WARNING: This one is a bit of a bloody essay (with photos)!
Starry eyed, we walked hand in hand towards that great tower in the sky. Built right in front of our eyes, all complete, shimmering steel and glass, standing tall and proud. If you hadn’t already realised, I am of course totally gooey-eyed over the Shard. A building so different from anything we’ve known, its divided us all. Enticing some, throwing many into a right tizzy and making others downright miserable with anger (ahem, Giles Coren). For me, it’s brought world-class cuisine on my doorstep. You see, if you haven’t already got the gist of this blog (and me for that matter), I love eating out. And if I can do it in style and only a mere fifteen mins walk from my home, all the better. And… if in the process it boosts my home’s ££, then in some roundabout way, it is also paying for my meals in the long-term. Win-win!
So, the husband and I made a few bets as we eagerly anticipated further announcements, beyond the Shangri-la Hotel and its rather inviting infinity pool. I said Nobu and Alain Ducasse, he said Hakkasan and Joel Roubochon. Turns out we’re not very good at guessing global strategies in the restaurant trade, as the news of Aqua, Hutong, and an unnamed venture from Arjun Waney (Zuma, Roka etc…)were confirmed.
When the latter of these, the oddly named Oblix swung open its doors last month. I ventured forth but disappointingly found they insist on a ridiculous cover charge (and since then, an unadventurous menu too). That left Hutong. The Hong Kong outpost of which we have fond memories of (including a funny incident with the actual Hutong in the restaurant, where we posed for a photo, ripping my dress!). And Aqua, where lazy service at the Regent St branch has left me somewhat sceptical.
Finally, this month after Hutong opened its doors in the sky, I excitedly called and very much expected to be told to call back in the autumn of 2020, by some stern power-crazed voice on the phone. Instead a very nice lady booked us in at a table for dinner on a Sunday night the following week. That brings us neatly back to our honeymoon-esque evening stroll in the sunset, having hurriedly said goodnight to baby8cake and left strict instructions with mother (which would be ignored anyway).
Entering the Shard brought us right back to our sky-high dining and drinking ventures in Hong Kong. The tall steel structure, zooming lifts (not to mention popping ears) and sleek glossy interiors. Then there’s the staff who look like they’ve just jumped out of a Vogue magazine shoot. At Hutong, they were clad in charcoal and ebony. The plentiful greeters played tag team with a kind gentleman in a rather smart suit, who walked us up to the restaurant and then handed us over to the manager. This seamless procession of ‘hello’s’, ‘welcome’, and even ‘how was your day?’ seemed a little insincere at first but actually became quite endearing by the time we reached our table. And what a table it was. Right on the eastern side of the building, facing Waterloo and a beautifully bright burning ball of orange about to set any minute. When taking in the stunning view, I almost forgot I was in my home city and felt like we were truly on holiday, until I saw the familiar sights and proudly smiled.
I know…As nice as all this sounds, you’re not interested in my life. Your interested in the menu. And so you should be because, there were plenty of dishes I’d keenly get my paws on and so would you. As this was our first visit though, I decided to stick to the signature dishes. Start with a bang. And boy it was just that! Beautifully chilled razor clams were served in a rosé, chilli and garlic dressing with just the right amount of spring onions and packed with bags of flavour and a touch of heat.
The asparagus with spicy sesame was cooked perfectly, fresh and firm, no nasty stringy business and an interesting sesame coating with a spicy kick. And as for the spring onion pancakes, these are just divine. Soft, sweet little doughnuts that you could probably neck two plates full of in the blink of an eye.
And that’s just the starters. For our mains, I decided to continue the seafood fix. This did leave the husband on his own with a vegetarian dish but the golden jade tofu served with glass noodles did not disappoint. It must be said though, that this outpost of Hutong does carry far less vegetarian options than the one in Hong Kong (which makes sense due to a higher proportion of veggies out there), at least according to our memory anyway but there are still enough dishes to provide variety the first time around.
Meanwhile I opted for the dish I’d heard quite a bit about and hoped I could tackle all on my own; the red lantern crispy crab with Sichuan chillies. Now I’m the last person to handle a spicy dish (I am a disgrace to my indian origin) but the kind waiter assured me they could make it milder, so I thought I’d take a walk on the wild side for once. And my, was it worth it. Crispy, light batter coating succulent sweet crabs (there were at least nine!) all tossed in a traditional lantern and filled with chillies. Together with the garlic steamed Kai Lan (Chinese broccoli), this dish worked a treat.
With barely enough room for dessert, I pushed on and perused the menu for our final hit and here I felt a little let down. There was sorbet and ice cream and a cheesecake but it was all a bit safe, there was nothing über exotic, or on par with the innovation seen (and eaten) in the rest of the menu. Still, I was looking for a sweet ending to the fabulous burst of spicy, citric flavours, so the husband and I shared a perfectly good mango cheesecake. A few mouthfuls each of sweet creamy mango and crumbly biscuit. No fireworks but a job well done.
My final thoughts…Beautiful surroundings, food packed with flavour and good service. I’ll certainly be back. If not for those reasons alone, then also for these two insights:
1. Bizarrely despite the prime property they are located in Hutong and Aqua offer value for money. A friend asked me if Hutong prices were through the roof and I replied “the same as Mayfair prices”. £70pp gets you five dishes, two sides, a dessert and a decent bottle of Gruner Veltliner. In my head this computes as pretty damn reasonable, given the location.
2. The fact that Aqua has no cover charge and no need to book for the bar either, makes it very accessible and I predict it won’t be long before people catch on to that and stop paying £25 for the viewing gallery (though it is another 30 floors higher, I wonder how different it really looks), or the £12.50 cover charge at Oblix, to endure live music in a cramped space.
Now for some handy tips:
1. Book on a Sunday night if you can. Most people probably assume it’s not open and you won’t be rammed in with a load of tourists. Hutong was only half full at a prime time evening slot when we were there last sunday. This meant we were looked after like royalty!
2. Skip dessert altogether and head straight down to Aqua (as we did, giving it the benefit of doubt) for a liquid dessert /nightcap. Trust me, you won’t be able to resist. Here’s why. Aqua is strategically placed between Hutong upstairs and the exit downstairs. If you can make it past the tempting bar without being seduced by yet photo-ready cocktails and another fantastic floor to ceiling viewpoint (this time looking across to the gherkin and the walkie talkie), you must have a will of steel is all I can say. Our drinks did take a while to arrive but when they did, they did so with a sincere apology and after one sip of my Singapore sling and his amaretto sour, I was happy enough to forget the wait.
So there you have it. Hutong and Aqua at the Shard in a bloody long essay, which I could have quite selfishly kept to myself, but I didn’t, I thought of you. So what are you waiting for? Go!