeit garnished with caviar? What, no shark fin or swallows nest soup? Searching for reasonably priced items while sipping an $18 glass of Sauvignon Blanc you’ll recall the wise words of Confucius - not to mention Chinese chowhounds: the less you pay, the more satisfying the meal. A traditional Hakka dim sum platter made for a colorful start: scallop shumai, prawn and chive dumpling, black pepper duck dumpling, and har gau, all pretty to look at – and even tastier to eat – and at $28, or roughly $4 per dumpling, what passes for a bargain here. Udon noodles ($18) are nothing out of the ordinary and skimp on the advertised shredded roast duck but they’re satisfying dressed in plenty of spicy, seafood-rich XO sauce. The Assam Seafood Claypot ($42) is perhaps the most successful plate of the night. Studded with chunks of fish, shrimp, and squid in a savory curry broth, it’s big enough to share and even budget friendly if you load up on rice. Pak choi are bright and crispy but really, $15 for a side of veg? When the bill comes it’s a bit of a shocker, despite best attempts at avoiding anything approaching excess: $200 with tip. For a pre-theater meal it feels like a bit of a rip-off. Then again if I was with the high-rollers in Macao, or above the clouds and looking down on the Hong Kong skyline, I wouldn’t think twice. Perhaps that’s the best way to approach a meal here: close your eyes, drink the potion, and embrace the fantasy of being in a place far more magical than midtown.

assam clay pot

top 100: telepan

As a long-term resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time turning up my nose at the dining options available on the other side of the park. For many years the Upper West Side was primarily the redoubt of cheap Chinese restaurants and hand-scrawled signs offering free box-wine with dinner. At a push there was Zabar’s. If you wanted a proper sit-down meal that didn’t involve a Kosher pickle you went downtown – or headed east. Reluctantly I’ll admit to having held on to this East-West bias for far too long. Times have indeed changed. The area surrounding Lincoln Center has blossomed and – dare I say? – makes my old ‘hood seem downright stodgy when it comes to fine dining. Case in point: Telepan. Earnest, honest, market-based cooking tucked into an unassuming side street brownstone – this is the type of restaurant you’d love to make your local if only the price points were as demure as the setting. There’s nothing outlandish or extravagant about the kitchen save Chef Bill Telepan’s devotion to seasonality. The homemade mozzarella is unlike any you’ve ever tasted: a shiny boletus cap that’s part cheese, part saltwater taffy. No workaday caprese, it is served atop peppery spring arugula and toasted green garlic with (appropriately enough) crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. A country pate “sandwich” arrives with house-made pickles, citrus chile vinaigrette and toasted triangles of brioche. Jumbo Maine sea scallops are seared to perfection. Cleverly presented on discs of fingerling potato, the toothsome mollusks are accompanied by the last of winter’s reliable veg, cauliflower and kohlrabi. A meaty filet of halibut replaced the advertised wild striped bass the other night because that’s what was fresh in the market. With wild mushrooms, spinach and sunchokes it made for a substantial entree. It’s at this point I was glad to have ordered a la carte and not done the recommended four-course tasting. While the cuisine might be nouvelle-inspired, the kitchen is clearly at the mercy of a Jewish mother who thinks you’ve gotten too skinny. Perhaps the coming spring menu will lighten things up a bit with a lithesome selection of shoots and leaves – I was hoping for the first ramps of the season myself –  but until then my best advice would be to pace yourself.  Because  the food is that good. And dessert is mostly worth saving room for. I would have loved a more significant (and less decorous) contribution of meringue in the Meyer lemon meringue pie, but the gooey puddle of sweet and tart – heightened by supremes of blood orange and grapefruit – made for a fragrantly pleasant palate cleanser. Wait, let me contradict myself: the pie crust and merengue were unnecessary. A big bowl of that custard topped with a sprig of mint would have enabled the less-than-sober scene of my licking a bowl in public. I have no such suggestions when it comes to the cheese board, however. Okay, maybe just one: there’s four pieces of cheese, Chef; please train your waitstaff to be able to identify which is which. That said, I can’t think of a finer quartet of artisanal cheeses outside of a Terence Brennan cave. The Smokey Blue out of Oregon’s Rogue River Creamery is alone worth the price of admission. Lightly smoked over hazelnut shells, it completely altered what I’d come to expect out of a traditional blue, like Roquefort or Fourme d’Ambert. At once pungently fecund and heady with smoke it tasted of the end of winter – and the burgeoning spring.

when is a clam not a clam?

When they arrive disguised in the shape of a peacock, as are these tongue-tingling, garlicky-good razor clams from Szechuan Chalet. Neither fish nor fowl indeed.

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