Hands up if your idea of Chinese food still involves a plate of lukewarm chow mein, a hefty portion of flabby fried chicken balls and a generous sprinkling of MSG thrown in as a far-from-optional added extra? If that's the case then it's high time you binned the tatty takeaway menu and joined the designer dim sum revolution. From sushi to mezze, tapas to tasting platter, over the past decade or so there has been a boom in the popularity of grazing menus. It seems that more and more restaurants are willing to indulge our desire to have (not to mention taste) it all. This particular style of cuisine is exemplified by the delicate dim sum so beloved of devotees of the London restaurant Hakkasan, which is to open a branch in Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi tomorrow.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is Cantonese dim sum that has emerged most spectacularly as the cuisine of choice for collective dining; the sampling menu of the moment, if you will. Dim sum is an age-old custom that originated in the tea houses of China and remains popular there today. Traditionally, dim sum was eaten as a snack or light lunch meal and was served from early morning through to mid-afternoon. Trolleys laden with dishes (steamed buns, dumplings and rice noodle rolls to name but a few) would pass through the restaurant, with customers picking and choosing whatever they fancied. Always a highly social event, food was shared between friends and family and washed down with plenty of Chinese tea (the dim sum experience is often referred to as yum cha, which translates from the Cantonese as "drinking tea").
Despite there being countless Chinese restaurants all over the world, for a long time the cuisine remained off the high-end culinary radar. In the past 10 years, though, things have changed dramatically, as demonstrated by the eagerly anticipation that has preceded the launch of Hakkasan. (The founder Alan Yau sold a majority stake in both Hakkasan and its sister restaurant Yauatcha to the Abu Dhabi-based company Tasameem in 2008.)
The role that the Hong Kong-born Yau, an internationally acclaimed restaurateur, played in altering the global perception of Chinese food and in sparking the dim sum craze cannot be overstated. His formidable talent for both initiating and influencing food and restaurant trends was first demonstrated in 1992 when he launched Wagamama (the now worldwide canteen-style Japanese restaurant chain) in London's Gower Street. In 2001 he turned his attention to Chinese food and with the chef Tong Chee Hwee running the kitchen he opened Hakkasan in London (Tong remains Hakkasan's executive head chef).
The restaurant set a precedent for Chinese fine dining and won a Michelin star in 2003. Tong describes the style of food at Hakkasan as "modern Cantonese cooking, using creativity and innovation in the kitchen to adapt and refine original recipes". In short, while there may well be staple dishes such as Peking duck on the menu, this is no ordinary Peking duck - this is Peking duck encrusted with royal beluga caviar.
It was not just the high-quality food that made Hakkasan instantly popular but rather the experience as a whole. The luxurious decor set the restaurant apart as a decadent hotspot that soon had people clamouring to visit. As a result, this style of Cantonese cooking became synonymous not only with fine food but with glamour and exclusivity. As numerous other restaurants set out to emulate Hakkasan's success, so the trend for dim sum escalated.
For those seeking a touch of glamour, the restaurant at the Emirates Palace will not disappoint. The moody lighting and sultry boudoir feel of the place demands that you slink through the door and immediately forget the time of day (or night). Hakkasan is all about escapism; oriental screens with cutaway carvings divide the restaurant, creating a sense of intimacy; strategically placed lamps cast soft plumes of light on the wall and all the while in the background, the hippest of music plays.
This blend of opulence, quality and a certain delicacy is felt throughout the whole of Hakkasan and most importantly in the kitchen. It also goes some way towards explaining the restaurant's formula for producing such good dim sum. The head chef, Lee Kok Hua, extols the virtues of top-quality produce and stresses the importance of preparing dim sum dishes with the freshest possible ingredients and cooking them to order. Luxury products such as turbot, hand-dived scallops and caviar feature throughout the menu but it is the skill of the chef that really brings things alive.
Lee says that a dim sum chef will train for a minimum of five years before he is considered anywhere near accomplished. This training is rigorous and the art of dim sum requires not only natural talent but a lightness of touch and precision of movement that only comes with time. Dumpling pastry intended for har gau must be thin and transparent, slightly moist without being claggy and yet sturdy enough not to break when seized by eager chop sticks. Lee suggests that really to enjoy dim sum you shouldn't be afraid to seek out the unusual and indulge in dishes with a variety of textures, whether deep-fried, steamed or oven-baked. And once again, good Chinese tea is of paramount importance.
Although the restaurant opens officially tomorrow, my sneak peek into the kitchen last week suggested that the food was likely to come up to the London Hakkasan standards. Lee's brigade was hard at work, furiously chopping, roasting, tasting, tweaking, adding a teaspoon of tamarind here and a drop of coconut water there. Burners gave off a vicious heat and huge woks sizzled spectacularly as minced garlic and ginger, spring onions, curry leaves and chilli were thrown into the pans.
There will be around 100 different dishes available at Hakkasan Abu Dhabi; at the moment 18 of these are dim sum and later in the year a bespoke lunchtime dim sum menu will be launched. The menu plays homage to a host of signature dishes: venison puffs, Pi Pa duck, spicy Assam prawns in baby coconut and Tong's personal favourite dim sum: scallop shumai with Tobiko caviar. The team are keen to acknowledge their new location, though, and want to incorporate local produce where possible. Hammour will feature three times on the menu in different guises (as dim sum, appetiser and main course) and a UAE-exclusive appetiser of blue-shell crab looks set to please.
On my visit to the kitchen, I watched the chefs carefully cleaning the delicate, speckled blue shells before gently stuffing them with a concoction of crab meat, sticky rice, enochi mushroom and marinated vegetables. With a tea list carefully selected to complement the menu, a swanky bar and a sofa-filled lounge area relax in post-work or after dinner, Hakkasan seems ready to boost the UAE's desire for dim sum.