Hungry Lawyer: La Cantoche, a hipster bistro in Sheung Wan that needs to up its game

La Cantoche, a French slang term for “canteen”, opened in Sheung Wan in 2012. It is located just off Hollywood Road, a few hundred metres west of Man Mo Temple. French expatriates have for the past few years been one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in Hong Kong with a current population, as estimated by the French Chamber of Commerce, of around 25,000 people.

Sheung Wan, in addition to hosting a good portion of these new Gallic arrivals, has over the past two decades been ground zero for the slow and steady gentrification of the old Chinese neighbourhoods west of Central. The new Sheung Wan, especially in the side streets around Po Hing Fong or Tai Ping Shan, has a definite hipster vibe that wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn.

The exterior of La Cantoche

Befitting the location then, La Cantoche has carved out a niche for itself as a hipster French bistro complete with a foosball table, a vintage and fully functional Super Nintendo video game console, a wall of Polaroids and faux graffiti.

The fully functional Super Nintendo console

Over the past few years, I have become a regular patron of La Cantoche either for a drink, HKD5 game of foosball, maybe a pear tart downstairs or dinner in the somewhat more formal dining area upstairs. I have generally appreciated the hearty and down-to-earth bistro fare. However, on my most recent visit after a hiatus, I found the food to be somewhat disappointing.

On the plus side, the roasted camembert cheese with potato noisettes (HKD228) from the appetisers to share menu remains a decadent and delicious way to start a meal. At La Cantoche, a whole wheel of camembert is placed in a shallow ceramic bowl and baked, causing the cheese to ooze into the pan from betwixt its tangy skin.

The cheese reaches the table still bubbling and is served topped with two nicely baked whole shallots and accompanied by a heaping portion of fried potato balls – the noisettes – to dip into the melted cheese and scoop it into your mouth.

Baked camembert with fried noisettes and salad

A small side salad accompanies the dish to balance the flavour, or perhaps to ease your guilt. If the fried potato starts to feel too heavy, sliced baguette is also available as an additional accompaniment.

It was the mains that disappointed. My favourite at La Cantoche – and one of the chef’s recommendations – is the chicken cordon bleu (HKD188).

This classic dish of boneless chicken wrapped around slices of ham and cheese, breaded and then baked is prepared at La Cantoche with French ham and a raw cow’s milk cheese. When done right, it arrives on your plate piping hot, juicy and with the melted cheese dripping onto your fork when the breading is cut open.

This time the chicken was dry, no juice was in evidence and the cheese seemed to have been incorporated too sparingly.

A lighter main to follow the camembert and also indicated as a chef’s special, the fish foil (HKD208), is a fillet of barramundi cooked with buttery chopped leeks and capers in a very tightly wrapped tin foil package.

Fish foil

The package takes some effort to undo and when opened reveals a piece of fish with a strong fragrance of the fish itself, mixed with the pickled caper smell that has infused the barramundi’s flesh. I’ve smelled better. The fish was cooked through properly and had a pleasant texture but the flavour seemed slightly off with perhaps a few too many capers. I couldn’t eat the whole thing.

The upside of not finishing the main was that I had room left for dessert, which did not disappoint. I selected the tart of the day (HKD68) which was a lemon tart. The tart was not a refined pastry like you might find at the finest Parisian or Viennese patisseries; rather, it had more of a home cooked look and taste about it.

The crust was soft, chewy and sweet and filled with a tart, chunky lemon filling with noticeable tangy strings of lemon zest. All of this was topped with a bit of soft meringue for a very pleasing finish to an otherwise somewhat disappointing meal.

In sum, I wouldn’t write off La Cantoche. I will certainly continue to stop by for a drink, a game of foosball with friends and maybe another piece of pie. It was touching that a series of Prince videos was being displayed on the wall of the dining room on the day that he passed away. La Cantoche certainly has its heart in the right place.

It’s not cheap though and with many other options available for French food in Hong Kong including this type of hearty bistro fare (how hard is it to make melted camembert taste good after all?), it may be a while before I stop back at La Cantoche for a full meal. Next time if and when I do, I hope this restaurant doesn’t forget that it will ultimately succeed or fail on the strength of its food and not the vibe alone.

About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for nearly 20 years with 13 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network, and previously chaired the Nomura Gay & Lesbian Network, Asia. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, eight half-marathons and completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker.

Other columns from the Hungry Lawyer:

Hungry Lawyer: Indian Village, a hole-in-the-wall in the heart of Mid-Levels
Hungry Lawyer: Bashu Garden, a Sichuan gem in a quiet part of Sai Ying Pun
Hungry Lawyer: Traditional Cantonese Food with Style at Lai Bun Fu
Hungry Lawyer: Amigo, the French Restaurant with a Spanish Name Where You Can Dine Like it’s 1979
Hungry Lawyer: The Mandarin’s Stilton Cheese Soup is back!
Hungry Lawyer: Quick eats and coffee without leaving Hong Kong Land
Hungry Lawyer: The traditional and the hip of Korean food in Hong Kong

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