For years there's been a slow creep of traditional Chinese cuisine into Miami. Much of it has taken place in the western part of the county where, thanks to a campaign by University of Miami and Florida International University to recruit Chinese students, there is a growing population who simply couldn't live without the flavors. After all, who should be expected to?
The newest option is the upscale Hutong, the word for Beijing's disappearing alleyways, that first opened in Hong Kong in 2003 in a tower overlooking the megalopolis' bustling harbor. The restaurant has been sweeping east, opening extravagant locations first in London in 2013, followed by New York City earlier this year and now in the heart of Miami's expanding skyscraper canyon.
The restaurant's specialty is northern-style fare, peppered with hints of Sichuan's unmistakeable heat and numbing. Most noticeably it can be found at Chinese Guy Chi-Town, near FIU, where husband-and-wife team Kun Bao and Yanan Cai, who met studying for advanced electrical engineering degrees, opened a restaurant plying the fermented, fast-fried, and sometimes spicy cuisine of their native Tianjin.
While Hutong's New York restaurant seemed to be one outfitted with futuristic glitz, here in Miami the soaring room is done up with a more traditional motif.
The space is decorated with worn copper teapots scattered among columns of stacked Chinese clay roof tiles. Around the room are walls and columns composed of 35,000 grey antique bricks, hand chiseled and transported from a salvaged 1930s-era building. At the far end of the dining room stands wooden lattice screens hand-carved with intricate designs.
New Times was afforded a lengthy tasting menu providing an overview of the restaurant's fare that offers both traditional elegance with the assertive flavors of traditional Chinese cuisine.
The deceivingly simply sounding jade hearts ($15) arrive as little piles of pale green translucent ribbons flecked with specks of shredded chili and immediately set the Ma La tempo with plenty of spice and the numb of Sichuan peppercorns.
The dim sum is a specialty here, as it is in northern China, and the eight-piece platter ($28) appears table side like a multicolored jewel box filled with Sichuan peppercorn prawn, marlin fish, prawn and black truffle, and wild mushroom and spinach. An elegant, crisp-skinned Peking duck ($45 half, $84 whole) appears after a 24-hour roast and is sliced and presented with thin pancakes and all of the traditional accoutrements. The bird is then whisked back to the kitchen where the rest of the meat is removed, stir fried with chilies and green onions, and served in fiery lettuce cups.
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The other signature dish is the Red Lantern ($44) with sweet-spicy fried halves of soft shell crab buried under a mountain of cherry-sized chili peppers to recreate the experience of hunting for crabs on the beach.
Despite sounding humble, dessert is stunning. Bao and soy milk is a clever creation in which sweet, nutty white sesame mousse is formed into the shape of a steamed pork bun and paired with soy milk ice cream, salted caramel, and white sesame praline.
Hopefully, Hutong has the ability to last in this space longer than its predecessors. The food boasts the kind of intense flavors people crave these days and the service, at least in the opening weeks, is attentive and knowledgeable. Plus, there's duck, and what yuppie living in a $600,000 one bedroom with paper thin walls doesn't want the option of Peking duck every night of the week?
Hutong Miami. 600 Brickell Ave., Miami; 786-388-0805; hutong-miami.com.