This week sees the start of another year on the lunar calendar. On Thursday, the Year of the Goat ushers in a time of peace, harmony, kindness and generosity (the Year of the Horse has been a tumultuous one). For me, Chinese New Year is a bitter-sweet time because my parents live so far away and ever since my grandparents passed away, it doesn’t seem like any one holds on to the traditions and customs anymore. The only things I have managed to continue on include preparing tea eggs each year, and also, presenting my son with a red envelope filled with cash — which he relishes in receiving.
If I am to have a family gathering, it will be on the weekend when my aunt invites us over to her house where she will grace everyone with a table full of her home cooked dishes. These are moments I cherish. However, when that doesn’t happen, I resort to going out for a meal with friends, preferably somewhere which offers a semblance of what we are accustomed to back in Hong Kong.
I have never been too impressed with Chinese food in Orange County. In fact, my son refuses to eat most Chinese food after a trip to Hong Kong ruined him forever. San Gabriel Valley offers a handful of decent eateries, but if you are really looking for an upscale establishment like those in Asia, you’re going to have a hard time finding one which offers the ambiance AND a menu which equals its decor.
So when I arrive at Hakkasan for a meal, I am pleasantly surprised at its month-long Lunar New Year festivities (very important when you factor in how no one gets time off for this holiday here) and the use of auspicious names for each dish (in Chinese characters) complete with pricing ending in “88” to signify prosperity.
The lunar new year menu includes an eight-course prix fixe, plus dessert, for $138.88/person. Or, alternatively, an a la carte menu is available for those not wanting to commit to such an indulgence. (Prices shown are for items available a la carte, otherwise, it is prix fixe only).
We try both the prix fixe, as well as some a la carte dishes. If opting for the prix fixe, one of the dishes is 喜氣洋洋, a play-on name for Spicy Lamb Lupin Wrap (辣醬羊肉夾 $26.88) meaning “encircled in an air of happiness” which is also a homonym for “happy lamb”. In fact, almost all of the titles are homonyms with auspicious meaning for the new year. I like this dish, but prefer the vegetarian version more.
國泰民安 Vegetarian Truffle Roll (黑松露素鵝卷 $20.88) is a stellar item with or without the truffle shaving on top — available only a la carte. Its flavors are spot-on when I think of the vegetarian mock goose rolls which are always featured on vegetarian menus in Hong Kong, except in Asia, it is wrapped in a dried beancurd sheet. The roll itself is textured well, stuffed with vegetables including carrots and mushrooms.
For me, it is well worth it to order one prix fixe JUST to have another taste of 金壁輝煌 Golden Fried Sea Prawns (金絲奶油大蝦). These incredibly plump prawns are crispy on the outside but super moist on the inside. The shards of fried egg yolk are intriguing and flavorful — almost mind blowing when you stop and seriously think about it.
子孫滿堂 Stir-fry Black Pepper Rib Eye Beef with Merlot (蒜子黑椒牛仔粒) is good, but nothing out of the ordinary for those familiar with Chinese cuisine. However, its flavors are robust from the merlot and incredibly tender from using a stellar cut of beef.
Fish is customary when it comes to Chinese new year and 如意吉祥 Grilled Chilean Seabass in Honey (蜜汁焗鱸魚) is a good inclusion on the prix fixe. I find the Chinese explanations on the menu to be somewhat lost in translation when it comes to its English equivalent — in English, it says “grilled”, but in Chinese it says “baked”. Regardless of its preparation, it is a respectable offering which will appeal to a wide range of palates.
Vegetarians will not feel left out here because the a la carte menu offers a host of really good dishes for you. 竹報平安 Fried Bamboo Pith Roll (竹笙四寶蔬 $20.88) is one which impresses the most. Bamboo pith is a childhood favorite but I have never eaten it fried before. The asparagus, yam bean, pumpkin and mushroom filling create a contrasting textural consistency on the palate. Only on the a la carte menu.
In Asia, it is customary to include quite a few vegetarian dishes to the new year menu and 花開富貴 Sha Cha Mock Duck (麻辣素鴨甫 $29.88) is a good choice. Slices of mock duck (made from soy based products) are stir fried with cloud ear, celery and bamboo shoots in a sha cha sauce, a variant of the satay sauce used in southeast Asian cooking.
However, it is the 百年好合 Stir-fry Lily Bulb and French Beans (乾扁百合四季豆 $22.88) which blows me over. Not only is lily bulb one of my favorites but there is also preserved olives included in this dish. Chinese style preserved olives are not easy to find — my aunt in San Francisco will always send me home with some when I visit — and is also a great condiment when steaming fish. My tastebuds are going crazy with flashbacks of my days in Hong Kong while eating this dish.
The meal ends with 包你發財 Abalone and Dry Scallop Fried Rice (干貝鮑粒燴飯 $38.88) which is the biggest misnomer of all. Several of my dining companions are voicing how the fried rice does not taste like fried rice. In fact, its Chinese description of 燴飯 is not “fried rice”. “Wui fan” literally translates to “braised rice” but again, loses its meaning to non-Chinese speakers. The rice is not actually braised, but instead, a protein of some sort is braised with vegetables in a sauce, then topped over steamed rice.
Personally, this is my favorite dish of the meal because it is exactly how “wui fan” is supposed to be. Of course, abalone and dried scallops are not typical, but a luxurious take to symbolize the wealth we wish for in the new year. Though simple, it is also a dish not easy to do well. The ideal “wui fan” should never be greasy, yet possess an unctuous mouthfeel. Hakkasan manages to not only present me with the best “wui fan” I’ve eaten in southern California, but it has also elevated it by lining the plate with a humble lotus leaf, releasing an intoxicating aroma to an already stellar dish.
To end the meal, a dessert of 甜言蜜語 Chocolate, with caramelized macadamia and cocoa rocks appeases those with a sweet tooth.
However, I am more impressed by the 金桔許願樹 Kumquat Wishing Tree hanging with candied kumquats possessing a sweet and tart finish.
Chinese new year is a time for celebrating and sharing with friends and family. If you have the opportunity to drive up to LA, I highly suggest a meal at Hakkasan this month, even if it is only for the stunning “wui fan” which I won’t be able to forget for a very long time.
Hakkasan Beverly Hills
233 N Beverly Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210