With Buddakan, Tao and Ajna Bar does New York really need another huge and clubby Asian restaurant? I decided to go to the newest midtown restaurant, Hakkasan, to see for myself. Hakkasan is located on a desolate street in Midtown (43th between 8th and 9th avenues to be precise) and the door is only marked by a small sign that reads “HK”. Through the large blue and black door brings you into a long and narrow all marble entrance that leads to the hostess table. The hallway smells faintly of incense which further adds to the slightly mysterious yet elegant nature of this walkway. To your left is the bar area and further forward is the restaurant itself. With restaurants in Miami, Dubai and London we all knew to expect a huge and grand Asian inspired restaurant, but Hakkasan reminded me more of a jewel box. The main room is set up with different compartments as opposed to the large dining rooms featured at Buddakan or Tao for instance. The maze like room is separated by windowless frames featuring carved marble amongst other materials and is much quieter than one might expect.
The menu, like the dining room, is also separated into different components. There is the “Supreme Specials” section which features signature dishes of the chef which also happen to be absurdly overpriced such as the $888 Braised Japanese Abalone with Black Truffle. The other sections are of appetizers, poultry, meat, fish, noodles and rice and are pretty similar to that of most other faux-club Asian restaurants in New York. The key to an excellent meal at Hakkasan is knowing what to order. While the New York Magazine and others may have given it a less than stellar review, I must say I did happen to have one of the best dinners in New York at Hakkasan. To start, we ordered the Steamed Dim Sum Platter for two which consisted of two orders of scallop shumai, prawn and chive dumplings, black pepper duck dumpling and traditional Chinese dumplings (Har Gau). The prawn and chive dumplings and duck dumplings were prepared in a different style and were almost like soup dumplings. Aside from the Edamame Dumplings at Buddakan, these were probably some of the best dumplings I have tasted to date. However the Salt and Pepper Squid (essentially fried calamari) were nothing to write home about. For an entree we ordered the Peking Duck with Black Truffle and the Roasted Silver Cod. As a side we ordered the Singapore Vermicelli Noodle with prawn and squid. The Peking Duck with Black Truffle was hands down the best Peking duck I have had in New York. The dish was innovative by the chef’s decision to include black truffle into the dish, the duck was cooked well and all the flavors were balanced (truffles can tend to be somewhat overbearing in certain dishes). The Silver Cod gave Nobu’s famous Miso Glazed Cod a run for its money. The cod was cooked perfectly and featured a light yet sweet sauce that was able to showcase the delicate features of the cod. However, The Singapore Noodles, to me, were average at best.
The main problem I see people having with Hakkasan is the pricing. A dinner for two can easily hit the $300 mark and you shouldn’t even dare to step foot into the place if you’re not willing to spend at least $100 a person. With that said, the $88 Peking Duck was worth the money as was the $49 Silver Cod. The only misstep was the Salt and Pepper squid, which wasn’t bad per-se but rather simply mediocre (that plate of mediocrity did set us back $18 unfortunately). Another thing to note about Hakkasan was the excellent service. The staff is highly attentive when it comes to food allergies and our servers were always kind and courteous. Though the prices may be high and the strange Midtown location may be a turn off for some, the excellent food, stunning decor and superb staff would make me return to Hakkasan again and again.
The last time I visited Tao was at least 3 years ago, and many times before that, and it was generally a positive experience. I used to go to Tao often as it was really one of the few restaurants uptown that could combine both style and great food into one restaurant. However, on my recent visit to Tao I’ve noticed the restaurant has taken a turn for the worse. The restaurant is still beautiful and the giant Buddha sitting at the front of the main dining room is still as impressive as it was when Tao opened back in 2000. The restaurant has taken much more of a club vibe by featuring dancers and electric violinists during dinner service.
However, the menu has had a few changes over the past few years and the cuisine has changed from Japanese and Chinese to much heavier Thai influence. There is still a full sushi menu as well as several Chinese options, but I do see a much larger portion of the menu dedicated to Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Unfortunately Tao cannot fully guarantee there will be no cross-contamination with the food so I had to stick to the sushi menu just to be safe. Since I was apart of a large group, we were served a platter with everything off the sushi menu so I did get a chance to sample everything Tao offered. The sushi was a bit disappointing and I do remember it being much better on previous visits. There was an unnecessary amount of rice in the individual pieces and the fish was not as fresh as it used to be. The tuna specifically was a bit tough and the yellowtail was fishy though the salmon was a safe option. In regards to the cooked food, though I did not get a chance to try it on this visit the presentation did look a bit sloppy but I didn’t hear any complaints from the other diners at the table.
