Oh, San Francisco, our beloved city that is ever-troubled with how to handle luxury. On one hand, we scoff at it, call it a chew toy for the moneyed techies, dismiss it as vapid as we twirl ribbons around our intellectual bohemianism and quirky authenticity like a Maypole. But on the other hand, we notice luxury’s shimmer and run our hands over its butter-soft leather; we succumb easily to top-shelf indulgence (especially when someone else is paying) and maybe even Instagram it. Sometimes we say, “F*ck it!” and get silly on a bottle of expensive vintage Champagne, while for others, it’s a lifestyle.
My attitude is this: smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. HAKKASAN in San Francisco’s downtown is definitely a place that will make you crack open your wallet and see how much smoke you can pony up for (or not). The restaurant group certainly smoked it up: $7 million (plus) was spent on the buildout, with lavish décor by Gilles & Bossier that includes a glowing cobalt blue U-shaped bar, embroidered leather banquettes, numerous dining areas (it’s 170 seats large) with flattering lighting, marble bathrooms, wine storage stacked with prestigious bottles, and sultry music playing on the Hakkasound system (and the kitchen, as you can imagine, is incredibly tricked out). Every single detail has been considered, down to the stitching on the menus.
Hakkasan isn’t an original, a place that sprang from here—one more reason for locals to be suspect and raise an eyebrow at this London import. But as a city with such an integral Chinese culture and presence, we have deserved a higher-end and elegant Chinese restaurant for some time. Benu is in a class by itself—and not a place where you go to get your Peking duck fix. Tommy Toy’s had the history and opulent rooms tricked out in chinoiserie, but its cuisine was mothballed. R&G Lounge has some stellar seafood, but if you want a glass of good wine and nice linens, best of luck with that. Ditto the scene at Koi Palace: some exquisite cuisine, but not where you’d go on a date—just a fabulous banquet. Style and substance, why can’t we have both? This generation has been cheated of a restaurant on the level of Cecilia Chiang’s Mandarin.
Which brings us to Hakkasan. I think the place is gorgeous. Not cheesy, not Vegas-y, but definitely swanky and splashy. The same can’t be said for the crowd, a loading zone heavy on monster heels and men with $100 haircuts. It’s a place where you have to strategize like Attila—do you want to be a part of the scene on Friday night? Know what you’re in for.
One way to slice it is to come midweek for one of their creative cocktails at the bar (hello Smoky Negroni and Bird’s Eye Margarita with mezcal) and a few appetizers, which absolutely must include the crispy quail in Guilin chile sauce ($19). The texture is just beyond (the quail is air-dried for a week, then wok-fried, marinated in vinegar, and has a potato-starch fry). It will totally turn your shark brain on: chomp chomp.
But be aware the bar is popular: I have heard that some local business types have their assistants come in early and camp at the bar for them so they have a seat when they leave the office. Ballers.
Another option is to come for lunch (it’s quite mellow) or weekend dim sum brunch. Perched on the second floor, above the street noise and distraction, it has a calm vibe as natural light pours in through the windows and the music is turned down. There’s a three-course Taste of Hakkasan menu for $29 (available at lunch Monday through Friday) worth considering, although I wish I could choose something besides the macarons for dessert.
The dim sum menu shines with the fried selections, like the flaky roast duck pumpkin puff ($8). I adore steamed dumplings—and they make some good har gow ($8) and scallop shumai ($10)—but the delicate pastry of the fried dumplings here is like none other (take your pick from 10 kinds). Oh, and pssst, pass on the king crab roll ($12), it’s not worth it. The crispy duck salad with pomelo, pine nuts, and shallots ($28), however, is a must-order for anyone who even remotely likes duck. It’s one of the city’s best salads.
The Cantonese dishes by chef Ho Chee Boon are sophisticated, and the portions are not skimpy or precious. The staff will guide you well, making recommendations on how much to order, and what to choose from on the extensive menu. If you’re ready for your hot date, or birthday dinner, or want to celebrate your second round of VC funding, it’s easy for this place to take your money—but here’s how to spend it well.
You can fall back on some well-executed classics, like hot and sour soup, but I say go for more refined picks. The black truffle duck ($48) is something special (it features a fantastic jus), and the roasted silver cod in the Champagne and Chinese honey sauce ($39) is exquisite—even though it’s a sweeter flavor profile than I normally like, the sauce’s buttery texture with a subtle zip of lemon and the acidity from the Champagne made me say, “Say goodnight, miso black cod.”
The seafood was expertly handled in the Assam seafood claypot ($29), with prawns, squid, and halibut. I didn’t think the golden Chinese buns it was served with were needed—until the very end, when I dunked those buns in the tamarind-flavored sauce with a hint of curry and yellow bean. Ahhh, yes. You’ll notice the sophisticated knifework on the vegetables, like the perfect diamonds of bell pepper in the claypot. The kitchen does a nice job with rice, like the fried rice ($8) with a delicate chiffonade of gai lan and preserved radish. Vegetarians will also find plenty to choose from.
The creative desserts by Courtney Lewis are quite stunning, from the caramelized pineapple with coconut tapioca pudding ($10) and the hit of piment d’Espelette, to the chocolate orange ($10; the new Toblerone orange!) with gianduia ice cream—your server will pour hot chocolate sauce over the globe and reveal a little terrarium inside, complete with gold leaf, blood orange marshmallow, cookie crumble, red leaf sorrel, and chocolate “pop rocks.” The exotic fruit platter ($18) is a total showstopper. I wish they’d fix those macarons ($12)—they look so tempting, but time and again, they are crumbly and dry. And be sure to consider a pot of tea, there are some pretty ones.
One of the hallmarks here is the attentive and refined service (complete with hand towel service), although I have definitely had some odd timing of dishes here—like most Chinese restaurants, they tend to hit the table all at once. Tell your server you want things coursed so your food doesn’t sit and get cold. I have experienced some on-point wine pairings (they have quite the wine team here) but the by-the-glass selections can add up. The list has wines for every budget—from boutique to big producers—so don’t rule out a bottle instead. The list of Champagnes will make you covetous, I’m just warning you.
A few things are a bit maddening: I find it really important for a menu to reveal the provenance of ingredients. (What is the story on that beef? Where are the prawns from?) We’re a city of ecologically aware diners, and I think the restaurant needs to step up to that. Ask questions, and the well-trained staff has answers, but what if I don’t want to engage in the ingredient Inquisition? Please, give me some cues.
I also can’t tolerate how the website doesn’t list the prices of the menu items. That kind of playing around doesn’t make sense, especially when people are wondering if they can afford to dine there or not. Show us the money.
And lastly, there are enough bathroom stalls to designate them as expressly male or female—why have unisex stalls when you don’t need them, especially in such a high-end place?
I have dined over a number of occasions here: two lunches, drinks at the bar, an intimate dinner, and a splashy private dining room function. The vibe varies all over the restaurant. If you’re on a date, you don’t want to be next to a large group. Be sure to let the reservationist know in advance why you’re there and who you’re with: with 170 seats, they will find the right table for you. What your bill looks like, however, is up to you to figure out. Hakka fried dim sum platter (crispy prawn dumpling, XO scallop puff, roast duck pumpkin puff). Photo courtesy of Hakkasan.