It can be difficult to make your mark in the world, particularly if you’re trying to emerge out of the shadow of an overachieving older sibling. If your older sibling also happens to be Temple Restaurant Beijing (TRB), the award-winning stalwart of the city’s fine dining scene, you’re surely in for an identity crisis.
Located in the heart of Sanlitun’s Taikoo Li, Hulu is in a prime position to carve out a spot as TRB’s more hip, more casual outpost. In a dining scene where reservations are a rarity, Hulu has been regularly booked out since opening its doors, attracting a mix of Sanlitun’s elite, curious passers-by and those lured in by TRB’s good name.
On our trip we start off, naturally, with cocktails. Served in an Instagram-baiting copper pineapple, the Hulu Colada (58RMB) is a visible favourite with other diners, though a more pronounced acidic element would help round out the syrupy sweetness of the pineapple and coconut. That said, the delightfully pink Sakura (65RMB) is refreshing and well-balanced.
But really we’re here for the food. Running at 44 pages, Hulu’s menu offers a wide gamut of dishes, swinging wildly between dialled-up French classics to phoned-in pub fare. It’s perhaps too wide, and a little hard to know where to begin.
We end up settling for a variety of dishes. Draped in a vibrant green chimichurri, the flank steak (148RMB for 200g) is blushing and tender. It also pairs unsurprisingly well with Hulu’s fries (48RMB), which are generously garlicky.
Next arrives the prawn and basil spaghetti (68RMB), which though perfectly al dente, is one-note and lacks depth of flavour. It’s also very small. Served up in a chic, copper serving bowl, the paltry portion – a glorified starter, really – feels decidedly disconnected from the approachable vibe Hulu has otherwise strived for.
Identity issues end up becoming a recurring theme during the meal. Take the beef bone marrow with snails and parsley foam (98RMB), for example. Garlic snails doused with generous amounts of butter and parsley are one of France’s quintessential comfort foods. Paired with unctuous but under-seasoned bone marrow, the meal teeters on becoming too rich, a problem that is not solved by the accompanying listless white bread. That same bread is also used for the pork belly and foie gras paté with brandy-pickled purple cabbage (32RMB), a dish which feels more like an afterthought and less like an attempt at comfort food that’s at once satiating and technically sophisticated.
Dessert comes in the form of a flaming ice cream (58RMB) – essentially a Bombe Alaska minus the sponge component – and dark chocolate soufflé (68RMB), both of which miss the mark slightly. The flaming ice cream is accompanied by a fun bit of ‘80s-throwback showmanship in the form of flambé, however the alcohol leaves behind an acridly bitter taste on the meringue, marring what is a wonderfully tart passion fruit sorbet.
Similarly, a small degree of ceremony attends the soufflé, with a waiter making an incision before pouring molten chocolate sauce into its interior. Warm chocolate sauce can disguise a multitude of sins, but it can’t mask an over-baked soufflé. Lacking the celestially light consistency one would expect to find, Hulu’s soufflé is more akin to a pudding. It’s chocolatey and luxurious without being cloyingly sweet and will still please chocoholics, but it is not a soufflé.
Beijing’s hungry hordes will probably continue to flock to Hulu, owing much to its central location. With a few refining touches, we might find ourselves among them, however, as it stands, Hulu’s menu feels bloated and lacking in a clear direction, with less conceptual focus and technical skill than we would expect from a TRB venture. We might not BRB just yet, but we won’t bet against the Temple team turning it around.
By Leanne Wong