“Hakkasan” is a little bistro offering authentic Hakka-inspired soul food and Cantonese dishes prepared the “Wok Hay” style. They are a family-run establishment: a mother and her two daughters. They are best known from their multi-course tasting menus.
Having family ties to the Hakka people and growing up hearing my relatives speak the dialect, I was highly curious to try the cuisine for myself. I am sure I have had some Hakka dishes growing up, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you this from that. I wanted to learn more and I wanted to start with food from “Hakkasan”.
Hakka cuisine is the cooking style of the Hakka people. Their name refers to them being nomads, China’s gypsies that roam the land. They mostly originate from the southeastern Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, and Guangxi. But the Hakka people can also be traced back to other parts of China and in countries with significant overseas Chinese communities. For instance, my Hakka family members all come from Brunei.
“Wok Hay” is a Cantonese expression used to describe the essence of wok cooking and the flavours and taste imparted from the process of stir frying within a wok. When prepared in a wok, dishes often come out fiery and very flavourful.
Nestled in East Richmond’s industrial area, the restaurant was established in 2007 by the original owner of Richmond’s “Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine”. They were named “the world’s greatest Chinese restaurant outside of China” by NY Times journalist and food critic, Jennifer Lee in her book “The Fortune Cookies Chronicle”. They have also won Diner’s Choice for “Best Service” in the Chinese Restaurant Awards 2015. All of which was displayed proudly within the restaurant, as framed awards hung by the entrance with care. With all their accolades I went in with high hopes. Most were delivered.
The bistro has recently undergone a makeover. Given the blasé exterior with white washing and brown trim, the new and improved setting was a pleasant surprise. (Not that I know how they looked before.) Stone walls towards the back, tiled floors under foot, black shades over the front facing windows, monochromatic art along the walls, and dainty iron lighting fixtures overhead. It was all very modern, simple clean. It only got cluttered by the bar, where mismatching bottles were displayed on a rack, and painted canvases were decoration matching their vino theme. With polished flatware, neatly folded cloth napkins, and wine glasses this was one of the nicest looking Chinese restaurants I have ever been too. They didn’t do gaudy or ostentatious, they went with chic and modern on a budget, and they were successful in this. It all had me feeling more assured of the meal to come.
Given some of their more flamboyant menu options, they classify themselves as a “fine dining” Chinese restaurant. Their prices match this thought, being a little on the steeper side. However given the quality and quantity of food for the prices set, I would say they are reasonable and worth it. I instead would define them more as a casual restaurant in the league of more familiar casual chains like earls and cactus. They welcome anyone and deliver great service indiscriminately.
They clearly know that the modern diner expects food, service, and the setting to all be on par. You don’t enjoy good food as much in a room that is cramped and dingy, and you enjoy it even less if the service accompanying it is rotten. They didn’t have any of the above as problems. We were greeted by Yvonne at the door. She was one of the daughters, clearly proud of their family’s achievements. She was upbeat and happy and it rubbed off on her staff. The three women who worked the room, catering to us, all did so with the utmost care and professionalism. I can see why they won an award for service, especially as most Chinese restaurants bogart service in lieu of abrupt speed. We were well taken care of tonight. The tea pots were filled often, empty dishes were bussed regularly, the whole table was even wiped down before dessert.
As I mentioned earlier they are best known for their tasting menu. It was the perfect way to try a dish and not have to commit to a full portion of it. Ideal if you are unfamiliar with Chinese food and new to Hakka cuisine. They had four different tasting menus pre-laid out.
Their signature tasting “A” included seven dishes from starter to dessert. It was $75 per person, and included some pretty fancy ingredients like: foie gras, whelk clam, “sharp fin”, scallop, free range chicken, and lobster. Not just Chinese delicacies, but some international ones as well. At the other end of the expense spectrum was their “prestige tasting”, a $188 per person set menu. It included all the above, but with the addition for abalone, pork belly, Chilean sea bass, fried rice and custard with “birds nest”. Some real delicacies at some decent prices when you do the math. And these weren’t small portions these were hearty servings.
Edible “bird’s nests” are created by swiftlets (type of bird) using solidified saliva. Yes it is bird spit that is harvested for human consumption. They are prized in Chinese culture due to their rarity, and supposedly high nutritional value and exquisite flavour. In reality they have no taste, another thing Chinese people eat for the sake of prestige and status.
To accompany the restaurant’s facelift they have also made improvements to this menu. They now also offered an A La Carte Menu for family style dining. It included many popular Hakka country style comfort dishes. They even pack some of their more popular ones to go as part of their “grab and go” program. The concept is ready-to-eat rice & noodle bowls in microwave-safe containers, the perfect solution for lunch on the run or a dinner at home without cooking.
This and other items were on display at coffee bar. We were here later so eggplant was all they had left. But their refrigerated counter still had several individual sized cakes and macarons for dessert. On the counter was a special packaged tea that improves metabolism and home made chilli oil without preservatives.
They also offered single serve desserts like individual sized cakes and macarons.
They have separate lunch and dinner menus, they vary from one another by quantity included and price asked. Lunch specials include set meals and $11.95 deals that came with drinks, sides, and a sweet treat after. The a la carte dinner menu was sectioned options divided by starters, soup, seafood, vegetables, specialities, meat, rice and noodles, and the chef’s signatures. The latter is exclusive specialities that require a phone call ahead of time to reserve it. “Young coconut chicken soup”, “ancient style baked chicken”, “honey roasted pork cheeks”, and “braised pork hock”. We would have all three. Naturally these jumped in price based on ingredients used and technically know-how required.
As is the case with most Chinese menus, they have so much to offer that it is hard to choose. And without photos and just menu names that dual functioned as dish descriptions, I relied on my mother to navigate me through the menu and this cuisine.
The cold appetizer platter included “Jasmine tea smoked mushroom beancurd crepes”, “Balsamic cloud ear mushroom”, and “Honey roasted BBQ pork cheeks”. I appreciated their English translations, it made everything so colourful. With the beancurd crepes you got the intended smokiness, but not the jasmine tea taste. The mushrooms offered a rubbery and chewy texture but none of the acid found in balsamic. And the pork was the highlight of the dish. It was similar to the Chinese style barbecue pork, but a lighter version. It was delicious, I could have eaten a whole baby pig’s worth.
The “Double boiled whole young coconut soup” with pork meat and white fungus was one of their specialities. The room silenced when these came out. Their fragrance quickly filled the space in a most enjoyable way, tropical. It was quite the presentation for all the senses. The soup was still hot, it’s flavour rich yet light. It was a hearty broth that was warming and filling, perfect on this rainy day. Although charming, the presentation did make eating a task. It was hard to get the cumbersome porcelain spoon though the small opening of the young coconut. Though they were later traded out for metal spoons instead. They were especially helpful in scraping the edible coconut flesh off the coconut husks. Who knew coconut meat would be so good in savoury soup? The coconut added a tinge of sweetness, but had mostly been flavoured by the soup. It’s taste was within the broth and in turn the broth was infused into the coconut flesh. The pork meat was tender, but bland. It needed the spicy soya sauce to give it some flavour. This was definitely the crowd favourite. I would agree, but found it to be too much soup for one serving. I would have liked to share it, but that would take away from the presentation.
The “odourless garlic lobster on jasmine rice” was an interesting one. Reading the description I was curious to test out the “odourless” part. It was still fragrant with garlic and it still tasted like garlic, but it wasn’t suppose to fowl up your breath? How did they manage that? The garlic seemed to be squeezed into oil and the rice was coated in it. The rice was still plain on its own, as was the lobster. They needed one another to make a fulsome bite, lobster and rice as one. The subtly of the rice married well with the gentle lobster flavour. But sadly the lobster itself was a little old and its meat prepared a little dry.
The “Ancient style Hakka salt baked chicken” was another dish with an impressive presentation. A crockpot with salt was presented at our table. The lid was removed and the parchment was cut open to revel a perfectly golden brown whole chicken.
Despite it bathing in salt, because of the parchment layer it wasn’t too salty. It was seasoned in ten different spices and only picked up hints of salt. The chicken was tender, it was easily to pry meat from bone. This was favourite dish of the night, especially when taken with the rice above, there was plenty of it after all the lobster parts had been claimed.
The “Braised pork hock” was a huge chunk of meat, the size of a smaller dodge ball. The fatty cut was cooked thoroughly to the perfect tenderness. It was presented at the table as a whole, then later cut down to size for ease of eating. The meat peeled strands by strand at most parts, but at some sections it did come out drier. Sadly I found the dish too salty, I couldn’t eat much of it. Tasty but salty. I had some with the rice from earlier and they recommend dipping the buns below into its sauce.
The “Steamed mini flour rolls” were plain white flour buns. They were fresh and fluffy like bread. They did go great with the sauce above.
“Hakka home style steamed egg, pork, and duck yolk”. Despite it’s simple look it’s smooth texture is actually hard to achieve. Egg is temperamental, you have to cook it at the right temperature at just the right time to get this texture. The dish was like a savoury pudding with jello consistency and ground pork bits for chew.
“Mui choy stirfry” with seasonal Chinese greens. Chinese lettuce with preserved vegetables. This is the first time seeing this lettuce paired with vegetable, usually it is paired with meat. The vegetable was fresh, and would be considered tender. Though it was still stringy with lots of chewing involved, but this is the nature of the vegetable. We ended up spitting out the parts we could not breakdown and swallow. The dish would be considered good if you like that sort of thing, but I am not a fan of leafy green vegetables so passed on this.
“Country style fish filet with pickled vegetables”. It didn’t look like fish, nor did it taste like it. The dish had flashes of sweet and sour pork with the texture of the fish, its sauce and the pickled vegetables used. It was surprisingly really good. The nuggets of battered fish was easy to eat and light. The crisp vegetable offered some crunch and a needed layer of dimension. The dish was not as acidic, surprisingly considering the vegetable used.
“Steamed milk custard”. I was very pleased that it wasn’t something decadent, I couldn’t stomach any more after such a rich meal of eight courses. Milk, egg white, and lots of sugar. Like its savoury cousin above, this egg based dessert required heat and timing to be just so. Eggs can be easily over cooked, these whites were done right. This was such a pretty and delicate dish with its pure white colouring. Sweet and creamy it tasted like something that would be found in a Chinese cocktail bun. The perfect way to end such a meal and cleanse the palette.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this to someone visiting from out of town? – Yes.
If you have never heard of the cuisine, I suggest experiencing it here first. Be warned given the location their hours are limited. Tuesday to Sunday for lunch until 3pm and dinner until 9:30pm. Fancy Chinese food at reasonable prices, the drive to is all you have to worry about. Don’t deny your cravings.