I know that historically there were tensions (to put it mildy) between China and Japan. Even to this day, feelings run high — Bobby Chinn recently told me his Chinese grandmother, living in California, wouldn't even step into a Japanese made car. They're not really fans of each other.
Why am I talking about foreign relations in a food review? Just because I want to preface what I am about to say next with the fact that, yes, I am aware it's touchy, but my piece has to be said.
Chinese restaurants, in my opinion, are perhaps that great manufacturing nation's biggest export, culturally, at least. They've been around internationally for over a century, serving up fried rice and chicken in yellow bean sauce to billions. But in terms of chic fine dining experiences, the Chinese have had to play catch up to the Japanese, who though relatively late to the game with exporting their food, have, with restaurants like Nobu, Zuma and Okku, made sushi and black cod the must-do fine dining option. Want to impress? You'd probably go Japanese, right? So we all love Chinese food but for fancy nights out, it's Japanese.
Alan Yau wanted to change that when he opened the first Hakkasan in London in 2001 — Chinese food could be chic, classy and above all, modern. (Yau is the successful restaurateur behind the Wagamama chain). He succeeded then; he succeeded when Hakkasan opened in Abu Dhabi a couple of years back; and it's another success with, finally, Dubai's version. I loved my meal there. But having been to most of the super-chic Japanese eateries, I couldn't help but notice similarities in the style of eating and cooking. For one thing, at the (excellent) bar, the signature drinks are based on Japanese ingredients, not Chinese. But they are delicious, as are the juicy, bright green olives and pistachos served, enough for this reviewer to return there for just an after-work drink.
But that would be to miss out on the lovely food and atmosphere. I started my meal with a Chinese favourite, the steamed dim sum selection (Dh95), where the dumplings are fatter than usual — I struggled to pick up the overstuffed scallop shumai with my chopsticks. Best were the super-flavourful prawn and Chinese chive dumpling and the very, very pepper-y open-topped black pepper duck dumpling. I'd been wanting to try the mix of East-West luxury ingredients that Hakkasan is famed for (dishes include Peking duck with Royal Beluga caviar, Dh1,200, and black truffle roasted duck, Dh290) so went for the sesame prawn toasts with foie gras (Dh75). It was the only dish I had that didn't work — the pocket of usually oh-so-tasty liver melted away into nothingness compared with the deep-fried prawn and bread. Starters are well-sized, by the way, especially the top-scoring jasmine tea smoked wagyu beef ribs (Dh125). I have to confess the smoky flavour escaped me, but the melting braised beef was rich, meaty and flavourful. Those three starters were plenty for two to share.
For mains, I followed the advice of my knowledgeable waiter Kenzo: muichoi beef (Dh220) and spicy prawn with lily bulb and almond (Dh120). The beef, chargrilled and sliced thinly, was a nod to Western meat cooking, but topped with pickled mustard greens and served with a tangy chilli sauce. The prawn, on the other hand, took me straight to Karama. If Calicut Paragon made a high-end dining version of a South Indian prawn curry, this would be it. This is a compliment, by the way. The unusual dish features tender giant prawns in a creamy, curried sauce with curry leaves, almonds and the potato-ish lily bulb. Paired with some hand-pulled fried noodles (with yummy Chinese chive and heaps of mushrooms) and some crisp-tender gai lan greens in oyster sauce, and you've got a fresh, stylish twist on Chinese.
No cloying sweetness
I could have left it there but in the interests of reviewing, this dessert-phobic reviewer looked at the sweets. And never looked back. Please, please, if you do nothing else with your pay cheque this month, have the salted caramel torte and peanut butter parfait with bitter chocolate sorbet (Dh45). The cake is chewy, the salt setting off the caramel sweetness perfectly. The peanut butter parfait — a dense, iced cream (not ice cream!) adds another sweet-savoury note — while the sorbet is pure, creamy chocolateness without any cloying sweetness.
While the interior is super-suave, the terrace was a revelation — ask for a table there under the stars while you still can.
Hakkasan Emirates Towers Boulevard, Dubai
Atmosphere: Fine dining dim sum
Decor: Gentle Chinese luxe
Must-have: Hakka steamed dim sum platter, salted caramel torte and peanut butter parfait with bitter chocolate sorbet
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