On the waterfront
It's Friday afternoon and Stephen Shum Hoi-kin and his team are busy preparing for the nine-course Chinese banquet with wine pairings at his Uncle Moustache restaurant, which is tucked away in the residential area of Lei King Wan. Shum, known as 'uncle Moustache' for his distinctive facial hair, has been serving his lavish Chinese dinners paired with western wines since 2003 in his Chai Wan wine cellar. Those 'private kitchen' dinners had a big following among wine lovers but back then, they were a well-kept secret.
'I loved the panoramic harbour view of my stockroom in Chai Wan, but unfortunately, the government refused to grant me a liquor licence to operate catering services there,' says Shum.
'That was the main reason I needed to relocate. A regular client offered me a price I couldn't resist to lure me to Sai Wan Ho two years ago. I got to select the shop site, so I chose this one near the garden for its landscaping.'
The waterfront area of Lei King Wan in Sai Wan Ho is now home to 20 food and beverage outlets. Marketing it as 'SoHo East', property manager K. Wah Real Estates has set up a website, sohoeast.com.hk.
More restaurants will be opening later this month and early next year. The Igor's Group will open a branch of its casual eatery, Wildfire, as well as Berliner, a German restaurant. T. Pot Bistro, operated by the Taste of Asia Group, will open opposite the Sai Wan Ho ferry pier.
Shum is celebrating his 19th year as a wine distributer; before that, he worked in the garment industry, sold eyeglasses and manufactured watches - jobs that allowed him to taste food and wine from around the world on his business travels.
The interior of Uncle Moustache is decorated like the dining hall of Merryvale Vineyard in the Napa Valley, whose wines are on Shum's list. The menu is a collaboration between Shum and his executive chef, and a typical meal might include a signature dish of 'lamb in the middle of a group of tigers' - named after a Chinese idiom, and consisting of minced tiger prawn meat wrapped around small lamb chops then deep-fried, paired with Confin Winemakers Reserve Pinot Noir 2007; and crisp beancurd skin stuffed with escargots matched with a mildly creamy Merryvale Starmont Chardonnay 2007.
A stone's throw away, near the Tai Hong Street waterfront promenade, the atmosphere is more vibrant. The happy hour revellers crowd places such as Tapeo Bar de Tapas y Vino, which opened in April. Concept Creations restaurant group owns the two-year-old original Tapeo on Hollywood Road, and when the management heard about the SoHo East area, they saw that a branch of the popular restaurant would fit right in, says marketing manager Natalie Belbin. 'The location faces the harbour and the atmosphere during lunch, dinner and on the weekends is vibrant. There are a lot of people living in this area, and the company is happy to have expanded to this hip area.'
As with the original location in Central, the Tapeo in Sai Wan Ho has bar seating around an open kitchen, but also has a few tables by the windows to capture the open-air feel and sea breeze. The restaurant is open throughout the day, and serves Tapeo classics such as crispy pork belly with quince alioli; slow-cooked octopus with capers and paprika; stuffed piquillo peppers with mojo verde (filled with veal, pork and almonds) and sardines a la plancha with romesco sauce.
Modern Thai eatery Thai 11 became Tapeo's neighbour in August. Don Chan Ching-yee, her three partners and Thai-Chinese executive chef Om I Pongsiri make a conscientious effort to offer authentic, innovative MSG-free Thai dishes made from fresh ingredients.
Pongsiri, who first came to Hong Kong in 1993 to work at Saipan Restaurant in Sai Kung, says, 'I spent years working in five-star hotels in Thailand and Hong Kong. I discovered that to [introduce] one new dish to the menu I had to go through bureaucratic channels, meetings and then wait... At Thai 11, I get the chance to flex my creative muscles. I can design the menu and experiment with fusion dishes at my own pace.'
His creations include minced pork salad rice paper roll, steamed snapper served in hot pot, and western-influenced grilled rack of lamb with red curry sauce.
Chan, who offers wine pairings with the meals, says Thai 11 benefits from the fact there are no other Thai restaurants in the area. But her business is highly dependent on the weather. 'Good weather is crucial for business. The summer season attracts more visitors - it's hot, but we have nice sea breezes,' she says. 'In winter, people tend to stay away from the harbour, and they prefer warming food, so we make dishes such as Thai-style hot pot rice and braised crabs with vermicelli.'
Shum says the main drawback of the area is the lack of foot traffic - there are no offices, shopping malls or cinemas to attract casual passersby, so the customer base is made up of residents, regulars and curious tourists.
But those living in the area love the convenience, says Belbin. 'During the weekends, SoHo East is alive with families and their pets. The restaurants often get together to put on events for various holidays.
'Having so many restaurants in one area entices the residents and people in surrounding areas to make their way here on a frequent basis. It's a positive effect,' she says.
It would seem this quiet little residential enclave is developing into a destination that just might rival its more traditional namesake in Central.
Feast in SoHo East
(All outlets can be found in the block around Tai Hong Street)
Tai Hong Street
Nice King Shing Chinese Cuisine, tel: 2872 6228
Yi Jiang Nam, tel: 2136 0886
Tapeo Bar de Tapas y Vino, tel: 2513 0199
Te, tel: 3188 1439
Homely Fragrance Shanghai Restaurant, tel: 2568 9098
Thai 11, tel: 2513 6011
Chit Chat Oyster & Grill, tel: 2967 1666
Eastern Coast, tel: 2977 5422
Jack's Terrazza Ristorante, tel: 2885 6728
Borgo C, tel: 8100 8446
Beira Rio, tel: 2568 3993
Rio, tel: 2886 0268
Matsu, tel: 2904 8084
Asagno Bar & Karaoke, tel: 2967 6856
Ajijman Japanese Restaurant, tel: 2539 0098
Gitone Gallery and Private Kitchen, tel: 2527 3448
Marmalade, tel: 2884 4428
Rokkon Teppanyaki, tel: 3749 9116
Uncle Moustache (above), tel: 2967 6764
Sapporo Japanese Ramen Shop, tel: 2568 7678