The friend with whom I’d eaten at Maxim’s Palace had also taken me to a Thai restaurant that night. It was a nice meal but not at the level of the best places in Los Angeles (I’ll write it up soon). The next night she wanted to take me to her favourite Vietnamese restaurant. I resisted, saying I wanted to eat as much Cantonese food as I could while I was there. Because you want to eat like a local? she asked. Yes, I said. Well then, she said, you should also see the city a bit through the eyes of the locals you know, and we want to take you to the places we go to a lot. This is how we ended up at Chôm Chôm in Soho, just the kind of restaurant I would never have gone to on my own—a trendy, small-plates place with no reservations and long waits that looks like it could be in any major world city. And it was a very good meal.
Soho is higher up the hill in the Central district and is dotted with little cafes, bars and restaurants. As far as I could tell from walking around the area during the days and evenings, these cater largely to white expats and tourists, and are generally far shinier and more expensive than the noodle shops on Wellington. Of course, there are inexpensive and casual places higher up on the hill as well, and expensive places down below too, but the general observation is correct, I think (if I’m wrong, please correct me below). Hong Kong does have a large well-heeled expat population working in finance and so on. Many of them seem to work and live in Central, and as far as I could tell, having walked past it a few times, most of them are gathered outside and inside Chôm Chôm on most evenings.
As I said, Chôm Chôm does not take reservations. They have an informal seating area right outside where you are welcome to wait and drink. In this manner the restaurant seeks to emulate the ethos of Vietnamese bia hois, or at least to evoke it for wealthier people: from what I can tell, actual bia hois in Vietnam are far more downmarket affairs. We got there at 7.30’ish and were told we’d have to wait a while. We wandered around in front of the restaurant for a bit and then scored a small table on the precarious porch outside. Here we drank some cold drinks while waiting for a table—gin and beer for my friends and some white wine for me. The beer is in a large ice bucket—you go grab one and they keep track. I think it may have taken close to an hour to get a table, but it was nice sitting outside, watching people go by, and so it didn’t feel like a hassle.
The interior is very much Modern Contemporary: small tables, crowded together; a large bar; noisy. The chef previously operated a private Vietnamese kitchen on Wellington—Chôm Chôm was opened in partnership with Black Sheep Restaurants, a group that has opened a number of similarly trendy places in the city in recent years. The menu is not very large and consists of Vietnamese classics put through the contemporary cheffy filter. There is no pho on the menu, though there is a dish that involves pho-cooked meat. Instead, there’s lots of dishes involving rice noodles, lots of salads, and quite a bit of deep frying. Flavours are bright, spicy, smoky; textures are often crunchy. It’s casual food done with care and it all tasted very good.
To see what we ate, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for comments on the experience as a whole and to see what’s coming next.
All of this plus drinks came, I’m going to guess (in the absence of the bill), to somewhere between $50 and $60 (US) per head. Not cheap but I’d be very happy to pay it in the Twin Cities for a meal of this quality—and I hope to find out in 2019 how much of this is approximated by Hai Hai in Minneapolis. As for the rest of the experience, the restaurant is loud but not so much so that we had trouble hearing each other at our table. And despite the wait, you’re not hassled or rushed in any way when you’re inside. If I lived here I’d stop in often too. And oh, I asked: Chôm Chôm is the Vietnamese name for rambutan (our server didn’t actually know this but tracked down somebody else who did).
Up next from Hong Kong: it’s back to noodle soup and wontons at two more shops at the bottom of the hill. Before that, however, I’ll finally have my report on drinking and touring the micro-distillery at the Dornoch Castle Hotel in Scotland in June—maybe as soon as tomorrow.