By Selina Denman
Hakkasan, a pioneer in modern cantonese cuisine, made its uae debut last month.
Hakkasan, a pioneer in modern cantonese cuisine, made its uae debut last month.
Launched in London in 2001, Hakkasan was initially envisaged as a ‘Chinese Nobu'. Nearly ten years on and the brand is recognised as having set new standards in Chinese cuisine and haute Chinois design. The original Michelin-starred London location has since spawned sister restaurants in locations as far reaching as Miami and most, recently, Abu Dhabi.
The name Hakkasan pays homage to the hakka people of the New Territories of Hong Kong, while san is a respectful form of Japanese address. As the name suggests, the restaurant is rooted in the culinary traditions of China - but not restrictively so.
Founder, Alan Yau, has defined the Hakkasan concept as such: "The fundamental principle that has essentially determined the DNA of Hakkasan emerged early on: modern authenticity, encapsulating a paradox in that the traditions of the past are acknowledged, yet there is no fear of change.
"It is this spirit that infuses every aspect of the restaurant, from its design and ambience to service and, of course, cuisine. The fusion of authentic and modern engenders a freedom to pick and choose what is worth retaining and what is in need of change."
Located in Abu Dhabi's landmark Emirates Palace, the newest addition to the Hakkasan family opened on June 1. With a capacity of 165, the restaurant is anchored by chef Lee Kok Hua from Hakkasan London, who has worked under the guidance of Hakkasan head chef Tong Chee Hwee for five years. New dishes specifically designed for the UAE market sit alongside Hakkasan classics such as Peking duck with Royal Beluga caviar and grilled wagyu beef with king soy sauce.
The aim was to create a venue in Abu Dhabi that could rival - or even surpass - the London mothership. "We want customers coming here who have been to the London outlet and saying: ‘This is as fantastic as London, or even better than London'," said Didier Souillat, chief operating officer, Hakkasan Limited. "There, we turn 500 covers on a good Saturday night, and we hope to do the same here."
Recreating the Hakkasan ethos in a UAE setting fell to Paris-based design firm, Gilles & Boissier, which was also responsible for the interiors of the Hakkasan restaurant in Miami, as well as the W Hotel in Pudong, Shanghai and the Hotel 1850m in Courcheval. "We were asked to bring the London urban spirit to Abu Dhabi, while creating a modern authentic Chinese experience. It had to be elegant and sophisticated, creating a new level of luxury dining in the emirate," said founder and CEO of Gilles & Boissier, Patrick Gilles.
According to Gilles, Hakkasan blends the traditions of authentic Cantonese cooking with a modern flair and opulent style. "Hakkasan revolves around immaculate attention to detail, from what you find on your plate to the space that surrounds you. Everywhere you look, you must feel the exquisite craft that went into the ambience, just as with every bite you take, you feel the passion and love that went into the food."
Bringing back the dragon
The Hakkasan design ethos centres on the slogan ‘bring back the dragon', a response to the way in which Chinese restaurant design has shifted away from its colourful cultural roots towards a stark modernism. As a reaction to this, the décor of Hakkasan has sought to regain a distinctive Chinese-ness, with rich, sensuous overtones. This has become a fundamental component of the Hakkasan interior concept, which also promotes a sexy, nightclub feel.
Core elements of the Hakkasan brand, which are also evident in the Abu Dhabi restaurant, include blue glass, a caged dining area, and a contemporary European reinterpretation of Orientalism in the design of furniture, fittings and equipment. The overall impression is one of cool charm.
Based on the same design thinking as the original London venue, the 1,000m² Abu Dhabi restaurant is divided into restaurant, lounge and bar sections, through the clever use of carved wooden lattice screens.
On arrival, diners are greeted by an entrance desk composed of a stainless steel, mirror-polished console with a marble top. A rectangular, white silk pendant hangs overhead.
The dining area is cocooned in a woodwork structure surrounded by blue glass, with a back-lit, stainless steel frame. This is the first real taste of China - reiterated elsewhere in the form of traditional patterns, Chinese forms recreated in marble, and hand- and custom-made Chinese pots that double up as candle holders. Furniture is finished in a fish-skin embroidery.
"The eye must play around with the different layers of the dining room, which has a cage-like feel. The deep blue is an electroshock of colour," Gilles maintained.
Deep blue glass also surrounds the open kitchen, casting an interesting hue on the bustle underway on the other side of the screen. "An open-space kitchen behind a wall of blue glass is visible from the dining area, making the action in the kitchen part of the restaurant's theatre - without being too ‘in your face'. The blue glass is an integral part of the Hakkasan brand design concept," said Gilles.
A 15m-long, blue glass, rectangular bar with a retro-lit top is another striking feature of this brooding interior, and is complemented by a back bar with blue, retro-lit acrylic shelves. Custom-made, conical steel pendant lights hang overhead, while cleaved slate on the back wall has been fitted with ripple lighting to create an atmospheric, night-time feel.
Meanwhile, the Ling Lang lounge café "is a more architectural space that plays with the verticality of elements in order to insist on volume height. Seats are separated by white marble elements, with a fish-skin pattern. Red leather and dark blue pillows create contrast with other seating areas, and red pendants are like Chinese lanterns, but modernised", said Boissier.
Four private dining rooms are separated by vertical pinewood shutters. The walls of each room are adorned with hand-carved panels of grey-tinted oak that depict Chinese scenes. Even the toilets promote a sense of calm, "in the spirit of a spa", explained Gilles. White marble is set against dark wood, and polished steel-framed mirrors mingle with a touch of exotic teak in the sinks. Asian-fragranced soap is further evidence of the level of attention to detail inherent in this interior.
Lighting is one of the most important features of this interior design scheme, but also presented one of the greatest challenges, Gilles explained. "All lighting is about patterns coming through the claustra and creating contrast.
"It means that some parts are voluntarily dark, to highlight others. The main idea is to utilise lighting to create a dynamic feel in the space."
"The main challenge was finding a treatment for the windows because this kind of project does not like natural light too much, especially the UAE's extraordinary sunlight," he noted.
"Remember that the original London concept was made in a basement without any windows. So how could we let the sun come in without creating too much contrast with the dark wood? We decided to highlight the wood colour and we chose some lighter leather colours. Then the existing windows were covered with very dense Chinese woodwork to create a nice and efficient filter. The result is that the project also works nicely at lunch time."
Another challenge was creating a dramatic entry experience - since the restaurant has two main entrances, one from the interior of the Emirates Palace Hotel and one from the exterior. "It was extremely difficult to create a foyer-type area, so we decided not to favour any of these entrances.
"We disrupted the typical idea of dramatising the arrival area and acted as if there was no entrance. You open the door and you are instantly in, which adds to the mysterious feel of Hakkasan. There is no warning - you are suddenly in a modernised Oriental haven," Gilles said.
While it was important to capture the essence of the original London restaurant, it was also necessary to anchor this project to its Abu Dhabi locale. On a practical level, this meant reassessing seating dimensions and spacing between tables, but it also meant subtly incorporating local design elements.
"It had to reflect the original London Hakkasan outlet, but the design had to evolve a little bit. In London, you will not see the white marble, and also some of the patterns in the carved wood panels reflect an Arabic feel and the designs that you can see around the Emirates Palace," said Souillat.
The end result is exciting and intriguing, Gilles concluded. "What creates the identity of this space is the way that your eye can move, play everywhere and never rest. And each time you visit it is like the first time because each seat has a totally different view."