A restaurant up a skyscraper? On dear. Only tourists eat in those, right?
Hutong is located half way up the Shard, on the 33rd floor, which means the view isn’t quite as spectacular as the one from Heron Tower’s Duck & Waffle, which is on the 40th floor. On the other hand, the food in Duck & Waffle is crap and the food in Hutong is decent.
“Hutongs” are narrow alleys, usually associated with Beijing, which lead to houses built around courtyards. Hutong the restaurant has about as much in common with hutong the method of city planning as the Fat Duck has in common with overweight mallards. Hutongs are crumbling, higgledy-piggledy, impractical and beautiful. Hutong is polished, expensive and brash. But what do you expect – it’s half way up the Shard, it’s hardly going to be a little family-run place, is it?
The original Hutong restaurant is up a skyscraper in Hong Kong. It specialises in Sichuan cooking, with an emphasis on dishes that blow your socks off with ma-la (a paste largely consisting of Sichuan peppercorns), which numbs your mouth in a way we’re not used to in the West.
I spent a few weeks trekking about China last year and ate a lot of the stuff, such as the time I visited a tiny temple hours from anywhere in a region where people live in houses carved directly into the sandstone hills. I had a stinking hangover after a night drinking baiju, during which I’d been snacking on flat noodle parcels filled with ma-la. Barely holding it together I was invited into one of the cave houses for some tea, only for the host to rustle up the exact same dish, which I had to smile and chew and swallow and not regurgitate, all the while wishing the ma-la could numb my head instead of my tongue.
Compared to that, Hutong didn’t have much to beat. I was meeting El Pye for dinner. At least I was supposed to be – she turned up an hour and a half late, which gave me plenty of time to sit and watch the sun set and drink cocktails. There’s something wonderfully melancholy about watching a city from above, especially if you’re contemplating whether or not you’ve been stood up. I’m starting to think she’s playing a game of restaurant chicken, seeing how late she can arrive before I stop inviting her.
Anyway, the cocktails were good. I had the comfortably numb, which is a pretty miserable song to name a cocktail after, given that it is about a guy being medicated following a mental breakdown over the collapse of his marriage. It was from the section of the drinks menu featuring beverages based around ingredients used in Chinese medicine. The comfortably numb was supposed to help my spleen, which it may or may not have done – I don’t know anything about spleens.
Hutong’s clientele is rich, in a louche way. The guy at the table next to me was wearing a purple satin shirt and a pair of iridescent boots, and most of the women looked like extras from Made in Chelsea, which is not unexpected in a restaurant up a skyscraper. Finally El Pye arrived, blahing on about some blah or blah that made her 90 minutes late. We got a decent table by the window and I was grudgingly impressed by the view.
The cuttlefish arrived as the last of the daylight disappeared. It comes cold, smeared with ma-la. It was fine. The red lantern soft shell crab – one of Hutong’s marquee dishes – is more impressive, arriving in a giant wooden… well, lantern, filled with dried chillies, from which you pluck the crab, tombola style. The meat was delicious: crispy, full of flavour, only ever-so-slightly greasy. The monkfish with Chinkiang vinegar and pickled chilli was generously proportioned but slightly overpowered by the black bean-heavy sauce.
It’s no disrespect to the other dishes that the best thing I ate all night was the side of beans. What a plate of beans. I asked the manager how you make beans so good: deep fry them for two seconds before pan-frying with pork, garlic, shallots and shrimp. “We cook it properly,” the manager said. “Other restaurants are lazy.” So there you go.
Hutong is a bit gauche, and a bit pricey, but you get a nice view and the crab is delicious. It’s a good place for a date, so long as the other person turns up.
First published in City A.M.