Friday, 26 July 2013
Hutong at the Shard, London Bridge
A few weeks ago, after a very nice meal at Elliot's in Borough Market with a friend (you should go, it's great), we decided it would be a good idea to check out Oblix, the bar/restaurant on the 32nd floor of the Shard, for a nightcap. Up we went, expecting it to be pretty busy on a Friday night but still hoping for a quiet corner to stand and sip a cold martini.
What we found, instead, was a piercingly loud space containing too much bar and not enough elbow room, with a good chunk of the place given up to a stage for an irritating jazz band (who also blocked one of the best windows) and warm martinis that cost too much money. We didn't try the food, but by the looks of the plates coming out of the kitchen we weren't missing much; just bland crowd-pleasing international things like fishcakes and Caesar salad, served with ruthless efficiency by willowy Eastern Europeans with nice hair.
In short, Oblix is everything you might expect from a Tall Restaurant. Food that's just good enough, drinks churned out without enough time for the details, but who cares - just look at the view. Hutong, upstairs on the 33rd, could have done exactly that. The restaurants in London's most famous new building were always going to be oversubscribed, and the temptation must have been huge to go for the same undemanding crowd of city boys and tourists with tame, toned-down menus of familiar favourites and watch the cash roll in.
That they haven't is both a surprise and a delight. Anywhere in town, Hutong would be an exciting new place to eat, serving interesting Northern Chinese dishes of confident spicing and immaculate presentation. It's a style of food that has hitherto stubbornly refused to be "poshed up" - Gourmet San and Silk Road may be wonderful places, not to mention great value, but you wouldn't want to know their Scores on the Doors. Hutong has the confidence to do Chinese Fine Dining without toning down or taming any of the things that make this kind of food so special in the first place.
So it's about time I told you about it. Dim sum, gleaming like soft gemstones, were the first things to arrive. My favourite was the prawn dumpling flavoured with rosé champagne, with multicoloured herbs and vegetables inside a translucent casing, but they were all good, and even better dipped in an uncompromisingly hot chilli oil. At £15, this isn't ever likely to compete with your favourite local dim sum on price, but is seriously impressive otherwise.
Next, one of the house signature dishes - roast Peking duck pancakes. The duck is carefully carved tableside into neat rows of crispy skin and moist, seasoned flesh, and is surely up there with the very best to be found in London. It's a strange experience, wrapping up a little parcel of hoi sin, cucumber and spring rolls, as you might have done at any high street Chinese restaurant in any small town in the UK, and yet being rewarded with a taste that is at once comfortingly familiar and strikingly enhanced. This is a superb dish, and at £30 for more than enough for two people, one of the admittedly few items on the menu that could be described as something approaching a bargain.
Sichuan chicken was crispy chunks of moist bird in so much Sichuan pepper it could be used as crowd control. I loved it, the numbing heat, the texture, the colour, but particularly the thought of some suit ordering his usual no. 93 from the local takeaway and being presented with this bowl of fireworks.
Dan dan noodles weren't quite as spicy (it was somewhat of a relief to find out), but impressed nonetheless with their silky texture and soft peanut sauce. By this stage we were incredibly full, so it's only thanks to the fact they were so good that we saw the bottom of the bowl.
As you might expect, Hutong is not a cheap restaurant. There are plenty of other places in town where you can pick up Ma Po tofu and dim sum for a pittance, so don't go to Hutong and start moaning that you're just paying for the view - you really aren't. As much attention has been paid to the stunning interiors (check out those loos), the menu, the drinks (there's a very interesting Chinese-inspired cocktail list which I can also thoroughly recommend) and the friendly and attentive service as the food, and as you can hopefully gather by now, the food is very good indeed. So you pay for it.
And not everything on the menu is as successful as that you see above. Occasionally Hutong's confidence in extreme flavours produces some odd results, like a very bitter raw scallop and pomelo starter I tried on the press preview night, or cold razor clams loaded with so much garlic they make your eyes water.
But I'd still rather suffer the occasional noble failure than spend my money anywhere aiming to be nothing more than adequate, or anywhere content with leaning on the crutch of the location to compensate for food that, at ground level, wouldn't earn a second glance. The achievement at Hutong is that everything is in place for a fantastic night out even before you factor in the view. And watching the sun set over Hampstead on a warm summer's evening as you tuck into your second glass of white, well, that's just a wonderful bonus.