Dim sum delights are the headliner.
Lattice wood divides the modern space.
Pipa duck, the poor man’s Peking duck.
Cocktails are served at a glowing bar.
I know what you’re feeling in that hardened heart of yours: Enough with the cuddly, Kickstarter-funded restaurants, the ones with tattooed chefs, cozy kitchens, and furnishings cobbled from thrift stores. You’ve had your fill of upstarts. It’s time for something upscale, with a touch of Kardashian appeal—a big production that calls for your cocktail-hour finest and a lavish build-out financed by a corporation, not the penny-ante contributions of the crowd. Local? Schmocal. Your leanings are global.
Have I got the place for you. It’s on the second floor of an office tower, though its views of San Francisco are afforded from a setting that feels very far away. Let’s call the aesthetic “designed exoticism.” Let’s describe the cooking as modern Chinese. And let’s call the restaurant Hakkasan.
Like the seven others of its kind around the world, from London to Mumbai, Hakkasan is owned by an Abu Dhabi–based company that reportedly spent $7 million on the downtown location, proving in the process that beauty can be bought. Go up the elevator, pass the Bond-girl hostess station, and you find yourself in a chichi spread—its 10,000-square-foot sprawl made intimate by wooden lattices that compartmentalize the space into semi-private rooms. There are mirrored walls, calacatta marble tables, and silk embroidered dragons on the white leather banquettes.
At the heart of it all is a boomerang-shaped bar of iridescent blue glass from which you get slim glimpses of the gleaming kitchen. The capo there is Ho Chee Boon, who earned a Michelin star at Hakkasan in New York, an accolade that makes sense when you taste his dim sum. The restaurant’s marquee dish stars on both the bar and the lunch menus and appears, in smaller numbers, on the dinner menu, too. Take your pick: Crystal dumplings are delightful Oompa Loompas—densely packed but delicate, with earthy morels straining at their translucent skins. Chinese chive and shrimp dumplings are lovely to behold and even better to bite into, their Buddha bellies bursting with those green onions and shellfish. A red goji berry beams like a bindi from each of their brows. A flaky fried daikon puff takes on the image of a carrot. You can order dim sum by the assorted platter ($28 gets you eight) or select certain items à la carte: Shanghai dumplings, those familiar pan-fried pouches of shrimp and minced pork, are served without the usual Valdezslick of grease, and here, in the land of exorbitant pot stickers, they’re worth the price.
As for Hakkasan itself, that’s open to debate. Notorious for its stratospheric markups, the restaurant vowed to lower prices in San Francisco. (Sure enough, a bowl of steamed rice, which costs $3.50 at Hakkasan New York, sets you back just two bucks here.) But if you want to make your eyes pop à la Marty Feldman, you can still get Peking duck, which comes with a dollop of reserve caviar and fetches $220, nearly twice what OPEC charges for a barrel of crude.
Of course, San Francisco diners have paid dearly before. Hakkasan’s prices might not attract such notice if the portions weren’t often so comically small. Order a tiny bowl of shredded duck and fish maw soup (a fish’s maw is its air bladder, and it tastes like the delicacy that it is), and you’ll feel like Gulliver presented with a thimble by the Lilliputians. Opt for the Hakka noodles tossed with chives and shimeji mushrooms, and you’re thrust into the role of a microsurgeon, picking with your chopsticks at the tiny tangle on your plate.
On the upside, what you often get are bright-tasting takes on Chinese conventions, from mapo tofu to stir-fried green beans with dried shrimp and minced pork, as well as a few chef ’s signature dishes that live up to the demands of a special evening out. Black pepper–seasoned rib eye in a plucky merlot sauce is a stir-fry with a clean, California-cuisine profile. Pipa duck is like Peking duck without the elaborate presentation and the steamed pancakes, its crisp, malty skin the perfect complement to the rich, juicy layers of meat.
The pipa duck, too, comes in very modest rations, and whether it warrants $36 depends on how you feel about the spectacle and the restaurant's oomp-oomp sound track— which is what you’re buying when you book at Hakkasan. It’s a restaurant that celebrates conspicuous consumption: gastronomy done Gangnam style.
The whole place, to its credit, is clear about its intentions. Service is upbeat, if imprecise, in keeping with a space that aspires to the cool mood of a nightclub. You might get dishes meant for another table or be forced into action to prevent your own food from being whisked away too soon.
Come evening’s end, forget fortune cookies. Think coconut pudding with seared pineapple and finger lime capsules, enclosed in what resembles an open-topped terrarium. Picture a hollow chocolate-orange globe, doused tableside with too-sweet molten chocolate so that its northern hemisphere erodes, exposing a candied blood orange slice inside.
If that bit of theater is a little too much for you, odds are that you’ll think the same about Hakkasan itself. The restaurant, in the end, is a very easy target.
A recommended dinner for two people (before drinks, tax, and tip).
Steamed dim sum platter .........................$28
Shredded duck and fish maw soup .................. $12
Black pepper rib eye beef .................................$28
Green beans with minced pork and dried shrimp...................$11
Chocolate-orange globe. .......................$10
Hakkasan, 1 Kearny St. (at Market St.), 415-829-8148; Stars received: 2
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco.