New York City has had a long history of restaurants sailing in from China and establishing themselves here. In the late 90s we had Dai Jia Lou, a Beijing chain highlighting the food of Yunnan, two decades before the cuisine became popular in the East Village. More recently, Tim Ho Wan generated long lines with its daylong dim sum service, while critically panned duck specialist DaDong suggested that our own Peking ducks may be better than those served in Beijing. Meanwhile, Madame Zhu’s Kitchen has established two elegant Hao Noodle locations in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, both emphasizing Sichuan and Shanghai cooking.
Now appears Hutong, arriving from Hong Kong but with a second location in London, providing an upscale take on what it describes as northern Chinese fare. It occupies the former Le Cirque space in the Bloomberg Building on Midtown’s East Side, and if you remember the exhilaratingly yellow and orange décor of the previous occupant, you should dispel those images from your mind before entering.
Approached through a mid-block alleyway, Hutong consists of an angular barroom on one side approached via a walk-through wine cellar, and a huge rounded dining room with a small alcove on the other, with a greeter’s desk in between. Clad in black shiny panels and white mausoleum marble, with a ceiling almost lost in the clouds, Hutong looks like the inside of Darth Vader’s spaceship.
Charcoal banquettes curlicue around the walls and massive, tortuous chandeliers hang from high above. Employees, mainly dressed in black, dart here and there, while the real bosses (read: spaceship commanders) wearing Savile Row suits and ties look on approvingly. It’s impossible to sit in the bar or dining room and feel utterly relaxed.
Though the menu is said to be northern Chinese, the largest number of dishes come from Sichuan. Most of the others hail from Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangdong, so that the menu might be more fairly described as pan-national. Curiously for a Hong Kong restaurant, there’s little that seems to come from the island economic powerhouse, which teems with outside culinary influences that run to British, Japanese, Indian, and Italian-American, among others. Thus, one finds no bo zai fan, curry chicken, spaghetti, noodles fried crisp, or Horlicks, things familiar to us from the Hong Kong cafes that dot Chinatown.
Instead, the menu constitutes a very polite assortment of Chinese dishes polished for the carriage trade, as the wealthy in this East Side neighborhood were once referred to. Indeed, with dinner entrees averaging $47, Hutong’s prices skew on the higher end. The food tends to be flawlessly turned out, such as a cold app of kou shui chicken ($18) sluiced with bright red chile broth, the shreds of poultry so neatly stacked that assembly might have required 20 minutes and tweezers. The flavor was perfectly balanced, and pleasingly on the spicy side.
Another highlight was a roast Peking duck, available by half or whole ($45, $84). The bird is carved tableside by a chef dressed head to toe in black, toque included, like he’d just emerged at midnight from an East Village punk club in the 1980s. The canvasback was tricked out in the usual fashion, with gossamer pancakes in a steamer and a sharp and plummy hoisin sauce that tasted, for once, like it didn’t come out of a jar. While our Chinatown ducks have a certain coarse texture, this one was a paragon of delicacy, the bites seeming to melt even before they reach your throat. DaDong be damned!
The menu makes the occasional stab at genuine northern Chinese fare, such as a dish called slow-cooked lamb rack ($42), which, in its description at least, resembles the celebrated lamb ribs at Flushing mainstay Fu Run. There, behemoth red tinted ribs arrive thickly encrusted with cumin seed and Sichuan peppercorns. Here, three small double chops have been roasted with no detectable seasoning, and served with a rather skimpy and unassertive dry-spice dip. Those who dreamed of an upscale take on the Dongbei classic, will be severely disappointed.
The attempts at Sichuan food are a mixed bag. The mapo tofu was ho-hum, such as you might get in a neighborhood carryout, with an oddly viscous texture. On the other hand, while not being totally doctrinaire, the dan dan noodles ($14) — which came in a comically small bowl — were so rich, the sauce might have been laced with cream. This is Sichuan food by way of Hong Kong, London, and New York; those noodles were great, though.
Skip the soups. There are two of them served in tiny bowls. The one generically termed mollusc and beans was the worst, gritty like a can of Campbell’s bean with bacon. Other dishes were interesting, but with flaws, like a tofu skin rolled around pickled vegetables, maki style. If the skin was tea-smoked, as the menu boasted, I couldn’t taste it.
So what, exactly, is Hong Kong about Hutong besides the prices and the elegance? At a certain point as you scan the menu, you’ll notice dim sum scattered here and there, some in sections at lunch and dinner titled “dim sum,” some not. This is the beating heart of the restaurant and the very best thing about it. For years, our dim sum spots in Chinatown and Sunset Park have been flaunting their innovations borrowed from Hong Kong, and it’s nice to be delivered a dim sum package with so many of them on one menu.
Thus we have jet black dumplings shaped like submarines, their crunchy wrappers filled with micro-granular charcoal, their innards a soupy and fermented-tasting pork dice. And so-called Hutong prawn rolls are filled with shrimp and scallop, cut into what surfers might call a half-pipe. And something pretentiously called a wagyu beef millefeuille that turns out to be a compact puff pastry filled with beef and gravy that tastes positively English. The list goes on and on.
Only the Shanghai soup dumplings bombed, with an orange and shriveled wrapper that was spongy, and a filling of pork and shrimp, when you might have hoped for crab, especially at this price (three for $12). In general, though, the dim sum is excellent, making Hutong a viable source for a dim sum meal at lunch or dinnertime. Especially if you’re willing to spend $75 per person or so, all-in price.