Sometimes, there comes an invite a little too hard to resist. I've said in the past that I find invite-to-reviews terribly awkward, but on this occasion I was able to deal with it - it checked all the boxes; beyond my current price range capabilities, a place I've wanted to try for a while, a special Chinese New Year menu... forgive me. But, like always, I will be completely honest about it.
HKK is part of the Hakkasan group of fine-dining Chinese restaurants. Located at 88 Worship Street (very auspicious numbering, that - double wealth in Cantonese), the non-descript doorway is easy to miss. I settled in to wait for my friend (who, er, went to the Hanway Street Hakkasan and then had to do a dash across town...) with a cocktail that was a bit over-sweet and perfumed for my tastes. Pretty though.
Speaking of pretty, the menu was presented beautifully. Designed to take you on a journey around China, each course was illustrated and coloured in a thick booklet for you to take home with you. We started off with a cube of Berkshire pork.
Said to represent the Su Cuisine, from Suzhou ("the Venice of the East"), the pork was suspended in Osmanthus wine jelly, which wasn't a flavour I detected. Served cold, they were perfect appetisers, swiped through the black vinegar reduction.
The most hotly-anticipated course for me, as I'd observed the chef plating up the roast duck at least twice, was served next. From the Beijing region, the cherry-wood smoked glossy, lacquered bird was brought to the central reservation whereby the chef deftly carved the meat off with a cleaver, with an impossibly delicate hand. We were presented with a plate each; a piece of skin, with a pile of sugar to dip into, rolled in a pancake, and a chunk of rosy-pink meat to enjoy on its own. I asked what happens to the rest of the bird. I'd hoped they would gift it to me, but they use it for lunchtime dishes. Damn. Nevertheless, this was one of the best roast ducks I've tried. It just about pips Hutong's to the post.
I'm afraid I got all caught up in the excitement of the Guandong region of dim sum - it was that paintbrush. I got to paint on the soy sauce! That was good fun, and ensured you don't go dunking. The dim sum was obviously of high quality, and I remember that they were filled to bursting, the pleats delicate.
The 'Monk Jumps Over the Wall' soup, from Fujian, came with a spoon filled with glass noodles and goji berries that you dunk into the broth. It is called this because it is said that this soup is so aromatic a monk at a nearby monastery caught a whiff of it and abandoned his vegetarianism to get at it. So, it's not too surprising that it was one of my favourite courses; the broth was light, though made with abalone and so rich in flavour, and was plentiful with silky mushrooms and sea cucumber. I'm surprised the sea cucumber was met without even a raise of the eyebrow from my friend - they don't look that appetising - but I can only imagine she didn't quite catch it. They don't taste of much, but provide a really great slimy-crunchy texture. Have I sold it to you?
I usually associate Hunanese food with hot, dry spiciness - my experience of it usually involves pickled chillis. Chilean seabass didn't contain any of these, but was cooked in Sha Cha sauce - a sauce made from garlic, shallots, chilli and dried shrimps. It is sweet yet savoury, and a light hand was used to apply it. The fish was wrapped and tied around some julienned vegetables, creating texture and lightness, necessary after the richness of the preceding course.
We were back on track with braised King soy wagyu beef with Merlot, from the Zhe Cuisine. One small cube of incredibly tender, fatty meat was enough; it was packed full of flavour. You needed the pak choi leaf to relieve some of the meatiness - I loved this.
Finally, to end the savouries, Sichuan char-grilled New Zealand scampi. I couldn't detect much char-grilling here. It had the texture of incredibly delicate poaching, and was just-done so the flesh was still very soft but had a slight snap to it. I felt that they could have been a bit bolder with the flavourings - a bit spicier, a bit more of a 'ma la' tingle from Sichuan peppercorns - after all, that's what characterises that cuisine.
Two desserts followed. Tiny dumplings with translucent skins were sat in a clear yuzu-scented syrup. The innards were dark, molten liquid chocolate and I was glad I ate them whole. I'm not usually a fan of citrus with chocolate but the perfume of the yuzu worked well here.
Sheeps' milk mousse, pandan curd and caramelised rice puffs was a lovely light ending, though I did fear a little for my mouth with the needle-sharp sugar bundle. I kept expecting some sharp pain which of course never came. It was a plate of textures - a few jellied cubes here and there, crispy rice puffs to break up the creamy aspects.
It's not a cheap night. The 10 course tasting menu, available only at dinner, is obviously in the definite 'treat' zone at £98 per head. But the quality of the ingredients and the immense skill of the chef is quite evident - carving that duck looked like it would take years of practice. There's an 8 course menu available for £68 per head, and both are available as vegetarian options too. If I'd have had my way I'd have abandoned the poussin, and I missed noodles - a classic Chinese New Year dish, symbolising longevity - but I suppose that might have been a little filling. We left pretty stuffed to the brim.
88 Worship Street
London EC2A 2BE
Tel: +44 (0)20 3535 1888
I dined as a guest of a restaurant; all opinions are genuine, and my own. The menu runs until 28th February 2015.