CHRISTINA KO checks into a few of the restaurants that have mushroomed in Hong Kong Island’s western zones
“FESTINA LENTE” reads the script inked onto Peggy Chan’s arm – “To hasten slowly,” she explains. A favoured axiom of the Roman emperors Augustus and Titus, it is equally apt in modern times in this little part of Sai Ying Pun: Fuk Sau Lane, a dead-end alley (calling it a cul-de-sac would be too generous), where Chan opened her first project, Grassroots Pantry, in 2012, and the more recent Prune Organic Deli & Workshop just a few months ago.
The hipster establishments had long before begun their westward encroachment, of course, mainly seeping across Hollywood Road with their progressive cocktails, no-reservations policies and other cool-kid concepts. But Chan went one further, choosing Fuk Sau for its off-the-beaten-track appeal and more palatable rent. “It was two and a half years ago. I was looking for a space through an agent, and a friend suggested I try Sai Ying Pun. Back then it was quite undeveloped. I was looking in Sheung Wan in the Tai Ping Shan area before anything opened there, and still the rent was three times higher than out here,” Chan explains.
“The criteria that I had was that it had to be quiet, with no car traffic, and there would be a little outdoor area for me to grow plants, and I wanted two floors. A lot of people were afraid for me, because it was such a huge risk to move out here. But I always believe that if the product is good, the service is good, Hong Kong people will go out of their way to find good food.”
If you build it, they will come – but you’d better build something better than good if you want to keep them coming back. Having some F&B pedigree helps, and Chan had worked with the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong and The Peninsula Tokyo. But it was the dishes that piqued long-term interest in her initial venture, creative combinations that sound equal parts yummy and healthy: Vietnamese yellow curry with lemon grass, tamarind, grilled mushrooms and steamed brown rice; or a Szechuan vegetable stir-fry with glutinous rice cakes, pickled cloud-ear mushrooms, steamed whole-wheat man tou and condensed almond milk.
Prune is more of a salad-and-sandwich joint, slow food done quickly – festina lente, so to speak. The menu changes daily based on produce, with dishes ranging from a bowl of acai and banana blended with coconut meat and water, garnished with flaxseed and honey-crisp apples from Xinjiang via Homegrown Foods, to an avocado, cucumber, tomato and tofu sandwich that tastes miles better than it sounds. In the evening, Prune is used as an extra dining space for Grassroots Pantry overspill (yes, it’s doing that well) or for private parties. The “Workshop” part of the name refers to classes taught by leading experts in health on how to prepare raw foods or grow your own balcony micro-garden.
There’s no better testament to Chan’s success than the arrival of her neighbours, Locofama, founded by a former advertising exec, Larry Tang, along with Steven Wu. A mini organic supermarket with a connected restaurant, Locofama focuses on purity, using quality organic ingredients in crowdpleasing dishes without exiling any major food groups. Despite an overly liberal use of truffle, the food is excellent, whether a 48-hour slow-cooked short rib in Asian pear barbecue sauce, ssamjang and Anaheim chilli pepper – basically a slow-cooked twist on a Korean kalbi dish – or a more traditionally nutritious option, like the kale con guacamole salad, a hearty bowl of kale, avocado, tomato and beetroot brightened with a dressing of lime, sesame oil and soy sauce. A limited-edition Vietnamese pho in a captivatingly aromatic oxtail broth may still be in its development phase, but has already won a cult following.
“We’re in the same [movement as Grassroots Pantry], but we’re more 101, entry level. Especially for a Hong Kong audience, to go full vegetarian is a big jump, so we want to ease them in. It’s more about removing toxins from the menu,” explains Wu. It’s not a coincidence that Locofama chose to set up shop in Fuk Sau Lane, but nor was it consciously divined. Call it organic development – Tang had already had the idea for the business, and as a regular at Grassroots, spotted when the space opposite it became vacant. “Larry wanted to look at eating more healthily, because in Hong Kong we party hard and detox hard. People kind of look for shortcuts, like, ‘I’m going to detox for seven days, and then party even harder.’ Conditioning your body is a long-term process.”
The next step for this Western outpost is to head back into the mainstream – possibly a venue in Central, targeting office professionals in search of a lunch that won’t make them sluggish in the afternoon. And then maybe an e-commerce platform, offering Locofama’s organic wares to a larger audience. So, next stop, global domination? Wu laughs. “In Bhutan, the economy runs on Gross National Happiness instead of GDP. If their economy can thrive on happiness, why can’t we? It’s a whole happy thing.”
Happiness, in fact – or “liberty”, as he puts it – is exactly what spurred Philippe Orrico to leave the cushioned world of hotel restaurants to open his first stand-alone venture, Upper Modern Bistro, in a stunning space on Upper Station just around the corner from Man Mo Temple. “[I wanted] liberty in terms of cooking, of service. Here I can serve very casual food and I can send out some very fine foods and elaborate dishes. As a chef I really wanted a place of liberty, where I can do everything,” he says.
The chef who opened Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong for Pierre Gagnaire and was last spotted manning the kitchen of Hullett House’s St George knew from the start that he wanted a spot in Sheung Wan. “I used to live here for three years on this street, so I knew this area very well. I think it represents Hong Kong well, for me. It’s a good mix of Chinese, local Westerners and tourists. It’s a mix of a bit modern, a bit old, a bit quiet and a bit noisy. It was my first choice, I wanted to be in Sheung Wan.”
The name of his restaurant, besides connoting a strong connection to its location, is also suggestive of the concept, an upscale version of the classic bistro but one that takes a no-holds-barred approach to the menu. That means you can get a ham-and-cheese sandwich on the lunch menu, a five-course set dinner, or just get Orrico’s signature hotelera stalwarts, the mushroom soup and the 63-degree eggs.
+Prestige Hong Kong