Hutong At The Shard

We speed up in the elevator at such a rate that I don’t notice the first 32 floors that we pass by on the way to the 33rd. It’s smooth and the interiors of the lift are sleek and pine scented. As the doors open, we’re greeted by a huge map of the city and just a few steps later comes the real thing. The sprawling mass of concrete, stone and steel that is London sits before us, with the Thames wrapping itself around the capital’s boroughs and monuments like some blackened serpent-like protector, as sparkling skyscrapers sprout from every spare patch of land.

We are greeted by a hostess who seems offended that I didn’t answer my phone, to confirm our reservation for the second time, on the way up in the lift. She shows us to our table with a smile regardless and then skips away, never to be seen again. We wait for our menus and admire the vistas of the city – we can see everything from St. Paul’s and the London Eye to Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf. Yet intriguingly, the interiors do manage to distract from the view occasionally. Boudoir reds mingle with deep ebonies and blocks of wood form intricate wall panels and ornate nooks and crannies that wrap around big group dining tables that are adorned with Sichuan-red lanterns. It’s easily one of London’s sexiest interiors. Even the mens bathrooms are darkly lit and have urinals with a window looking down on to the trains in London Bridge station and beyond.

The somewhat tatty menus finally arrive from a waiter who seem to have seen better days, rushing in all directions at once as he receives orders from no less than two supervisors. He waffles on for a while about not very much, his head fertively looking for his next table as he does, and we order a couple of cocktails, a red bottomed Hutong Sunrise and the Iron Goddess of Mercy. The former is a base of Cachaça sweetened with Amarena cherry and caramel syrup and given a herbal edge with kafir and coriander, while the Goddess is a tipsy mix of Pisco, green pepper syrup and Sambuca with a salty black sesame rim. They’re both good. Not incredible. Just good. The mixing is well executed but the flavours could be elevated further to match the exotic names. The salty rim is flaky and moreish, and suggestive of a grown up Margarita but beyond that the cocktails are simply OK.

Next up we take a couple of starters and a dim sum platter. The platter is vibrant and surprisingly tasty, each piece is full of flavour and easy on the eye. The standout pieces are the succulent XO sauce crystal prawn dumplings and the striking yellow tobiko-topped green parcels of cod and seaweed. The tofu and crab is tasty but forgettable, but useful as a bit of a palette cleaner, while the sliced pork belly and cucumber comes with a slick and gorgeous chilli and garlic sauce that has hints of the dried Facing heaven chillies that are intrinsic to Sichuan cuisine.

Unfortunately a couple of the mains that we wanted weren’t available on the night so we went with the Ma La Beef and a plate of crispy shredded beef intertwined with chillies and a handful of vegetables. Both dishes were good, spicy but quite tame in terms of spice. The beef in the Ma La was a little too over-cooked for my liking, leading to a chewy and ultimately amateurish plate of beef, but the shredded and deep fried beef was indulgent and in contrast cooked lightly enought to still be edible without grinding your teeeth. Everything paired well with a bottle of Vouvray from the Chateau Gaudrelle, which while dry was soft on the palette with a nice fruity finish.

Additionally, we had a late reservation and so weren’t piled out of the door after an hour like is so often the case in restaurants like Hutong.

Hutong’s major drawback is the service, that while not necessarily bad, is so abused that it becomes a nuisance to watch as waiters are ushered from one side of the room to the other at warp speed, while equalling too few in numbers to be properly attentive. The open duck kitchen is a nice touch and the kitchen staff are polite and courteous when they are out on the floor, but the managers really need to take a look at their style and reassess the waiters, who for the most part are doing a fine job considering the pressure that they are so clearly under. The food is fine. It’s not worth the price tag. There are better Sichuan places in London. But despite this, I’ll be going back to Hutong, if only to sample their famous, soft shell crab with Sichuan chilli peppers which was no longer available on the night.