Aqua Restaurant Group, which has multiple concepts spanning across Beijing, London and its home base of Hong Kong, has just entered the New York City restaurant scene with the opening of Hutong in Midtown Manhattan. Named for the popular narrow lanes that once took over Peking, Aqua’s first foray into the United States was driven by American customers visiting Hong Kong and London. “We were always going to bring our flagship restaurants Aqua and Hutong to New York,” says Aqua founder David Yeo. “But I heard from customers, if you have to open one, open Hutong first.”
Housed in the former Le Cirque space, Hutong’s opening was over three years in the making. “We always believe in serving the neighborhood as well as long-term residents—I think we found the right location,” Yeo says of Midtown Manhattan. Once the bid on the Le Cirque space was won, construction took nearly a year. “It was a very interesting process,” he adds. “The New York Community Board takes their job very seriously because they are protecting their neighborhood—and that’s a good thing.”
The interior—which was completely gut-renovated—was designed by Robert Angell Design International and is largely inspired by the Art Deco design of some of Manhattan’s most iconic buildings, as well as Shanghai’s Art Deco history. (Think a ziggurat-like ceiling à la the Chrysler Building.)
The fare served at Hutong is Northern Chinese with a contemporary spin; Yeo believes that Hutong will close a Chinese culinary gap in the city, as many restaurants are focused on Beijing hotpot, Cantonese or Sichuan fare. Indeed, the cuisine in the region is different than its neighbors in the south; due to short growing seasons and colder climates, wheat is the staple of choice over rice, and food preservation methods like fermentation are extremely common.
“An analogy to this would be Italian cuisine,” adds Yeo. “If you think about the south in Naples versus cuisine in Milan, they’re vastly different. In the north you have more cheese and cream, and in the south you have more garlic, seafood, basil and tomatoes. The North and South divide in China is more varied than that, as it’s a vast country like America.”
As with every Hutong location, the menu is comprised of classics, like Peking duck and bee ribs, and new dishes inspired by the location. “We don’t want to be a chain,” he says. “And we are very high-focused on using the best local produce. In New York, for example, there are wonderful Littleneck clams, and the lobsters are different from lobsters in Europe—it gives us a huge opportunity to play around with recipes.”
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Menu items exclusive to the New York City location include the Yu Xiang fried dumplings stuffed with spicy pork, salted fish and broad beans, as well as baked wagyu beef puffs. As for who’s in charge of the kitchen, Yeo states that the team moves together as one unit—something that happens at every restaurant in the Aqua portfolio.
The bar at Hutong also serves as a prime focus. “We wanted to use the space in a different way, so we streamlined it to match our style of dining,” he says. “It’s very much a bar and restaurant and it’s streamlined—we don’t believe in vertical drinking.” Cocktails are inspired by the food, and, knowing that New York diners often eat at the bar, the bar snacks at Hutong, too, are substantial, like calamari "flowers" in a Sichuan peppercorn and chile oil and Sichuan shredded beef. "You can even get a smaller version of the Peking duck," adds Yeo. "New Yorkers will love it."
Hutong is located at 731 Lexington Avenue, and open for dinner on Sunday through Wednesday from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m., and on Thursday through Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. Lunch hours will begin next Monday.
Hero image courtesy of Hutong.