As a rule, you'd expect a restaurant to become more confident on receipt of a Michelin star. Only 42 restaurants in London are currently in possession of this badge of honour--it's the culinary equivalent of the premier league-and after such an accolade you'd think the staff could afford to relax a little. From now on the food can speak for itself.
Unfortunately, it seems to have had the opposite effect on Hakkasan, London's only Chinese restaurant in possession of a Michelin star. I was greeted at the door by a figure I haven't encountered since I tried to gatecrash Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell's party during New York Fashion Week: a bona fide clipboard Nazi. When I told the man in question I had a reservation he looked at me as if I'd just asked him if he wanted to buy a copy of The Big Issue. Admittedly, I was with Grub Smith at the time, but you'd think the former FHM sex columnist would be one of the few journalists this troglodyte would recognise.
Once inside, the situation didn't improve. Hakkasan's clientele are the sort of people who are constantly scanning the entranceway to see if anyone rich or famous or beautiful has arrived. For all the attention we attracted, Grub and I might as well have been huddled under Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. Part of the problem was that we were at least 20 years older than everyone else there. I don't think I've ever seen so much hair gel and midriff in one place. It was like a casting call for Pop Stars: The Wannabes.
On second thoughts, perhaps these young scene-makers had already made it. How else could they afford the prices? Hakkasan enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only restaurant in London that Lady Victoria Hervey thinks is too expensive. On one famous occasion, she balked when Hakkasan presented her with a bill for over £1,000, complaining that she and her three companions had eaten hardly anything. She obviously hadn't looked at the menu. Even a bowl of soup at Hakkasan will set you back £50.
Grub and I were determined to avoid the more outrageously priced items, but our waitress soon put a stop to that. Rather than ask us what we wanted, she told us what dishes we ought to have and-surprise, surprise-they turned out to be the most expensive. I tried to order stir-fry black pepper rib-eye beef-a snip at £11.50--but every time the words came out of my mouth she firmly steered me towards an alternative beef dish priced at £48. She wouldn't take no for an answer, either. In the end she "compromised" by agreeing to bring us the things we'd ordered in addition to all the dishes she'd recommended and we ended up with far too much food. But our ordeal didn't end there. Midway through the meal, the waitress reappeared and urged us to try several more dishes even though it was patently clear we weren't going to be able to manage what we had in front of us. It was like being cornered by an extremely aggressive drug pusher.
The bill was £209.50, a sum that included a 13% service charge. Most restaurants charge a standard 12.5%, but I wasn't surprised that Hakkasan screws an extra 0.5% out of its customers. The icing on the cake was when the waitress brought back my credit card slip. She'd put £209.50 in the box marked "Subtotal", giving me the option of rewarding her even more generously for her outstanding service.
The food at Hakkasan was good-there's no getting around that-but it wasn't that good. At over £100 a head, a sum that didn't include a bottle of wine, I think it was the most expensive meal I've ever had.