It’s extremely hard not to compare Hakkasan, which opened earlier this year, with Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine.
Both aim to elevate Chinese food with a contemporary twist in elegant surroundings, and yet are located in strip malls in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. They’re run by members of the same family, and they specialize in tasting menus. But there are also subtle differences.
Hakkasan is a spinoff of sorts. Zen — which zoomed to infamy after being named the greatest Chinese restaurant outside China by a New York Times writer — was a partnership between Chef Sam Lau and his sister for three years.
They parted amicably and now she’s opened Hakkasan with her two daughters who you’ll see at the front of house.
Not to be confused with the much-lauded, Michelin-starred Hakkasan in London, this Hakkasan pushes the contemporary Chinese dining atmosphere Zen started in the Vancouver area, setting the tables with black chopsticks and adorning the ceiling with a funky chandelier.
We opted for the eight-course tasting menu which was on a summer special for a jaw-dropping $38 per person (slashed from $75). There are caveats though that the entire table must participate and advance reservations are required for it.
It began with a beef tataki salad on organic greens with a slice of prosciutto wrapped around a slice of cantaloupe. Because my mom doesn’t eat beef, they made an imitation shark’s fin salad with jellyfish for her that I actually preferred because it was a little more unique.
A deceptively small young coconut came next, hollowed out and filled with a soup simmered for hours with quail and snow fungus.
It took me twice as long as everyone else to tackle this, not only because I’m usually a slow eater, but also because I wanted to savour everything: the soup, the quail meat that I dipped in the special soy sauce on the side, the texture of the snow lotus, and the soft coconut meat scraped from the inside of the shell.
A delicious soft-shell crab with spicy rock salt came next for the table to share. It disappeared quickly. I liked that the tasting menu played with individual plates, as well as shared dishes as is common in Chinese cuisine.
A favourite dish of mine from Zen resurfaced here: lobster with specialty garlic sauce. It’s half of a lobster totally smothered in garlic that’s sweet and not stinky. Yvonne won’t divulge what they do to it, but it’s delicious.
Granted, you have to get your hands dirty if you want to crack into the claw meat, or you could stay clean and only eat the meat in the exposed half of the lobster body, but why would you do that? (Oh wait, if you did that, you could give me your claw. Yeah, pass it over.)
A Hakka specialty is salt chicken, traditionally baked in hot salt, but here it’s poached in brine and served cold. It was tasty and moist, but not unlike other Hakka salt chicken I’ve had.
The grilled eel and egg tofu dish that came next was my least favourite. I quite dislike tofu, which doesn’t help. The eel tasted like the standard unagi you get in a Japanese restaurant, and was pretty non-descript. However, the bed of dry-fried green beans which I gobbled up redeemed it.
Things perked back up with the roasted pork cheek , sliced on top of a bowl of rice with broccoli. The cheek was similar to BBQ pork, but with a slightly crisp texture I can only describe with the Chinese word “song.”
The broccoli was a bit pedestrian though; I would’ve liked to have seen a different kind of veg, even some Chinese greens.
One notable difference between Hakkasan and Zen is the duration of meals. The last time we went to Zen for dinner, it took four hours. Hakkasan’s kitchen is definitely faster in getting those dishes out.
And unlike Zen, Hakkasan has a full à la carte menu, and is open for lunch with specials starting at $8.95. The regular tasting menus for dinner range from $48 to $188.
There will inevitably be those people who sniff at paying fine-dining prices for Chinese food, but I for one applaud the efforts to do something different and elevate it to another level.
Hakkasan, 110-2188 No. 5 Rd., Richmond, B.C. (604) 273-9191. Open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner Tuesday-Sunday 5:30-10 p.m. Closed Mondays.
The regular special has roasted pork cheek salad (instead of beef tataki), whelk stuffed with curried seafood (instead of soft-shell crab) and Hakka fried rice (instead of the pork cheek on rice), and a dessert that changes daily. BTW, the whelk is awesome.
Click on the image for a sample of some of their tasting menus.