There are no roving carts loaded with bamboo steamer baskets at the new Chinese restaurant Hutong, no menu cards to be stamped each time you take a dish of har gow or turnip cake. In fact, dim sum is only a small portion of what the menu offers at Hutong, which opened in Midtown in July. But you would do well to make it a large portion of what you order, because only one or two other restaurants in town can plausibly claim to make dim sum that rivals Hutong’s.
Where else will you find cooks who have the dexterity to make Wagyu-beef mille-feuilles whose flaky layers of pastry overlap each other by only a few millimeters, like the feathers on a songbird’s wing? Who can craft steamed buns that look just like shiitake mushrooms, which happen to be the chief ingredient in their filling? Or who knows the secret that allows the crunchy, chewy, charcoal-black mini-footballs stuffed with pork (in what is known in Sichuan as “fish-fragrant” seasoning) to sparkle as if diamond chips had been kneaded into the dough?
There is real skill in the kitchen at Hutong. You see it most clearly in the dim sum, but much of the other cooking evinces the kind of discipline, precision and technical mastery that has rarely been seen in this city over the past few decades, to the dismay of eaters who know what Chinese food is capable of.
“While expensive French restaurants in New York can hold their own against many places in Paris, if you want to move beyond steamed dumplings and stir-fries to experience the complexity of Chinese banquet cuisine, the possibilities grow dimmer each year,” Ruth Reichl wrote in The New York Times in 1998.
She gave reasons for the poor showing, including talented chefs being paid more in Hong Kong and China. That is as true as it was 21 years ago, but what has changed is the rise of global Chinese restaurant groups, from the disappointing duck specialist DaDong to the surprisingly solid Hao Noodle outposts and, now, to Hutong.
The original Hutong opened in 2003 on the 28th floor of a glass tower overlooking the Hong Kong harbor, but the dining room tries to conjure the atmosphere of Beijing’s vanishing premodern alleys, or hutongs, by means of red paper lanterns, carved wooden doors and birdcages.
The Manhattan branch makes a different impression. The entrance is on the east side of the circular driveway below the Bloomberg Building between East 58th and 59th Streets. Turn right and you are in a narrow hallway between two soaring glass stacks of wine bottles, every one of them for decorative purposes only. Turn left and you are in a glittering, soaring, hard-edge dining room. The inspiration seems to be Art Deco with a pinch of cocaine; the blue leather banquettes, beveled mirrors and chandeliers of mirror-polished steel could come from the set of a nightclub in some cross between “Scarface” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
A guest who has lived in China allowed his eyes to adjust to the glinting light as he looked toward the ceiling, which seemed to be far away. “It’s very … yin,” he said.
Hutong is ostensibly a Northern Chinese restaurant. This is more apparent in Hong Kong than in Manhattan, where the menu has been pruned to about half the size. Lamb, a mainstay in the northern provinces, was represented in August by a single dish, cumin-speckled ribs roasted languorously to a mind-altering tenderness. By the time of my last visit, lamb had ambled off the menu entirely.
The most famous preparation from northern China, Peking duck, arrived at my table worse for wear and tear, carved haphazardly, with blobs of unmelted fat clinging to limp skin. The second course, a dark-meat stir-fry to be folded in iceberg lettuce, was more skillfully done, but the sting of paying $84 for a whole duck with uncrisp skin lingered.
Much of what hasn’t been trimmed from the Hong Kong menu comes from Sichuan. So does Fei Wang, the executive chef of the New York branch, and a native of Chengdu. Most recently seen running the kitchen of the Hutong in London, Mr. Wang weaves chiles — fresh, dried, roasted, pickled, name it — into nearly everything.
In the dish known as Red Lantern, the whole dried peppers the size of cherries are mostly decorative; fried soft-shell crabs are buried under the chiles in a pan with an arcing bamboo handle, like jelly beans in the plastic grass of an Easter basket. The ground spices on the crabs’ shatteringly brittle crust — lightly sweet and more aromatic than searingly hot — may remind you of a Chinese rice-cracker snack you grew up on, or it may make you think of Old Bay.
Fermented chiles provide an electric buzz, and a modicum of heat, to the steamed halibut that arrives boxed up inside a red bell pepper and sitting on a nest of rice noodles. (The pepper opens into a six-pointed star that gives the dish its name, halibut red star noodles.)
Kou shui chicken is nearly submerged in an orange lake of excellent chile oil, although the adroit way the oil is balanced by rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger and other flavors is what gives Hutong one of the city’s most impressive versions of this traditional cold dish.
If Hutong has another appetizer that equals it, I haven’t found it yet. I did, however, have a cryptic encounter with a log-cabin stack of okra doused in a sweet wasabi sauce, and an inconclusive rendezvous with some steamed asparagus stalks whose tips were enrobed in white sesame sauce; it was as if somebody had tried to replicate strawberries dipped in white chocolate without access to strawberries or white chocolate.
You could attempt to unknot these mysteries. Then again, you could simply begin your meal with dim sum. And then, after picking your way through the chile-besotted main courses, you could end it that way, too. There is a dessert that mimics the shape of a steamed bun, pleated and twisted into a pucker at the top. It is made of white chocolate, the wrapper on this trompe l’oeil bao, and filled with white sesame cream and a core of bittersweet salted caramel.
Alongside it is a single scoop of ice cream made from lightly sweetened soy milk. The soy milk is extremely fresh. I don’t mean that the carton won’t expire for another three weeks; I mean that somebody in the kitchen was squeezing the soybeans shortly before the ice cream was frozen. This is a snack from a Chinese childhood, bread and a glass of milk, and it would be hard, after several courses of spice, to think of anything more welcome.