December 13, 2019, 7:51

The Unapologetic Decadence of Hutong

The Unapologetic Decadence of Hutong

In northern China, hutongs are thin, narrow alleyways lined with cramped single-story houses in which families live communally, sometimes for generations. Depending on your point of view, to enter Hutong, the palatial Chinese restaurant that occupies the ground floor of the Bloomberg Tower, where the legendary Le Cirque once resided, is to feel either the triumph of Chinese haute cuisine as it conquers one of the world’s preëminent food capitals or disorientation at its newfound inaccessibility to the masses; the restaurant’s prices would cause a stroke for most real-life occupants of its humble namesake.

The dim-sum platter has four kinds of dumplings; they arrive in the form of eight translucent sculptures with fillings—lobster and squid ink, rosé-champagne shrimp—sumptuous enough to satisfy Empress Cixi.

Photograph by Zachary Zavislak for The New Yorker

At Hutong, opulence is an atmospheric condition, apparent as soon as you step into its blue-and-silver dining room: with its soaring vaulted ceiling, white mausoleum marble, and chandeliers resembling alien deities, the space evokes an Art Deco cathedral paying homage to the Holy Father of capitalism. Hutong is part of David Yeo’s restaurant group, which includes more than twenty operations across three continents and whose unifying theme might be characterized as polished, unapologetic decadence. To eat here is to be reminded that you are the sort of person who willingly pays eleven dollars for a diner cup’s worth of lukewarm soup.

The Red Star Noodles, a Hutong original, delivers tender fillets of halibut, theatrically revealed from under petal-like pieces of red pepper, on a bed of soupy noodles and shiitake mushrooms.

Photograph by Zachary Zavislak for The New Yorker

On a recent Monday night, a young manager with a posh English accent assured a table of new arrivals that, “even with everyone in the Hamptons now,” business was going strong. At a nearby wraparound banquette sat a member of the Forbes 400 list. A waiter casually dropped that Henry Kissinger had stopped by a few weeks prior. Later, so many women showed up in floor-length evening gowns and stacked Louboutins that one patron wondered aloud if that was the suggested dress code.

Hutong bills its offerings as “northern Chinese,” but a preponderance of the dishes—from the mapo tofu to the dan-dan noodles and the mala-chili prawns—are Szechuanese classics. Skip the hot-and-sour pork xiao long bao—it seems like an interesting idea in theory but arrives neon orange and tastes almost no different from regular xiao long bao. Instead, go for the dim-sum platter, which has four kinds of dumplings; they arrive in the form of eight translucent sculptures with fillings—lobster and squid ink, rosé-champagne shrimp—sumptuous enough to satisfy Empress Cixi.

At Hutong, opulence is an atmospheric condition, apparent as soon as you step into its blue-and-silver dining room.

Photograph by Zachary Zavislak for The New Yorker

To impress your companions, order the Red Lantern, a signature special that features halved and seasoned soft-shell crabs buried in a basket of dried chilies so large you’ll worry that the entrée will go untouched. You will be wrong, of course. There are six pieces of crab; finding all of them will feel exciting at first, but then like a tiresome fishing expedition. A recurring theme, as you move from one course to another, is aesthetically pleasing presentation that yields so few mouthfuls that communal dining becomes almost anxiety-provoking; playing chopsticks hockey for that last morsel is inevitable.

The unifying theme might be characterized as polished, unapologetic decadence.

Photograph by Zachary Zavislak for The New Yorker

The Red Star Noodles, another Hutong original, delivers tender fillets of halibut, theatrically revealed from under petal-like pieces of red pepper, on a bed of soupy noodles and shiitake mushrooms. It’s tasty enough, but one wishes for more interesting cuts of the fish—say, the head or the tail or a few bits of skin—to complicate and deepen the flavor. The crowd-pleaser was the Peking duck, carved tableside and made from a centuries-old recipe that takes at least twenty-four hours to prepare and leaves the meat so supple that it all but melts in your mouth. Pro tip: order early, because the birds tend to disappear after 9 P.M.

One recent evening, a thirtysomething Beijing native and his date wondered whether food necessarily tastes better when there’s less of it. They had eaten their entrées, but a feeling of fullness felt far on the horizon. His companion contemplated the last grain of rice on her chopstick, paid the check, and then quietly asked, “Where to for second dinner?” (Entrées $25-$78.) ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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