Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fiery Flavors in the Clouds: The New Menu at Hutong, Shard

Food is at the heart of Chinese culture. You may have heard that we often greet each other by asking, "Have you eaten yet?" In my family, we make reservations for lunch at breakfast, and reservations for dinner at lunch. That's just how it works. We carry antacids in our handbags and sip jasmine and oolong tea like nobody's business to aid digestion. So, yeah. Food is pretty high up on the priority list for us.

When I visit relatives in Vancouver or Hong Kong, they'll ask, "Ooh! Do you want to have ... Sichuan cusine?" Like it's a dare. Sichuan Chinese-style cooking is known for its use of chillis and garlic - much more intense on the palate than the light, clean flavours of the Cantonese cuisine that I'm used to. These lunches often leave me spluttering and sweating, much to the amusement of my aunts and uncles, who gleefully watch from across the Lazy Susan, shouting, "You can't handle it, huh?"

Hutong, a nod to the narrow but characterful alleyways found in northern Chinese cities such as Beijing, is  located on the 33rd level (!!!) of the Shard. Primarily renowned for its Northern Chinese cuisine, the restaurant is unveiling its new a la carte menu on the 24th of July, and I had the opportunity to preview the menu last week. With the arrival of its new chef, "Sifu" (or Master, in Chinese) Fei Wang, Hutong's new menu has a decidedly Sichuan influence, with intense, bold flavors and fiery spice. Under Wang Sifu's expertise, the dishes are what Hutong calls, "a refined take on the classic" - a bold statement that was proven during my visit.

While taking in the views (the sun was just setting!), we sipped champagne and sampled steamed tiger prawn and black truffle dumplings, cod and seaweed dumplings, crispy prawn rolls (which had a satisfying crunch, with virtually no oil), and vegetarian spring rolls.

As for Wang Sifu's new items on the menu, as well of some of Hutong's classic dishes, here were the highlights (and my favorites!):

Pan-fried wagyu beef buns

I'm not usually a fan of pan-fried buns (I prefer them steamed or baked), but these delicious buns were so moreish, I found myself blushing as I reached for a second, and then a third. The bun itself is thin enough to allow the flavor of the slightly-sweet (similar to a char siu bao you'd might have at dim sum) wagyu beef filling to sing. The bite-sized buns would be a good choice for lunch, or as an appetizer before dinner.

Scallop and prawn wonton with hot and spicy sauce

Similar to one of my favorite spicy Chinese dishes, hong you chao shou, these scallop and prawn wontons made my list of items-I'd-order-again. Served with Hutong's special chilli oil, I would have liked to see it with a bit more spicy sauce, but otherwise the wontons were fresh, flavorful, and had a wonderful, traditional homemade taste. I'd order them for lunch or dinner.

Roasted Peking duck

I have to be in the right mood for Peking duck (and with a table big enough to share), but the duck at Hutong was so beautifully roasted, I was one of the first to reach for the basket of steaming-hot, thin pancakes. I piled mine high with slices of the wonderfully fatty, crispy duck, before drizzling over the sticky, sweet sauce and selecting long, delicate strands of cucumber and spring onion to add to my miniature wrap. As a child, I loved this create-your-own dish, and secretly loved it when an older member of the family ordered it for the table. This is a super fun dish to share with a group of friends.

Red Star noodles 

At first glance, it looks curious: a red bell pepper, cut and shaped into star, sits suspended in an impressive bowl of noodles and chilli oil-laced Sichuan broth. But when unveiled by the server, each pepper petal is pulled back to reveal a generous portion of steamed halibut, its texture smooth and ever-so-slightly yielding. I slurped my noodles greedily, taking note of its perfectly al dente consistency and the delicious, fragrant broth.  This is a hearty, warming dish that's perfect for autumn and winter. A great sharing dish for two.

Sichaun-style deep fried lobster 

Served with fresh chilli, black bean and dried garlic, this is the dish to order if you're out to impress at Hutong Shard. Lobster is almost always on the menu when I'm dining out, Chinese-style, with my family in the States or Hong Kong, but I'm used to the simple, steamed Cantonese version - made with minced garlic and soy sauce. Wang Sifu's spicy, deep fried version dances on the tongue, heating your lips and showcasing the sweet, tender spirals of lobster meat. In fact, the saltiness and heat (warm enough to make my nose run) of this dish allowed the lobster to taste that much sweeter. A wonderful combination (not to mention, exquisitely presented on the platter).

During the evening, we also tried Chinese asparagus with hula dressing: a thinly sliced, crunchy green vegetable drizzled with a tangy, spicy dressing (think of it as a starter or side salad to complement your meal); ma la (a numbing hot sauce) crispy eel with Sichuan drired chilli and cumin; glistening spears of wok-tossed choy sum (a green Chinese vegetable); and tender aromatic beef rib braised in lotus leaf.

Surveying London from the dizzying heights of Level 33 at the Shard, I felt myself becoming a little misty-eyed. This vibrant, thrumming city has taken a few hard knocks recently, but staring out at it that evening at Hutong made me as grateful and defiant as ever to live in this place I've called home for nearly a decade.

The fire, the passion, and the intensity of the flavors we sampled that evening at Hutong seemed to echo my sentiments, driving forward a metaphor I arrived at as I reflected on the cab ride back to Liverpool Street: the restaurant, perched in the sky, with its bright red lanterns and exquisite cuisine, breathes life into the city; contributing as we all do, to its heart.

Huge thanks to Hutong for hosting me at this delicious preview. All opinions are my own.
Hutong, Level 33, The Shard, 31 Saint Thomas Street, London, SE1 9RY

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