Thursday, June 3, 2010


In Lisbon, I order room service – a tortilla with ham, a glass of white wine from the Duoro region, and sparkling water. When it arrives, I’m starving – my last meal was a cup of chicken vegetable soup in Heathrow at 2pm. It is now 11pm. Wrapped up in a hotel bathrobe, I rip into the food. I haven’t had a tortilla since Barcelona and I love the salty ham and rich, comforting potato and egg. And paired with the clean tastes of a green salad and white wine, it tastes a little bit French.

I watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, with Portuguese captions. I pick out a word or two that look sort of familiar from years of French and Italian, but the captions are largely incomprehensible and I focus on Bourdain instead. He’s cooking at Les Halles and explaining the parts and processes of a restaurant kitchen, his mise en place, and the long, brutal hours.

I get to thinking (Does that sound a bit like Carrie Bradshaw? Well, take me out back and shoot me if I ever get to thinking about dysfunctional relationships or Dior. It's really simple. Life is just all about food.). What makes a kitchen functional? Should form or function win out? And what makes a restaurant a scene?

Last night at Hakkasan in London, I spotted the Russian bouncer, who accessorized with a headset and a list of the evening's reservations, and I knew we were walking into a scene. Hakkasan is otherworldly, governed by its own rules and by an unwavering sense of its own fabulousness. You descend from street level and plunge into a cavernous space, dimly lit and punctuated by incense, startling flower arrangements, and intricate, black varnished screens.

It is, of course, hard work to be this marvelous. The hostess had as firm a grasp of timing and the restaurant’s layout as I’ve ever seen – She mentally ran through each table, choosing the best location in order to accommodate our party and, most importantly, to ensure the possibility of multiple seatings once we left. The space and the menu – Chinese dishes, fruit and flower-inspired cocktails, and prices that may induce facial tics – are both enormous, and the kitchen must be incredibly disciplined to keep up.

But you see few of these mechanics. Instead, you are treated to what is quite possibly the most fantastic people-watching in London. I eavesdropped on the couple to my left as they dissected their obviously on-and-off again relationship. If I could have moved over to their table, I would have – the show was just that good. I could never quite tell if they were parting ways forever, breaking up temporarily, or reuniting…. Or, perhaps it was all of the above. She was a trendy brunette in her mid-twenties; he was a thirty-something blowhard who said they could never work out because she was just too young (ouch). But she could dish it out too… She passionately banged the table with her fist and accused him of flaws and sins. Sadly, I missed key parts of the dialogue (the arrival of a fresh cocktail, a Georgia Julep, was too distracting).

If there was a lull in the lovebirds' conversation, I looked over to the long table of 40-something investment bankers who had precisely one pretty, young bleached-blonde thing in their midst. She was bored and her Blackberry came out to play.

After dumplings, two rounds of cocktails, and stirfries with black Welsh beef and fish, we ended our evening at Hakkasan (our waitress politely refused to serve us dessert – after all, table turnover is key) and relinquished our table to the next eager party. This was not the best Chinese I’ve ever had. But, how was the scene? Oh, it was just wonderful.

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