When I heard of an upscale Chinese restaurant originally from Hong Kong taking over the space of the once iconic restaurant Le Cirque in Midtown East, my initial reaction was that this restaurant would either be a boom or bust proposition. Presumably a lot of financial investment has gone into it to occupy this beautiful space, and presumably the menu would be full of expensive dishes more appropriate for corporate expense accounts. Despite some signs of a seemingly expensive and cliché modern Chinese restaurant catering to the masses with safe dishes, I was pleasantly surprised once I discovered that Hutong’s cooking is actually quite compelling during a recent dinner date my wife Jun and I had with another couple.
The massive menu at Hutong can overwhelm you at first. If you are in a group larger than two people like Jun and I were, the right way to go about ordering the dishes to find one or two from each section. From the starter page with a number of dishes ideal for sharing, start with some calamari flowers that had deliciously tender squid in Sichuan peppercorn and chili oil and the kou shui chicken that was served from room temperature yet retained very good texture of the poached chicken breast in a chili broth. The food at Hutong is not for everyday dining from price point, and that’s more evident in the dim sum menu than anywhere else in the menu. You could grab half-dozen xiao long bao soup dumplings at less than $10 in Chinatown, whereas Hutong charges $14 for three (and the server sadly refused to accommodate our request to add one extra piece so we had to order two sets) and the dumplings were not quite as filling as what Jun and I would have at the best dim sum places in Chinatown. On the other hand, I didn’t feel robbed after sampling a piece of wagyu beef millefeuille which, despite being $18 for three pieces (again we had to order two sets), was one of the strongest dishes during our meal, almost like a Chinese version of a very well prepared beef Wellington.
If you are inclined to try the roasted Peking duck without filling your entire belly with it, you can order the half portion at $46 (the whole portion was at $88) that comes in two stages, one in the traditional pancake format followed by diced duck meat that you can wrap in lettuce leaf cup. Among the larger dishes, Jun and I were particularly fond of the red lantern deep fried spiced soft-shell crab despite its hefty price at $48, with very nice texture of the soft shell crab working beautifully with the spicy kick from the dried peppers. Other dishes ranged from pedestrian (like the Zhenjiang pork ribs that didn’t taste as impressive as it profile suggests, “braised in famous aged black rice wine vinegar from Jiangsu Province”) to solid (chef’s fried rice with diced pickled vegetables and four season beans sautéed with fresh chili, minced pork and dried baby shrimp). For dessert, I highly recommend trying the bao and soy milk, consisting of white sesame seed mousse with soy milk ice cream that offered wonderful complexity of flavor and texture.
Getting a reservation at Hutong wasn’t too difficult even on a Thursday evening during the holiday season when we visited the restaurant but I would still recommend booking in advance as the dining space was nearly packed during our meal, mostly with younger, hip crowds with corporate jobs in Midtown Manhattan. There is full bar and a wine list that includes intriguing “discovery” selections in addition to more well-known, much more expensive bottles. The glitzy dining space feels more like a trendy second coming of Tao but it doesn’t feel too ostentatious when the quality of cooking from the kitchen really backs up the atmosphere. Hutong is one of the best newcomers from 2019 that Jun and I would love to visit again to try other dishes. We both liked how the cooking doesn’t feel like the kitchen is trying too hard yet it shows the marvelous versatility of Chinese cuisine in a very good way.
KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 731 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10022 (located inside Beacon Court)
Telephone: (212) 758-4800