COCONUTS CRITIC’S TABLE – Who says you can’t find a quiet place for dinner in Central? Obviously, they’ve never strolled around Des Voeux or Connaught Road after work and heard the crickets chirping in the empty office buildings.
Aside from the five-star hotels and their fine dining establishments, at street level, Central’s business district is like a deserted ghost town – especially on the weekend.
For those who dislike rowdy crowds, there’s no better time to check out chef Peter Cuong Franklin’s new South-east Asian venture, simply called Viet Kitchen & Baguette.
The former executive chef of Chom Chom has taken his refined Vietnamese cooking to a brand new venue in the Nexxus Building.
During the day, it does brisk lunch business in pho noodles for office workers and takeout bahn mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwiches) for those chained to their desks.
On this Saturday evening – despite only opening about a month ago – the place is near empty. In my opinion, the rather common name, which sounds like just another ordinary Vietnamese joint, doesn’t do its cuisine any favours. If I wasn’t aware it’s the new destination of Chom Chom’s former chef, I wouldn’t have given it a second look.
We have our pick of tables and settle on a booth normally intended for four. Good luck trying to get this much elbow room for a meal in SoHo, Sheung Wan or Kennedy Town.
It’s a very basic menu, much smaller than Franklin’s former establishment. As the server explains the dishes, we’re directed to a few specials on the wall, including the tasting option of the Pho Flight, four mini bowls of pho with a different meat topping – chicken, roast duck, beef and pork (HKD88 for the four bowls).
This option is only offered at night, when leisurely diners have more time to savour variety, in contrast to the lunch clientele, who just want to scarf down a big bowl of chow and get back to work.
The chicken with the chicken-base soup was the freshest tasting; the succulent duck had infused much of its gamey flavour into the broth so needed more basil and coriander to cut through the richness; the beef was very good with slices of sirloin and a sweet, clear soup; the pork belly pho was the only one with a spicy kick.
Overall it was a fascinating experience to try the four side-by-side.
Among the smaller plate items, it was a bit disappointing the signature Steamed Pork and Shrimp Ravioli was sold-out, especially since the place was empty. We were left wondering if it’s more like a fragrant wonton or an Italian-Vietnamese steamed rice roll. Maybe we’ll never know.
The Lemongrass Crispy Silken Tofu (HKD68) wasn’t as aromatic or savoury as we’d hoped and needed to be drenched with the accompanying vinegar and fish sauce dip.
A clean-tasting appetiser was the Roast Duck Rice Paper Rolls (HKD88), which packed lots of crunch from julienned cucumbers, lettuce and carrots, and sweetness from the plum sauce. For the price, they were a bit tight with the duck meat, though.
The Claypot Chicken (HKD148) was very intriguing with its shallot, garlic and caramel sauce flavour profile. In fact, the taste was not of cooked sugar but of honey, caramelised onto the skin as it was grilled – not unlike the typical Hong Kong-style BBQ, where a smokiness is burnt into chicken over charcoal.
The fact that it was finished in the claypot kept the meat moist and tender, but the downside was that the prized crispy skin became soggy. The pot contained four pieces of breast and thigh meat which was incredibly tasty, and if you peel off the skin, it becomes a very healthy and flavourful main course.
As an example of just how small the menu is, Viet Kitchen doesn’t even offer the standard sticky rice and mango for dessert. Instead, the choice was between two in-house Saigon-inspired gelati: Vietnamese Coffee or Basil Mint (HKD58 each). The Vietnamese basil isn’t as powerful as its Mediterranean cousin, so a strawberry coulis helped the scoop along nicely.
Basil Mint Gelati
Despite the snazzy bar in the centre of the restaurant, Viet Kitchen is not likely to become a hipster hangout the way Chom Chom has. But there’s something to be said for delivering simple, smart fare in a relaxed environment.
Part of me hopes Viet Kitchen doesn’t become the talk of the town so it can stay my secret hideaway.
Viet Kitchen & Baguette, G04 & G06 Nexxus Building, 4 Connaught Road Central, (852) 2806-2068.