One of the most famous restaurant brands that originated in London has traveled across the continents to land at our shores. Every Indian traveler in Old Blighty has visited Hakkasan at least once for its brand of Chinese food reinterpreted for the international palate. The most interesting aspect of the restaurant is the name. Hakka is a chiefly pastoral community originally from Central China who has, over the centuries, moved southwards, always being forced out of their adopted home. They are not very well known in North China and so, to have a restaurant named, presumably after a nomadic, almost gypsy tribe, is certain novel. As the vast majority of Chinese settlers in India, particularly in Kolkata, are Hakka, the name has far more of a resonance with an Indian as opposed to, say, someone from Beijing. The original owner of Hakkasan, Andy Yau, is from the community and added the Japanese ‘san’ or sir after the name of the community. And yes, the food of Hakkasan is principally from South China, particularly from Guangdong.
One potential mine-field for brand owners is how to translate the brand from one country to another. One culture’s cracker is another culture’s dead duck. If you’ve been to the original Hakkasan at Hanway Place, London, and then seen Asia’s second branch in Waterfield Road, Bandra, you would instantly recognize the signature wooden lattice work screens. What is subtly different is the vibe. While Hakkasan London (both branches – there’s one in Mayfair as well) has an undeniably ethnic feel, the one in Mumbai has a more clubby, plush feel. What is common to both is the break-up of the total area: Ling Ling Lounge, a bar, a secluded private dining room and the main restaurant section. It is no exaggeration to say that Hakkasan has taken the city by storm and usually, all sections are crammed to capacity in the evenings.
To mistake Hakkasan as a lightweight bar with good cocktails and little else is to completely miss the point. The food is the prime focus, the way it is in all the other branches worldwide. And the best part is that the menu has translated well into the Indian operation. All too often, restaurant brands enter India with a cookie cutter lack of sensitivity or with so many nips and tucks that the original flavour is lost in translation. So, the London signature dishes have made their way to Bandra: Peking Duck with Ossetra Caviar and Braised Emperor’s Seafood. Even the stipulation that they be ordered 24 hours in advance is intact. In a way, the duck with caviar typifies the Hakkasan approach to cuisine. It is identifiably Chinese, yet has a western component (the caviar) and it marries both styles at the altar of luxury dining. The dish costs Rs 8,500. It is the most expensive dish in the house by a long margin.
Yet, there are differences in the menu that could escape you at first glance. For instance, there are a few vegetarian dishes on the Bandra menu that don’t exist anywhere else. Wild mushroom claypot in vegetarian oyster sauce is priced at Rs 1,200, just a notch above, say Hakka braised pork belly: conventional wisdom is that vegetarian dishes are cheaper than non-vegetarian ones because of the relative costs of each. So the fact that a vegetarian dish is so premium means that Hakkasan has gone that extra mile to look after all sections of its guests. The one vegetarian dish that does exist in Hakkasan all over the world is vegetarian chicken with sugar snaps in black pepper sauce. Made of soya and shaped and coloured appropriately to resemble chicken chunks, Chef Irfan Pabaney is surprised that it has done so well in Mumbai. “It is perhaps because many of our vegetarian guests are familiar with the menus of our other branches and know it to be 100 percent vegetarian.”
In the short time that Hakkasan has opened in Mumbai, a few clear favourites have emerged. Edamame truffle dumplings is the first of these. Edamame is an essentially Japanese ingredient: fresh soy beans, served steamed in their pods as a starter. Here they are used in a vegetarian dimsum and their delicate flavour and light as air texture has catapulted them into number one bestseller at Bandra. Other dishes are crispy tiger prawn with pandan leaf and wheat flakes that is a vague take-off on a similar starter in Thai cuisine using chicken rather than prawn. My personal favourite was the curiously named roast mango duck. Whatever else I had envisaged, it was certainly not a picture perfect row of thick slices of roast duck breast alternated with slices of mango with a light, tangy citrus dressing. I love the fact that roast duck is a standard ingredient in Guangdong, mango is central to Indian fruits and the combination is an inspired one. The dish, a warm salad, is a Hakkasan signature, sold at all its restaurants world-wide.
I wouldn’t say that Hakkasan does fusion food. Whoever has made the menu is a complete master of not only the food of South China, but also neighbouring countries. There is no haste to put together disparate elements from opposing cuisines, but when an ingredient from a neighbouring country seems apt for the menu, it has been used judiciously. What makes it such a piquant blend is the fact that the menu writer is obviously Chinese. Who else would have named a warm starter ‘roast mango duck’ instead of ‘roast duck mango’? Or ‘small eat’ for the starter menu, which exists even in London!
Chef Irfan Pabaney, the corporate chef of the company is clear about a couple of things. He is not going to alter recipes to suit local conditions. That means that there are no flowing sauces and no punch of chillies adorning subtle preparations just for the sake of it. If you do find that you have made the wrong choice of food, the waiter will discreetly place a bowl of green chillies in vinegar or red chilli pounded at your table to spice up the heat quotient of your dish, but alter a recipe? No way!
Roasted silver cod with champagne and Chinese honey (one of the pricier dishes on the menu at Rs 2850) was an epiphanic moment. The fish was served in a satisfyingly thick chunk and was cooked perfectly all the way through. The whisper-light sauce was pale golden and combined the best of both worlds: the orient and the west. Chef Pabaney tells me that the fish preparation that outsells all others on the menu is the stir-fried Chilean seabass with Sichuan peppercorn. It has basil leaf and spring onion in it and what probably works in its favour is the mélange of flavours, rather like a Thai stir-fry. However, for the sheer artistry of the silver cod with champagne sauce, it lingers on in my memory.
The tiny dessert menu takes off from puddings of the South China variety: coconut and mango, pandan and coconut, white chocolate and passion fruit: light and fruity.
Hakkasan changes its guise completely at lunch time. It is popular with a different set of diners who want to experience the brand in a truncated form: there’s a lighter menu for lunch. ends