Hutong, part of the renowned Aqua group, is located in the bustling Tsim Sha Tsui district, the southern tip of Kowloon which has seen major commercial development in recent years. Take the express lift to the 28th Floor of One Peking, No 1 Peking Road – the prestigious address of a tower block – to a seemingly different world. As the doors open, prepare for a culture shock: one is aware of going back in time, to an imperial China of courtyard houses and narrow alleys from which the restaurant derives its name. The contrast of traditional design, décor and fittings within a modern shell provides a remarkable surprise for the first time visitor.
Predominantly brown and grey in its colour scheme, Hutong extends the whole length of the building, its sloping glass floor to ceiling wall commanding unimpeded views of Hong Kong Island. For maximum advantage it is perhaps best to come for dinner, when the full spectacular glitz of the panoramic skyline can be viewed from candlelit tables.
Carved rosewood chairs and tables feature in the main restaurant, with varied styles, including Japanese low level seating in other areas. Sections for private dining are separated either by antique carved wooden screens or lush silk curtains. Stone floors below and oversized bamboo bird cages above – they also serve as table decorations – help to complete the old world feel.
A word here for the unwary: the traditional design partly extends to the toilets; not, mercifully, to the lavatory bowls which are modern, but to the dim lighting and wash basins, which require the manual use of a water pump!
The kitchen specializes in Sichwan, Shandong and Peking cuisine, with some modern, fusion elements. An inspection meal, chosen from an extensive menu, moved from cold, delicately prepared courses to hot, more robust offerings. Fresh ingredients, heavier spicing – so characteristic of many northern Chinese dishes – and attractive presentation are key features of all the dishes. The Chinese love of exotic seafood and textural complexity is seen in a dish of sashimi style, sweet tasting baby geoduck, on a bed of translucent mung bean pasta-like sheets. A less successful starter comprises sliced raw scallops topped with pomelo segments, the bitterness of the citrus fruit overwhelming the natural sweetness of the shellfish. Warm spring rolls retain a moist mushroom filling, and are given a western twist by spring onion stalks in Worcester sauce to act as a dip.
One impressive main dish comprises a whole fried Mandarin fish which has been deconstructed, its head and tail protruding from a fiery, tasty chilli and black bean sauce. The main spine bone is removed, leaving nuggets of firm textured flesh arranged in the centre.
The restaurant’s signature dish of crispy lamb is a triumph of both taste and texture. A rack of breast ribs is braised, spiced, deboned and deep fried to produce two exquisite layers of thin crispy skin and meltingly soft meat, without any sign of greasiness. The textural effect, if not the taste, is similar to Peking Duck or roast sucking pig. Served on a plank with extra crushed garlic, this dish is justifiably a highly popular choice with diners.
Crispy soft shell crabs retain their succulence in a light batter heavily spiked with sichwan red pepper. These mini crustaceans “swim” in a sea of dried roasted “Red lantern” peppers, which give the dish its name. All are served in a large red lidded wooden basket which added to the overall spectacle of the dish.
Dan Dan noodles feature a thick soup-like sauce of minced pork, peanut and chilli, a traditional if rather heavy choice for a final course for western tastes. A sweeter alternative is the coconut based jellies and mousses.
Service at Hutong is brisk and helpful with friendly and efficient management under Joe Chan. He is a most charming host, who willingly shows the visitor around the Aqua restaurants and bars in the floors above.
Prices are realistic, reflecting the skill in the kitchen, the excellent service, the fashionable location, and the magnificent setting. The average lunch bill is $HK 250, and $HK 800 for dinner, both including two courses and a glass of house wine.
The Hutong concept of merging the Old with the New is a highly successful formula as the numerous accolades awarded since the restaurant opened in 2003 show. The award of a Michelin star in 2009 is a fitting reward for such an accomplished undertaking. As with the other parts of the Aqua group, the target market is not only the tourist and business trade. More importantly, the prosperous, partly westernized, generations, who are conscious of and do not want to lose touch with their heritage, will find coming to the restaurant a highly satisfying experience.
by Daniel Darwood, August 2009.