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Monday 9 February 2015

The Fabulous 10-Course Chinese New Year Menu at HKK - A Culinary Journey Through China

Words & Photography by Matthew Brown and Luiz Hara

Name: HKK

Where: 88 Worship Street, London EC2A 2BE, http://hkklondon.com/

Cost: HKK is a banqueting restaurant, and in the evening diners choose between different tasting menus. Until the end of February, there will be two Chinese New Year menus, of 8- and 10- courses, priced at £68 and £98. Full vegetarian alternatives are offered for both, and a wine flight is available for an additional £58.

At lunchtime diners are able to order additional courses from the à la carte menu (most starters are around £15, and main courses, £30). There’s also a 4-course lunch menu for £29, or £48 with an additional course of the restaurant’s signature black truffle duck.

About: HKK is the newest London restaurant from the Hakkasan Group; it opened in December 2012 and received a Michelin star the following year. It is located in the City, and despite having a more corporate atmosphere than the other Hakkasan restaurants, it’s also more theatrical.

Having worked for 11 years at the Hakkasan restaurants, the group's Executive Head Chef Tong Chee Hwee wanted HKK to tell the story of Chinese cooking. The immaculately clean open kitchen and carving table in the centre of the room allow diners to marvel at the preparation of the food; and with choice in the evening restricted to the exquisitely presented tasting menus, no-one escapes this culinary theatre.

Until the 28th February 2015, HKK is celebrating Chinese New Year (the year of the Sheep) with a culinary journey through China. The menu pays homage to the eight culinary traditions of China with courses focusing on the dishes of each of the provinces, from the mountainous Anhui Province to the coastal regions of Jiangsu and the cosmopolitan city of Beijing in Shandong, followed by two unique desserts.

What We Ate: The meal began with two small cubes of marinated pork and Osmanthus wine jelly. The smoky flavour of the meat, offset by the tartness of the jelly, gave a glimpse of the combination of richness and delicacy that would characterise this journey through the cuisines of China’s eight most important culinary regions.

Things accelerated dramatically with the second course: cherry-wood roasted Peking duck, served 3 ways. Beautifully arranged, the trilogy was comprised of very crispy skin, sliced breast and a rolled pancake, every piece of which melted on the tongue, helped by a simple accompaniment of brown sugar and hoi sin sauce. This was an outstanding dish and possibly our favourite of the entire menu. HKK offers a 5-course duck lunch menu for £48 which includes their signature dish "HKK black truffle slow cooked duck" I am now dying to try!

Our crispy duck course being plated up!

This was followed by another trilogy - of dim sum made with crab, prawn & goji berry, and truffle chicken. In order not to drown their flavour, we were given brushes to paint the dumplings with soy sauce, rather than dip them. Sadly, this lightness of touch did not extend to the dumpling cases, which we felt were a tad too thick for their fillings. The fillings themselves were excellent though - the crab was rich and creamy, and the goji berry was the base for an excellent sauce.

Next was the soup course - named Monk Jumps Over the Wall, after a Buddhist monk who was said to have been so enticed by the smell that he jumped over a wall just to try it. This dish offered a beguiling combination of textures - from the soft sponge of sea cucumber to fleshy mushroom, suspended in a broth delicately balanced between warming umami and sharp acidity.

This was followed by pan-grilled Chilean seabass in a Sha Cha sauce. Though grilled, the seabass was moist and soft, and served wrapped around spring onions and chilli, giving an enjoyable crunch at the centre.

Served in a stack, the Jasmine tea smoked poussin in a truffle sauce was served with the soft breast meat mixed with crispy skin - ensuring that every mouthful was as smoky and aromatic as the last.

At this point the meal seemed to have reached its climax, however it took a dramatic swerve into the very different cuisines of Zhejiang and Szechuan. A course of braised King Soy Wagyu beef with merlot was at once both strange and familiar. Thanks to the soy marinade and the marbled fat of the beef, the sauce was sweeter and more luxurious than we anticipated.

The following course, Szechuan char-grilled scampi, was totally different. Sweetness was replaced with the dry-heat of Szechuan pepper, and a sauce of great lightness. The dish’s admirable achievement was to maintain just the right level of spice from the Szechuan pepper, without interfering with the meaty flavours of the thick New Zealand scampi.

The desserts were similarly light and refreshing. A trio of dark chocolate dumplings was served in a ginger and yuzu infusion that cut through the rich cocoa with a sweet sharpness.

The three beautiful pink dumplings had all of the freshness of their colour, and none of the heaviness typical of a chocolate pudding.

Likewise, a sheep’s milk mousse served with pandan curd sorbet was bracingly tart and gorgeously presented.

What We Drank: We began with two very different drinks from the creative and distinctly Chinese cocktail list. 

The French Quarter - served hot or cold - combined the floral qualities of Hennessey Fine De Cognac with Cynar (an artichoke spirit), cinnamon and cloves to create a warming aromatic drink, whilst the Bitter Fortune was a delightfully zingy aperitif made from pink grapefruit, No.10 Tanqueray gin, Aperol and rhubarb liqueur among other ingredients.

Facing the challenge of complementing a very varied menu, the drinks pairing selection was not always consistent. It began with a Yang Walker - a small cocktail made using the astringent Chinese spirit baiju and Johnnie Walker Black Label. The resulting taste was original, both woody and sherberty, but despite the mixologist’s best efforts, the baiju’s near-toxic aroma will, I think, still be too strong for many. 

Better was the first wine, a 2013 Pinot Noir from Stepp, in Pfalz. Unusually deep in colour and rich in berries but still light and dry, it went well with the pork and even better with the duck, standing up to their aromatic flavours.

The dim sum course was paired with a small serving of the Bitter Fortune, which, though refreshing, felt like a step backwards - who, once the wine flight begins, wants to get off? 

We were glad for the next glass, a 2011 Chardonnay from Ramey in California. Golden in colour, this wine was warm with cinnamon and spice, matching the sweet Sha Cha sauce, but still dry enough to cut through it and complement the fish. The Jasmine-smoked poussin was served with sake - the exceptionally dry and traditional Dewazakura ‘Izumi Judan’ Ginjo. This was an inspired deviation from the grape, adding new aromas to one of the meal’s most powerful dishes.

The next wine - a 2010 Chateau Simone - had to do the job of standing up to the dark soy Wagyu and hot Szechuan scampi. The sandalwood and mushroom notes of this Old World blend gave depth, but a balanced acidity gave it the sharpness to match the seafood.

The final wine, a Vajra Moscato d’Asti, was  vibrantly sparkling and sweet, with notes of peach and apricot. 

Likes: This 10-course tasting menu really does provide a journey - through very different regional cuisines, with some exceptional dishes such as Peking Duck and Szechuan scampi. Diners aren’t only educated, they are also given control over many of the dishes - able to add sweetness and acidity to taste. 

Dislikes: Although I loved the wine flight, the mixture of wine with cocktails and hard spirits feels less of a good idea the morning after.  

Verdict: HKK’s Chinese New Year Tasting Menu offers a great opportunity to enjoy some of the city’s best and most indulgent Chinese cooking, whilst learning more about the country’s cuisine. With January now over, this is a chance to celebrate New Year all over again, and in fantastic style. 

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