Perhaps Tao Group has put more energy into their newer restaurant Lavo across the street or perhaps with time Tao is beginning to deteriorate. While it remains a solid option when looking for a lavish restaurant in Midtown/Upper East Side, the kitchen definitely has seen better days and perhaps Tao could create a peanut/nut free menu since their regular menu is now a lot more dangerous for those who have nut allergies.
After much hype about Tao Group’s new restaurant, I had to go try it. Though in an area I rarely frequent, the Lower East Side, I felt Beauty and Essex merited a visit. Beauty and Essex has the same concept as the near by restaurant The Stanton Social, which is also owned by Tao Group. The menu is set up similarly to The Stanton Social’s meaning that it features small tapas style dishes and a few entrees. However, the entrees are also small portioned so its best to stick to the small plates and order about two to four of them for a complete meal. Beauty and Essex essentially looks like an upscale lounge more so than a restaurant. Aside from the neutral color dining room with a beautiful skylight, the decor mainly caters to women. To make women forget about the trip down two flights of stairs to go to the bathroom, there’s free champagne given out by the bathroom attendant. Unfortunately, men do not get to share that luxury at Beauty and Essex. The pink hued upstairs bar is located next to the small lounge with an ornate chandelier. However, you can not forget the entrance of Beauty and Essex which is through a faux pawn shop. I would say the restaurant is a hidden restaurant similar to that of La Esquina, but the huge lit up “Beauty and Essex” sign kind of gives it away.
Though the decor at Beauty and Essex is nice, the menu and execution of the food is where my visit took a turn for the worse. The menu itself is kind of all over the place and had both an Italian and heavy Asian influence with a bit of American mixed in there as well. The menu ranges from General Tso’s Monkfish to Tuna Poke Wonton Tacos to Parsnip Ravioli. The wine list is also poorly constructed and rather pricy. The cheapest wine is $46 and comes with a screw-top (as do most of the reasonably priced wines on the menu). If the menu had some recognizable and notably good wines, such as the $60 Channing Daughter’s Rose I had at The Lion, I would have gladly purchased that instead. Also, if I am going to a restaurant such as Beauty and Essex I would hope that any wine I ordered would at least have a cork (I don’t think I’m asking for too much). Usually the menu is explained before you order, like at The Stanton Social, but since there is a specific place for entrees, unlike when I visited The Stanton Social, I had assumed that the entrees would be a regular entree portion. Though I am used to small portions, after dining out in New York you begin to become accustomed to half a plate of pasta being passed of as a full portion, but at Beauty and Essex this was taken a bit too far. The Chicken Meatballs, apparently their most popular dish according to my waitress, consisted of three mushy chicken meatballs in a truffle based sauce with a scoop of heavy ricotta cream on top. The Garganelli (similar to Penne) in a bolognese sauce was overcooked and inedible. The setting of the table was also bizarre. Along with the Garganelli we got a giant salad serving fork (used for what you might ask, I still have no idea) and the salad fork was the same size as the dinner fork which is something I have never experienced at a restaurant.
Though the service and decor are good, the food is where Beauty and Essex fails. The menu is too scattered to really be good at one particular type of cuisine and the execution is awful as well. Given how “out of the way” Beauty and Essex is for me to begin with, I highly doubt I will be returning anytime soon.
Note: While the math adds up to about a 5, the food at Beauty and Essex was atrocious. It was so bad that not even the beauty of the restaurant itself can make up for it. I’d rather eat the stuff they sell in the pawn shop.
The Stanton Social overall was a great dining experience from start to finish. Its located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Stanton street. They serve an array of cuisines which range from Japanese Tuna Tartare to American Kobe Beef Sliders. All the food is served family style in tapas form and everything is built for sharing. The best part is the menu isn’t expensive for the quality of food you get. To eat well, you’ll spend about $40 max a person. Anything more than that is honestly a waste. The tapas style dishes unfortunately are hit or miss. The highlights were the tuna tartare, the perogis and the snapper tacos. Some of the downfalls were the souvlaki and the duck confit empanadas. The soup dumplings were kind of in between, but had a pungent odor of feet. The Stanton Social features a crowded bar area and blasting music as well as an elegant dining area and a chic Asian influenced lounge. The waitress we had was great at recommending dishes for us to have and was quite attentive of our peanut allergy, which is always nice. The Stanton Social is a great restaurant for parties and social gatherings of any kind, and you’ll eat well too!