It’s 8PM on a Friday night at Hakkasan Mayfair and a urinal is leaking piss. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a nearby nightclub four hours from now, not in a nominally high-end, nominally Michelin-starred restaurant, but that’s on you: Hakkasan isn’t really a restaurant at all. While Mayfair grotesques down lychee martinis to the relentless nn-tiss of a blank-stare playlist – ah, the sound of getting roofied by a Eurotrash millionaire during yacht week – it dawns on you that Hakkasan is perhaps better described as a club that does food, which is just another way of saying it isn’t somewhere you come to eat well, and it certainly isn’t somewhere you’d want to inspect in the cold light of day.
In the Berghain blackness of the dining room, with that music seeping into your ears and dampening your other senses like a gauze, it’s hard to notice the little things
In the Berghain blackness of the dining room, with that music seeping into your ears and dampening your other senses like a gauze, it’s hard to notice the little things. But look close enough and they’re there. Look closer, and you see that the table’s veneer has worn thin at the edges; look closer, when someone comes to clean the surfaces between courses, and see that they do so sloppily, leaving unsightly organic debris that clashes with the hard-edged Blade Runner aesthetic of the servicewear, the décor, the staff, their tone.
The food is fine: a curate’s century egg equal parts banal and exquisite. The quality of the ingredients – prawns in particular – is exceptional; there are some nice, inhalable Singapore noodles and a well judged curry sauce under yet more bouncy premium crustacean. But there’s also frequently something a little off: pan-fried dumplings are decent in the middle but have weirdly clammy skins that speak of a prolonged wait on the pass; the pastry case for a spiced chocolate and banana tart is thick, a chore to saw through with fork or spoon (it decouples itself from the tart’s topping with a single prod, suggesting a grim assembly line production). When it’s not disappointing, it’s just dull: the Sanpei chicken claypot is boring, the crispy duck roll is boring, the three style mushroom stir fry is boring.
The menu and restaurant in microcosm is the sesame prawn toast with foie gras. A recognisable high street takeaway classic, tortured into a burnished dome flecked with variegated seeds: really quite impressive, quite cool-in-its-own-way to look at, but irritating, inferior to eat, its shape seemingly configured to fit just there in the hollow of your mouth and spurt scalding superfluous liverfat onto the softest pads of tissue. A fucking nightmare, straight out of HR Giger, and at 18 quid for a handful, a f––king expensive one too.
But you know this already. Even if you haven’t been to Hakkasan, you know what it’s like: sometimes jewel-like, sometimes delicious, sometimes impractical, sometimes average, always expensive food. Super-expensive, supra-expensive, expensive squared: there is a certain breed of rich-person-restaurant where one premium ingredient is never enough – true luxury involves Frankensteining opulence, grafting it onto itself. So: abalone with scallop, sea cucumber and shiitake (£80). So: Peking duck with Beluga caviar (£280). So: abalone with morel mushroom and sea cucumber (£350).
It’s not for me; it’s probably not for you. But it is for someone, for quite a lot of someones: at 8PM on a Friday night, Hakkasan Mayfair is heaving. They seem happy; this constitutes value. It’s a salutary reminder, as imprecations fly across the Twittersphere and Tripadvisor and in the comments section of restaurant reviews; it reminds me, at least, of that old saw about how there are only two types of drivers – slowpokes and maniacs. We all have our internal benchmarks, bulwarks against being ripped off, bare minimums for the cleanliness and approachability of the spaces where we are asked to dine.
And I can imagine the arguments in favour of Hakkasan: it’s cool; it’s clean; the food may be expensive but it’s of the highest quality and, besides, it’s not about the food, not really: it’s fun, it’s a vibe, it’s not like those boring restaurants other people go to, all soft furnishings and deathly acoustics and starchy sommeliers.
All of which would be valid observations a decade-plus ago; in 2017, though, Hakkasan just looks tired. It looks knackered, beat up, broken down; a chizzed-up early-2000s party girl still lashing it up every night while her friends get on with their lives, discover other sources of pleasure and excitement. Those friends know that – unless you’re obsessed, maniacal about finding them – nobody goes to those boring, soft-furnishing deathly-acoustic starchy-sommelier any more; that all the battles Hakkasan people were fighting years ago have been won, and then some.
It’s 9.45PM on a Friday night at Hakkasan Mayfair and the sparse scatter of leaves in my fresh mint tea have bled their chlorophyll into the liquid but it is still thin, pallid, the colour of piss. I’ve had enough. C
Hakkasan Mayfair, 17 Bruton St, Mayfair, London W1J 6QB
020-7907 1888; hakkasan.com