Hakkasan is at last coming to New York! The fabled and expensive restaurant, often called the best Chinese restaurant in the world, is opening a fourth outpost in Hell’s Kitchen. (And also a fifth and a sixth: Mumbai and Dubai. Genius? A naked pursuit of money? Fun? Shark-jumping? All of the above?) In any event, oh, what wonders you will see! Let me tell you about the Hakkasan experience. First, you should bring headset telephones, so that you may communicate with your tablemates in a manner other than “gestural.” Also you should bring an inflated sense of self-regard and a small flashlight. (Also, sure, “hunger.”)
But yes, it’s most important to know that the only U.S. outpost of Hakkasan, in Miami Beach, at the insane Fontainebleau complex (home to Scarpetta and Gotham Steak as well), can be the loudest — and angriest — place on earth.
Just last Saturday, we arrived for an 8:30 p.m. reservation. We were informed that we were seven minutes early by the nice woman at the front desk (I mean this literally: she said, “you’re seven minutes early,” which was odd but charming), and we were asked to have a drink at the bar. The bar was mildly crowded (it’s a long thin stretch, and it doubles as the walkway to the seated part of the restaurant). We stood at the far end, near the service bar, as all the seats were full.
One of these drinks was really rather vile and sweet and the excellent bartender cheerily replaced it with another beverage. The Nashi Collins is a good but heavy on the gin! The Chinese Mule is delightful and spicy and cilantro-ey! The non-alcoholic cocktails are quite good.
The wait was brief (three drinks, only two of them alcoholic: $50), and we found it was surprisingly bright at our table — at least, as I was remembering the place from a previous visit as being rather iPhone-light dependent to see menus, food and fellow diners. “Stick around,” our server said: “It gets darker every hour.” Truer words, never spoken! Also the lights dimmed.
The tables are pleasant, lit from above; the seating is comfortable. A carved cut-out wall-panel separates the nearest tables from the bar. There are many optical tricks to the restaurant, lots of scrimmings, and apparently no windows at all, which gives it a nice if somewhat menacing cave-like aspect. Where does it stop? Who knows! In London, the restaurant is similar but a bit more straightforward, with rows of tables across the space.
We were seated down the row from a 60-something man and what seemed to be his 19-year-old bride. As we observed more closely, we found she was probably 45, and had commissioned the most exquisite work upon herself. What is the polite way to ask who one’s surgeon is? There is no polite way, so we did not. He was not drinking, and she had her own bottle of Dom.
The duck salad is enormous and outlandish; the dim sum, sure good, as is the shumai, with a little scallop upon it; the very rich and thick hot and sour soup; the spicy prawn in baby coconut (yes, it’s in a coconut!); black pepper beef tenderloin (exquisite beef); all of the vegetables I’ve tried and rice and noodles and sides, these are all really terrific. The food is just very, very good! Food-wise, it’s a little like Má Pêche, but with a focus on Chinese, obviously, and sturdier, without the intentional weirdness, and also without that restaurant’s smallish portions and the annoying dessert situation.
Service is “family-style” but the dishes are all of different proportions. Some are good for sharing; others less so. The server (very delightful; very competent) said that our food would arrive “sporadically,” which was again, I thought, a strange choice of words, but it really did not. A few things arrived early; then everything else arrived rather all at once. This served to make the eating experience slightly stressful, harried and less complex. It was rather like filling up your plate all at once at a wedding buffet. (It also compressed our total time in the restaurant to 90 minutes; unusual.)
As the next hour went on, the bar filled, and the restaurant became full. The sort of trancey-disco playing became louder. The room gradually darkened, all black and dark blue. People would spill out of the bar and into the dining area, poorly-dressed frat boys having apparently engrossing cellphone conversations. The music became louder again. A terrifying and presumably Ukrainian woman in an ostrich-feather skirt, accompanied by some doughboy, attempted to seize the table next to ours, and was escorted away. (The table was then occupied by what seemed to be two gays, one in plaid and one in a plaid tie, who paid only attention to each other but never once smiled or laughed.)
As this was the Chinese New Year, dinner was then interrupted by a massive clanging. Lions — and several of them, and yes they looked like dragons, but they were lions — began roaming the restaurant; they were followed by security guards and people with drums. This bit of havoc patrolled the restaurant for 15 minutes or so, driving out evil spirits (though not the ones visible), and then servers passed out a coupon good for 20% off one’s next dining experience. (NOT REDEEMABLE FOR CASH. COUPON MUST BE PRESENTED FOR REDEMPTION. OFFER LIMITED TO ONE PER PERSON PER VISIT. PHOTOCOPIES WILL NOT BE ACCEPTED.)
The racket, or the evening, or status not being appropriately recognized, seemed to draw nearly everyone into a state of rage. The trance-house came back on when the lions departed, louder than ever. It was getting quite dark. The surgeoned lady discovered some shrieky gays of her acquaintance through the bar divider. At our table, we could not hear each other speak. A table beyond the next scrim revealed a hefty man with what I still cannot believe but we really are fairly certain was an “I love Asians” tattoo on his arm and a young girl with him, who looked like his daughter but might have been his wife, but really she might have been 12. This girl-woman would stand up from the table, texting on her BlackBerry, then sit in his lap. We refused dessert, in our deafened blindness, and went to leave. (The check seemed suspiciously small, at a hundred dollars a person — tip included, as is the custom in Miami Beach, what with its influx of Germans and Russians who refuse to acknowledge our quaint custom of tipping.)
Making our way out through the scrum at the bar was the single most unnerving, even frightening, experience in recent memory. Towering ostrich-skirt lady was still at the bar, or near it, and she gave me the single most enraged look I have ever received, ever, ever. Everyone else was so tall as well! And so pan-Soviet! It was like the angriest dance club in the world, where everyone had taken a designer drug to make himself as angry as he could be. Every man had his shirt untucked, which only amplified the current fashionable natural schlumpiness among moneyed men; every woman was in enormous heels and you wondered in what month each might have consumed non-alcohol at a restaurant. It was a Neverland of furious Cossacks, and in twenty years, the technology will surely exist so that each may convey in holograms all about herself the markers of her status, so that it may be appropriately recognized. Until such time, I suggest limiting your reservation time to their first seating, which is at 6 p.m.