Vietnamese street food reaches SoHo
Vietnam's street food, just like the country's economy, has thrived in the past two decades. Colourful, light and bursting with flavour, it's a vibrant yet subtle cuisine that keeps flavours bright with abundant fresh herbs and balanced chilli, nuoc mam fish sauce, lime juice and spices. In a country that has adopted more than a few elements of two of the world's great food cultures - French and Chinese - there is an obsession with fresh ingredients and dedication to detail.
It can even be seen in the exacting technique of the street cook whipping up mouthwatering snacks from a "kitchen" that fits on a bike.
Chef Peter Cuong Franklin first introduced his interpretation of contemporary Vietnamese cuisine to Hong Kong in a much-praised (now closed) private kitchen in 2011. When business partners came on board and found a space in SoHo, the search for a new concept was on. A trip to Vietnam helped.
"What really struck us was the bia hoi culture. Eating on a street corner is a very Hanoi experience."
Serving only freshly brewed beer, no-frills neighbourhood hangouts sprawl along city pavements. It is a fun, down-to-earth night out, backed by a relentless soundtrack of motorbikes, horns and cars. As endless glasses of the low-alcohol, cheap bia hoi flow, street food and bar snacks are consumed with enthusiasm.
Adding outdoor dining was not an option on Peel Street, but the bonhomie of Vietnam's street-side bars and dedication of the single dish street food vendors served as inspiration for the new Chôm Chôm.
The result is a relaxed restaurant and bar with a short, highly focused menu. Among the fresh salads, rice rolls, snacks and sizzling charcoal-grilled dishes are twists on street food favourites and fresh interpretations of well-known Vietnamese dishes.
Having grown up in Vietnam's Central Highlands, learning to cook in his mother's noodle shop in Dalat, Franklin later graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Paris with a Grand Diplôme de Cuisine and Patisserie.
The influence of French cuisine on Vietnam's food culture, as well as Franklin's understanding of both styles and techniques, shines in his interpretation of each dish and his many-layered approach to building flavour.
Like many famous chefs, Franklin visited the 100-year-old Cha Ca La Vong to see how that restaurant creates the Hanoi-style cha ca, a sole dish with turmeric and dill. The venue built its reputation on this dish.
"I wanted to understand what makes this dish classic, what makes it special, and to see how it's made," he says. "That's definitely a French-inspired dish, and the way it uses dill is very unusual in Asia," he notes. Referencing the French classic sole meunière, he created a new, more subtle yet stunning cha ca. "I'm very proud of that dish, because we are respecting the French technique and refreshing the dish as it is eaten in Vietnam. All the same elements are there."
While steering clear of a menu that tours the country, Chôm Chôm offers a few regional dishes. Shaking beef is a Saigon-style dish of beef tenderloin in a rich sauce of 15 ingredients, served over watercress and rocket for more texture. Spices and curry flavours are ramped up for the grilled beef in betel leaves, a "small bite" dish from central Vietnam, where the historic trading port of Hoi An was a conduit for bringing spices and curry into the nation's cuisine.
Bun ca pork skewers are inspired by the classic street food pork belly snack dish found all over Vietnam.
"With our [skewers] all the elements are there. It's more French, our marinade is different, but we keep the noodles, the herbs, the flavouring sauce and two kinds of pork, then put it on a skewer to change the presentation.
"I understand the dish, and have also embedded some of my interpretation into the dish.
"I want people to know there is a lot more to Vietnamese food than just pho, and coffee and Vietnamese sandwiches, and to offer a different approach to some other dishes."
Pho does not appear on this menu but its signature herby zing makes an appearance in the pho rolls, which wrap up copious amounts of herbs and beef in rice paper. Like many dishes it is paired with a specific dipping sauce, one of a dozen or so the team makes.
Mint, lemongrass, lime and basil also have a place on the drinks menu in the Vietnamese-influenced cocktails, wine, plus draught, craft and imported beers. Freshly brewed unpasteurised beer is not an option in Hong Kong as yet, but Saigon and 333 Export are.