It's official. Hong Kong makes you lazy. Reaching Rice Paper last week felt like a serious expedition and yet, in London, I wouldn't think twice about spending an hour sweating away on the tube to get to a restaurant. To be fair to my inner laziness, from Central, getting to Rice Paper involved a walk to the Star Ferry terminal, a trip across Victoria Harbour and then the trauma of navigating through the labyrinth that is HarbourCity. Still, it was a good meal - nice food, reasonable prices and a lively, noisy atmosphere (helped by the fact that, even during out mid-week visit, it was absolutely heaving with a queue of people standing outside).
The consistent Vietnamese food is not going to amaze you with its innovation but it is nice, consistent food, perfect for a mid-week dinner. The scallop and mango roll was flavoursome and our mains of seafood yellow curry and a squid and prawn pad thai were pretty good. The wine options seemed to be rather limited in terms of choice (although I noticed a chilled wine cabinet on the way to the bathroom and so it may be that we failed to receive the actual wine list...). Definite brownie points go to the service which was efficient without being pushy. All in all, pretty good.
I love this place. Unfortunately, it seems that most of Central's office workers agree with me because it is damn difficult to get a table at lunchtime. Being in the IFC, it can't exactly be described as cheap but it's not bad in comparison to some of its neighbours, and the decor/atmosphere make it a great place to go for a gossip-y lunch!
I have to admit that I'm not usually tremendously adventurous, tending to opt for pho noodles, but on the occasions that I have branched out, the food has been good. Recently we had both the Vietnamese spring rolls and the infinitely more healthy summer rolls, made entirely from raw vegetables (and the pho noodles, of course - I'd hate to break a tradition).
Reliably good food in a stylish, conveniently located restaurant. What more could you ask for your lunchbreak?
The good thing about the Credit Crunch (and let's face it, there aren't many positives) is that it gives you the chance (/forces you) to explore the city's cheaper, less-SoHo-based restaurants. Nha Trang in Wan Chai is the ultimate credit crunch restaurant. It looks swanky inside but is actually cheap as chips ... and fantastic to boot.
The original version of Nha Trang in Wellington Street has been a staple of mine of for a while, a place to solve that mid-week craving of pho tai. It’s a great little café but the rather cramped interior and hectic atmosphere just isn't always what you want. This new restaurant with its identikit menu provides the solution for when you want your fix of pho tai in spacious surroundings with a bit of relaxed comfort.
If I’m being totally honest with myself, my cravings for Nha Trang are actually less about the pho tai and more about the Grilled Aubergine dish. It is phenomenal and rather boringly, I have it every time I go. The aubergine has been grilled and left to cool and, with its topping of shrimp and scallions, it is lip-smackingly juicy and sweet. It also contrasts nicely with the Pomelo Grilled Prawns Salad. The prawns sitting on skewers on top of the bowl were over-cooked but that didn’t really matter because in the grand scheme of things it is not about the prawns but about the bowl of pomelo covered with a tangy lime dressing. Our third shared starter was a plate of deep-fried vegetable rolls which E.L. had been going on about since before lunch and which therefore couldn’t be avoided. They were beautifully crispy without feeling too oily - and also contrasted nicely with the tangy pomelo salad!
Rather recklessly my friend L.O. decided to venture into the unknown and instead of the tried-and-tested pho tai, ordered the sizzling crepes Saigon, rice flour crepes flavoured with coconut and curry and filled with pork, shrimp and vegetables. Although it looked a little oily from where I was sitting, it was apparently really tasty - L.O. describing it as being in the category of comfort food!
It’s not fancy haute-cuisine but it is good, tasty food at fantastically reasonable prices in a nice setting. As such, perfect.
Tru is one of those restaurants that seems so chain-like from the marketing blurb that you never quite get round to going to it. There always seems to be somewhere a little more "authentic" that you should try. However, I went this week for a work lunch and it perfectly fitted the work lunch requirements: non-controversial Vietnamese-ish decor, smooth service and great lunch set menus. It's not cheap'n'cheerful but the food was interesting, well-presented and tasteful. I think the phrase that best describes the place is probably "reliable" (which depending on how you see it is either damning praise or a great asset).
There were four lunch options presented to us, ranging in price from the noodle set to the business set. The business set had a selection of six or so starters followed by six or so main courses then tea/coffee (or a desert for those who want a quick snooze under their desk in the afternoon!). E's Vietnamese spring rolls were good with "thin and flaky pastry" while the traditional banana blossom and shredded chicken salad with chili jam dressing that the rest of us had was really flavoursome.
The kick was perfect - enough for you to slightly notice but not enough that you would ever start choking in front of colleagues (or even worse, clients). Authentic? Yes, but a little toned down. I can't say the banana blossom (or banana flower) made a massive contribution to the dish - to be honest the beansprouts were more prominent but I guess beansprout and shredded chicken salad would not have had quite the same ring to it!. Having had a starter with a strong flavour we all chose our main course badly by opting for the salmon fillet with coconut lime sauce and roasted cherry tomatoes, chilli and lemongrass salsa. It was far too delicate after the starter and paled in comparison. There was nothing technically wrong with it, the salmon was well cooked, the coconut sauce light and delicate, the chutney sharp and the cold tomato an interesting contrast. However, it just didn't stand out. Still, tasty nonetheless. With a Rosh Hashanah dinner later that day, I (reluctantly) opted for a peppermint tea rather than the chocolate and mango pudding they were offering. This week is the fourth week in a row that I've promised myself I'd detox - every week gets positively worse so I'm trying to strengthen my willpower!
