Can London's 'Hutong' Restaurant Beat the Real Thing?

By Oscar Holland, February 19, 2016

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The first warning sign that London’s Hutong is going to be nothing like a real hutong emerges when we try to book a table. Or, more precisely, when we realize that we have to book a table. It is 11 days before Christmas and there are only a handful of lunch slots remaining for the year.

The second warning sign that London’s Hutong is going to be nothing like a real hutong emerges upon arrival, when an RMB48 bottle of water is presumptuously brought to our table and opened. The bill has already surpassed the usual ‘per-head’ price at our local hole-in-the-wall.

Described by both The Telegraph and The Independent as “ruinously expensive” (we are indeed accusing the latter for plagiarizing the phrase), Hutong isn’t somewhere you visit in your patterned pajamas. But let’s just get the cost out of the way, lest we descend into a no-shit-Sherlock account of how London is incredibly pricey and how hutong food is meant to be cheap: A Peking Duck costs RMB557, a simple egg fried rice costs RMB91 and we’re too terrified to inquire about today’s market price for Kung Pao lobster.

Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, we traveled all the way from Beijing to London to spend almost RMB1,000 on a dongbei lunch for two. No, that doesn’t include wine. Let’s proceed.

Located on the 33rd floor of The Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building, Hutong defies its ground-level heritage with vertigo-inducing abandon. Its floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the city rivaled only by the stories above (and aircraft). Lying south of every building you’ve ever seen on a London postcard, the restaurant looms over all the classic sights – the River Thames, St Paul’s Cathedral and the city’s modest collection of unusually-shaped skyscrapers.

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Located on the 33rd floor of The Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building, Hutong defies its ground-level heritage with vertigo-inducing abandon.

In Beijing, dining on the second floor of a hutong is something of a novelty. Yet in London’s edition you can smugly watch over the minions below. In fact, this is what you’re paying for. This and an opportunity to take a mildly terrifying piss into a urinal overlooking the city’s low-rise eastern boroughs. (If they wanted to recreate a genuine hutong experience they would, of course, have pointed us down the alley to a dank public squatter.)

But for all the ways that Hutong isn’t a hutong, there are many ways in which it is. While some of the decor is a little too easy (the restaurant houses more lanterns than Gui Jie did before the authorities forced their removal in 2014), some of the touches are subtle and well-executed. The dark wooden furnishings are embellished with the type of carvings one might find in a traditional siheyuan door. There are touches of industrial chic, befitting of the hutongs’ modern-day gentrification. The tables even have those wooden slats that prevent your legs from properly fitting under them. It’s just like being back in Dongcheng.

It's almost as if the owners are quietly mocking its customers' complete lack of knowledge about Chinese geography.

Not that the Brits would realize. In fact, we doubt anyone here finds it unusual that a restaurant describing itself as serving “contemporary Northern Chinese cuisine” also has menu items entitled ‘Yangtze Chicken’ and ‘Sichuan-style Pork Belly.’ It’s almost as if the owners are quietly mocking its customers’ complete lack of knowledge about Chinese geography. But let us not forget that this is a nation of people convinced that prawn crackers are a central part of Beijing dining and that fortune cookies are a leading source of moral guidance. They aren’t exactly difficult to fool.

So in the spirit of ignorance, we opt for some ‘Northern’ classics, including some wonderfully juicy xiaolongbao and a mapo doufu so full-bodied that we actually want to scoop up the oily leftovers with a spoon. Oh, and you know that string bean and pork dish that you get as a side? While we promised not to bring up prices again – you should know that it’s RMB116. Just saying.

Hutong Restaurant London

We doubt anyone here finds it unusual that a restaurant describing itself as serving “contemporary Northern Chinese cuisine” also has menu items like mapo doufu.

But the food is impressive and the views are phenomenal. There is a lot to like about Hutong, even though it pales in comparison to the questionable hygiene and indifferent service that we’ve grown to love at our local noodle joint. The type of Brit dining here would probably balk at us from their glass tower before showing off to their friends about knowing ‘real’ Chinese food. But this is surely better than people thinking that greasy dim sum takeaway is the epitome of the country’s cuisine.

Besides, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. If everyone here thinks that this is what a hutong looks like, then let them enjoy themselves.

When the bill arrives in one of those long, ornate boxes (the type that you used to think were antiques until realizing that they can be found in every market stall in the land), there is no option but to smile sweetly and hand over our credit card with two hands. The polite gesture goes completely unnoticed by the European waiter.

And FYI – a discretionary service charge is so not hutong style. 

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