In the booming, hungry heart of Hong Kong Island, Asian menus inspired by the street fare of the region are the year’s most tantalizing trend. Here are half a dozen new neighborhood haunts that you need to know about
By Nick Walton
Photographs by Josephine Rozman
When it comes to dining, cosmopolitan Hong Kong has no shortage of flavors—restaurants serving Italian this and Spanish that appear on the scene with almost clockwork regularity. The past year, however, has seen a feisty new breed of neighborhood restaurant opening in Soho and Sheung Wan, dishing up artisanal takes on Asian street food in diminutive, distinctly urban dining rooms that are as of the moment as the food they serve. In doing so, they have developed a loyal following that’s thirsty for culinary innovation and authenticity in a city famed for its best intentions, but not always for its execution.
Isan for the Eating: Chachawan
It’s Thursday night, a little too late for happy hour, a little too early for clubbing, and on lower Hollywood Road, one of Sheung Wan’s newest and most exciting holes-in-the-wall is packed to the rafters. Entrance to Chachawan, a raw-edged space from Singapore-born hotelier-cum-restaurateur Yenn Wong, is through emerald-green metal doors that open onto a room decked out in bare concrete, kerosene lanterns, and walls covered with murals and vintage Hong Kong posters stamped with Thai motifs. There is a line of tables for two and four, but the most coveted seats are at the kitchen counter, where diners can watch Australian chef Adam Cliff in action.
And what action it is. Slim, pale, and with close-cropped hair and a baby face, 27-year-old Cliff looks like he should be pulling pints at a cricket club in Wollongong, not sweating it up behind a stove in Asia. But then an order from the waitstaff is followed by commands, in fluent Thai, to his close-knit posse of cooks, and the kitchen picks up a frenzied pace. Cliff’s years in Thailand, working with Duangporn Songvisava at Bo.lan in Bangkok before a stint with David Thompson at London’s Nahm, inspired him to innovate on the lava-hot dishes of Isan, Thailand’s northeast region, introducing them to Hong Kong to critical acclaim.
This is not Thai food for the faint-hearted; pungent and spicy, Isan dishes are not laced with palate-calming coconut milk, but instead are dominated by fresh herbs, fresh cuts of meat grilled over open fires, and plenty of chili. Chachawan’s menu showcases the region’s signature green papaya salad—there are seven variations to choose from, including a zesty som dtum goon with cherry tomatoes, dried shrimp, salted duck egg, and tangy tamarind—as well as fun, easy-to-share dishes such as nahm dtok nuer, a grilled Wagyu beef salad with coriander, mint, lime, fish sauce, and toasted rice; dtom sap moo pork ribs in a sour soup; and pla phao glua, a whole salt-crusted sea bass cooked over an open flame with lemongrass and pandan. In a city where food is often reduced to the sum of its plainest ingredients, Cliff has struck a resounding culinary note.
206 Hollywood Rd., Sheung Wan; 852/2549-0020; facebook.com/chachawan.hongkong
Vietnamese Vigor: Chôm Chôm
Proudly serving up the snacks found on the streets of Vietnam, Chôm Chôm draws a loyal crowd from the ranks of Soho diners, many of whom had already experienced Dalat-born chef Peter Cuong Franklin’s innovative and refreshing dishes at his former private kitchen on Wellington Street. In Chôm Chôm’s newest incarnation, Franklin has teamed up with Black Sheep Restaurants to create a neighborhood joint that is as much an open-faced bar as it is a fiery show kitchen.
Located at Soho Junction and injecting vigor into a corner of Soho that’s been looking a little neglected of late, the dinner-only venue features a wafer-thin terrace where hipsters, perched on tiny stools, sip imported Saigon beer while they wait for a table (there’s a no-reservations policy). Chôm Chôm’s theme is loosely woven around Vietnam’s humble bia hoi (draft beer) stalls, where cheap homemade lager is accompanied by simple yet delectable snacks that are ideal for sharing.
Arrive early (the doors open at 6 p.m. most nights) for a seat at the L-shaped bar-cum-kitchen, which takes up the lion’s share of a space whose iron-framed windows recall a street-side café in Paris. Here you’ll be able to see Franklin and his team at work over charcoal grills and flaming woks as they produce dishes from a deftly edited menu, including fried chicken wings with garlic, coriander, and mint; and grilled beef cubes with betel leaf, peanuts, shallots, and a hint of curry. Other must-tries include the “shaking beef” with watercress and rocket, and the beautifully grilled eggplant salad with crabmeat, mint, and coriander. For the full spectrum of flavors, try Franklin’s six-course Tour d’Indochine dinner menu, matched with wine.
G/F Block A, 58-60 Peel St., Central; 852/2810-0850; chomchom.hk