Tru is reliable, a bit of a staple etc... It's probably never going to set your world on fire but equally you're unlikely to have a truly disastrous meal there.
Eating at a restaurant should not be an endurance test. Eating at Cambo Thai in Kowloon City was a seriously traumatising experience.
As the next phase of my education on "local" cuisine, I decided to try to make myself a little less island-centric, something which my friend N., who lives out in Kowloon Tong, was only too happy to help with. We'd both read good things about Cambo Thai and judging by the massive crowd of people hanging around outside waiting for a table, so had everyone else. Perfect, I thought - an small, authentic "local" Thai / Vietnamese restaurant.
Could I be more wrong?
Before I get carried away with everything that was wrong (and it's a long list so get comfy), I should probably look at the plus sides. Umm.... Well, it was very very cheap. To be honest though, I'm not sure the trauma levels were really worth the saving. Another plus: the menu came in English and had pictures in case you weren't familiar with something. Ok, now I'm really scraping at the barrel...
Many things are forgivable if the food is great. We should have known it was going downhill when the couple next door, when asked what they'd had, said that it was ok but they'd expected their Thai red curry to have had a little more kick to it - they described it as "canto-fied". We ordered tiger prawns in butter which came seriously over-cooked and not at all fresh tasting - although that may have had something to do with the fact that when they said it was 'in butter' they meant it was drowning in a whole tub of butter, somewhat masking the flavour of the prawn. The Thai green curry was, to its credit, perfectly flavoursome although it was supposed to be Thai, not Vietnamese, and yet it came with French bread and without any 'bite' whatsoever. The fried squid, mussel, shrimp and mixed vegetables was ok although the shrimps were overcooked and the mussels didn't look that appealing. The final dish we ordered was the fried water spinach with Malay paste. Interesting translation because 'paste' it was not. Had it said 'in heavily corn-flowered gravy' i'd have thought that rather more accurate.
The food was pretty uninspiring but the service (if you can even call it that) was what made the experience traumatising. The man standing outside dealing with bookings was clearly stressed. Still, we had bothered to book and were happy to wait for a table. There is simply no need as the front-of-house 'receptionist' to be so terse and unwelcoming. When we were allocated a table, the waitress, who didn't smile once during the entire meal, pointed at a table and left, without bringing any menus whatsoever. After waiting 15 minutes, my friend went up to cashier area to grab some menus. Noticing this, the couple on the table next door, looking stressed, said that they'd asked for the bill five times and that they'd had a similar experience throughout the meal. Everything was just too much effort for the waiting staff and they made that very clear, not just to us but to other customers too.
So, if you like being crammed into a tiny restaurant with oily, overcooked food and unbelievably rude and unwelcoming service, this is your place. Perhaps, it is the case of a restaurant that has become too popular and has lost the need to try and make effort - after all, the chain has been so successful that it is now made up of three restaurants in a row, each with the same menu. Maybe, I'm just not that knowledgeable about Thai / Vietnamese cuisine and this is actually "authentic" but, frankly, give me Nha Trang any day.
G/F, 15 Nga Tsin Long Rd
Tel: 2716 7318.
With the debate raging on as to whether Japanese or Vietnamese is my favourite Asian cuisine, I thought I should even out the sample base by trying another of the Vietnamese restaurants in Hong Kong. By the end of the meal, things were looking rather good for the Vietnamese camp.
Song, just off Hollywood Road, describes itself as "Indochine" rather than Vietnamese. Technically, given Indochina includes Cambodia and Laos as well as Vietnam, this probably makes it fusion but I suspect using the phrase "Indochine" is more to do with the fact that it is currently a trendy culinary term.
The restaurant has light, inviting minimalist decor which has quite an impact after wandering down the short alleyway from Hollywood Road. This inviting atmosphere is added to by the staff who are friendly and welcoming.
We started the meal with an assortment of starters including the soft shell crab and avocado rice paper roll with wasabi. This sounded perfect - a combo of Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine - and it was. The crab was really crispy and the wasabi cunningly took away any greasy taste there may have been. This soft shell crab experience was definitely up there with the soft shell crab handroll at Senryo in the IFC. The pomelo salad was really refreshing and the green papaya, mango and fresh prawn salad with tangy chili-lime dressing was excellent, beautifully tangy. The only minor negative was that I wasn't that excited about the chestnut and minced pork dumplings with soya and vinagrette but I think they probably suffered in comparison next to the many strong flavours.
The black cod with a tomato and ginger coulis on sauteed spinach was excellent, the fish very lightly fried. It was the star of the show although it vied for that position with "Xao Bi", the sauteed pumpkin with cashews and ginger. The lemongrass beef with rice vermicelli, cucumber and fresh herbs in a peanut and chili dressing was also nice, slightly sweet. While the chargrilled halibut in banana leaf with lemongrass, turmeric and coconut marinade was beautifully cooked, it was "delicate and fragrant" - absolutely lovely but unfortunately we shared the main courses and therefore sampled the other, stronger flavours first.
As things were very much on a roll, we decided to sample a couple of the puddings. The sticky rice with mango was probably very good but as it falls into the same category as glutinous rice and rice pudding, wasn't really going to be my thing. However, the fried banana was delicious. It was very lightly fried and crispy with a sweet drizzle over the top.
So far, my favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong.