Hutong is the kind of place which you unwittingly want to go to. Though some people have mixed feelings about the Shard – its audacity and shamelessness standing enormously tall in the middle of town – I think I love it: its location, its views and its shape. Luckily, a Partner at work suggested Hutong as the venue for a welcome and birthday lunch for two of my fellow Associates.
And I was very lucky: Hutong’s position in the Shard – on Level 33 – matches its elevated prices. The prices are rather ludicrous – £14.50 for wok-fried lotus root – sure, why not? 4 courses for £35; not bad?! It’s the kind of place that you only really want to go to for a corporate lunch, or may for a very special anniversary dinner. Its ambience is equally ostentatious: dark-wood panelling lit with red lanterns, it has a kind of sexy gloom. Even gaining access isn’t a casual affair: not only do you have to queue for a security check before boarding the lift, but once you’re up on the 33rd floor, you have to pass at least half a dozen women in workwear kimonos, all of whom question where you’re going before warmly wishing you a good meal and giving you mysterious directions on how to actually locate the restaurant.
Named after the narrow lanes of old Beijing, Hutong is the London outpost of a revered restaurant of the same name in Hong Kong. It’s a high-end take on the fiery food of northern China. The space is all intricate lattice work, with beautifully antique-looking wooden chairs and tables. But it’s less restaurant than production design: it certainly feels like the set of a Bond film.
As this was a work lunch, the photos are minimal so you’ll just have to rely on my descriptions to paint the picture for you – though I took a few photos from the loss. Indeed, the loo actually offers one of the best views from this level. Not only are very chic taps are elevated so high above the basin that it resembles a mini-fountain when the taps are open, but they overlook Tower Bridge. And the windows are floor-to-ceiling. As nobody can see you here, the sense of privacy makes you linger in the loos – you feel like you have a view all over London that’s just for you.
Now, onto the food. For ease and good value (query that for £35, though?!), our table went for the set menu – which, in my case, was vegetarian. For starters, I was brought a simple Sweet and sour soup which had bits of tofu swimming around. Though it had a certain umami flavour, it was nothing show-stopping. The next arrival was much better. Quite possibly the stickiest and most psychedelic Seasonal mushroom and cabbage dumplings I’ve come across, each mouthful was bursting with excitement. Served with a sweet chilli sauce, the stickiest of the dumplings sharpened my chopstick skills of stab and grab. Success on the #chopstickgoals front.
Next came the star of the show: the Wok-fried lotus root. Aromatic, utterly delicious, and crispy, although fried, it must have been in the lightest of batters. Its fruity flavour paired very well alongside the spicy Ma Po tofu. This small plate was adorned with large pieces of chilli I’ve seen on a dish, so reminiscent of Sichuan and northern Chinese food. Indeed, the whole meal was a spicy one – it was certainly fiery for my colleagues’ meaty dishes. The wok-fried pak choi in garlic sauce offered us all a welcome relief from the chili and Sichuan pepper assault.
As did the finale of Mango pudding with fruit salsa. The desert was just what you want after a meal here: light, fruity and creamy, the small little bowl did cleanse the palette very well after the preceding roller-coaster of chillis.
Whilst you can get more down-to-earth versions of this food at other places – e.g. Ba Shan in Soho which offers an equally fiery kick of chilli – this misses the point of Hutong. The food is very good at Hutong, and the views are a kind of once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I’m also please Hutong does credit to the growing trend for offbeat Chinese dishes: creative contemporary dumplings, playful kicks of chilli and unusually sourced vegetables. The London branch of Hutong shouldn’t be left to tourists alone.
Hutong, Level 33, The Shard, 31 Saint Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY