As a child growing up in San Francisco, I remember many a time accompanying my Dad to a Chinatown joint, where he’d order a plate of fluffy steamed rice topped with an ample portion of cleaver-chopped roasted duck for all of $5.
It was cheap, filling and satisfying.
I couldn’t help but flash back to that no-frills dish when I had a far more luxurious version recently at Hakkasan in San Francisco, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant.
Oh sure, you can have roast duck with rice here. But it’ll set you back $40.
Yes, that plate of duck alone — 12 slices of gorgeous mahogany skin each covering a sliver of meat resting on a smear of hoisin sauce – is $36.
Nope, this is definitely not my late-Dad’s duck rice plate. Nor his kind of Chinese restaurant. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
It’s just that for most of us accustomed to mom-and-pop neighborhood Chinese food at moderate prices, Hakkasan’s steep tab can be a shock.
But should it be? After all, so many of us are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars per person for a tasting menu at all manner of Western restaurants. So should we blanch when a Chinese restaurant dares enter that realm of cost?
Hakkasan does offer up luxuriousness to the max. With outposts in Dubai, Miami and Las Vegas, Hakkasan is as glitzy as you can imagine.
It’s located in the iconic One Kearny building off Market St. Walk through the door to find a host at a stark, blue-purple illuminated counter who will instruct you to take the elevator up to the second floor to the restaurant. The aroma of incense is already noticeable and assaults even more when the elevator opens up to the restaurant.
The decor is flashy with large orchid displays, Asian-style latticed wood dividers, a towering glassed-in wine storage room, a shiny brass bar, and pulsating club music that makes holding a conversation difficult at times in this expansive 10,ooo-square-foot space.
Even at dinner, you can enjoy dim sum. The Hakka steamed dim sum platter offers up eight beautifully formed dumplings for $26. The skins might be on the thick, chewy side, but the fillings are nice, particularly the black pepper duck dumpling. On the side are two dipping sauces: a chili one and a dried shrimp one full of funky umami flavor.
Cocktails are popular here, not surprisingly. The Chinese Mule ($15) is a refreshing blend of Hangar One vodka, Masumi Okuden junmai sake, ginger, lime and ginger beer that gets a savory lift from cilantro.
Crispy duck salad ($28) is a signature dish with good reason. One of the best dishes we had, it contains a generous amount of crisp duck shards that get tossed at the table with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, radish sprouts, fried lotus root and crisp shallots. It’s a mouthful of crunch, herbaceousness, fruitiness and gaminess that you can’t stop eating.
Hakka noodles ($12), a tangle of thin, chewy wheat strands was tossed with slivers of mushrooms and Chinese chives. While it was less greasy than versions at other hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants, it wasn’t necessarily remarkable.
A claypot of Assam seafood ($29) brought a mix of prawns, squid, halibut and grape tomatoes in a mild, creamy curry sauce you want to ladle over rice. While no steamed buns or pancakes accompany that aforementioned dish of pipa duck, the seafood curry does come with Chinese buns. Fried, they arrive with a shine of oil on the outside and are as sweet as doughnuts. Too sweet, actually. Had the curry been more fiery, the sweetness of the buns might have been more appropriate.
Dessert is actually less sweet and quite lovely. A cylinder of white chocolate mousse mango cake ($10) was garnished with mango slices, furled like flower petals around it. A mango gel is hidden inside the layer of cake. A paint brush stroke of black sesame on the plate adds a dash of deep nutty earthiness. A quenelle of yuzu ice cream has a refreshing tart-floral flavor along with tiny morsels of champagne gelee.
At the end of the meal, hot towels are presented.
Hakkasan is definitely a departure from your usual Chinese restaurant.
It’s not a place you’re sure to eat at regularly like your neighborhood haunt.
It’s more a place you’ll venture for a special occasion — or when entertaining business clients on the company expense account.