David Yeo’s Aqua Group opens the second of its lofty spots halfway up Renzo Piano's big glimmering baby. And whilst there’s a pretty hefty premium to be paid for the sheer shebang of dining up the Shard itself, the northern Chinese food is authentic and the atmosphere certainly swish.
You can’t really beat the views, given they’re from a fair few feet up, with the vista more or less making it as far as the home counties and beyond. It’s only when you look closely that the sheen loses its lustre somewhat, with humdrum city life trundling through all that relentless grey, whatever the weather. That all changes when darkness falls – or rather, doesn’t – with the fine lines of London light stabbing their way attractively through the bustle. Inside Hutong itself there's a certain incongruity; the aged, authentic fixtures (every single piece imported from Hong Kong) are forced, somewhat, into a very modern building not wholly suited to anything lacking a certain geometry. However, Hutong still manages to feel exactly as it should: a chic, glamorous destination dining room that will do well with those of means.
First off: no trainers. And though that kind of dress code is a little old fashioned (it does feel a bit like trying to get into a highfalutin provincial bar as the trouble in shirts and shoes waltz in unchecked) this is a joint classier than most, so you really should be wearing your nattiest clobber anyway. There are a lot of celebrations going on, so don’t be surprised to see big birthday tables, but later on in the evenings – and especially weekends – you’ll see lots of tables of two, with heels the height of the Shard itself having tottered in alongside sharp suits hosting deep wallets. Staff (plucked from some of London's top spots) are incredibly professional and generally pretty good at their jobs, not least when trying to navigate past those uncouth sorts leaving their table to grab a gander at the views.
The original Hutong over in Hong Kong is pretty well thought of for its showcase of authentic dishes from northern China. And whilst the numbing heat isn’t quite as in evidence here, the menu does offer a very sound rendition of the cuisine from this particular part of China, though plenty of Szechuan bits and bobs make their way in too. Some might balk at the pricey prices but they should be put into context: this is sought after destination dining and, more importantly, portions are incredibly generous.
Razor clams (£13) are nicely balanced, with Chinese rose wine, plenty of garlic and chilli offering sweet heat that contrasts well with the natural saltiness of the clams themselves. There’s plenty of bite to them, too. Dim sum (also served into the evening – out of step with the authenticity but very welcome) also impresses, with a platter (£15) featuring two each of rose champagne shrimp, scallop and pumpkin (deliciously sweet), vegetable and bamboo pith (a little bland) and crystal crabmeat (very good). There’s a more extensive dim sum menu at lunch, and the quality is certainly good enough to warrant returning for a proper Cantonese tea.
From the mains the roasted Peking duck is very popular, with the added theatre of the lacquered duck being carved at the table. It’s certainly not cheap (half £30, whole £58) but it’s essentially two dishes (as is tradition), with half of it served with pancakes and the other half taken away to be stir fried. Another popular choice – and with very good reason – is the red lantern (£28), a huge, ostentatious basket filled with dried Szechuan chillies (don’t touch them – they’re nuclear) and four, huge soft-shell crabs cut in half. The spicing is perfect and the batter light enough to almost be tempura.
The monkfish fillet (£28) braised with Chinkiang vinegar is another highlight, and there’s a serious amount of very nicely cooked, meaty monkfish. The only disappointment comes from the Mongolian-style barbecue rack of lamb (£30) that looks utterly delicious with pink, carved-at-the-table chops let down by some seriously aggressive seasoning - so aggressive as to be inedible, in fact. Accompaniments might appear ludicrously expensive (egg fried rice at £12…) but the quality remains high and portion sizes still huge.
Desserts are judiciously kept pretty light (even the very good black sesame glutinous dumplings are airy and manageable), with guava sorbet (£6) wonderfully rich in flavour but not too sweet, and even the mango cheesecake (£6.50) fleetingly so, offset nicely by a very good passion fruit ice cream.
Seeing as it’s such a celebration spot, cocktails do a roaring trade, and the signatures are nothing if not imaginative – not least for their claims toward restorative power. And although it’s debatable whether the Comfortably Numb (£12.50) does actually ‘alleviate spleen or stomach cold from deficiency patterns’ the cocktail itself (vanilla Stoli, fresh chilli, Szechuan pepper honey, lychee liqueur and fresh lime) tastes very good. The classic cocktails are no less impressive (the Mai Tai particularly) but it’s the surprisingly concise wine list that impresses most. An admirable selection is available by the glass but if you want the whole bottle prices start at a very reasonable £22, heading slowly up to £200. There’s value to be had, too, with a lovely Gnarly Head Viognier at £30 or an excellent Vouvray from Chateau Gaudrelle at £35.
The Last Word
It might not be faultless but Hutong is set to be one of most sought after destination dining spots in London. If you’re a fan of authentic Chinese food and are looking to impress, this place will suit you down to the ground.