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Chef John Nguyen first appeared our radar last year when he joined Black Sheep Restaurants as the new head chef of Peel Street’s beloved Chôm Chôm. No stranger to the gourmet world, Chef Nguyen became known for his unique culinary approach when he was voted Chef of the Year 2017 by Eater for his work at New York’s Hanoi House. At Chôm Chôm, he positively wowed us with his delectable and creative Vietnamese dishes.
When he parted ways with Black Sheep, Chef Nguyen hoped to moved to Vietnam, however, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, this was not possible. This prompted him to begin his new venture in Hong Kong, XUÂN. We were thrilled to hear that he was going to remain in Hong Kong and even more excited with the prospect of a new modern Vietnamese hang-out.
Chef John Nguyen
Named after 18th-century female poet Hồ Xuân Hương, the restaurant is spacious and adorned with some gorgeous artworks of the poet. Hồ Xuân Hương became known for her risqué and forward-thinking works, and the restaurant itself takes a progressive approach to Vietnamese cuisine.
XUÂN’s menu is deceptively simple, broken up into three sections: salads, starters and mains. This is where the simplicity ends as the individual dishes reveal complex and innovative flavours. Aside from the current menu, daily specials are also available as well as a range of Vietnamese cocktails and craft beer (coming soon).
Our meal began with the braised beef tongue salad ($118). This is one of those ideal cooling summer dishes made up of crunchy green mango, fresh herbs and succulent beef tongue. We had another variation of this salad with fried pig ears that I could not get enough of. Chef Nguyen aims to use the whole animal when cooking so as to minimise waste and highlight unusual flavours and textures.
These garlic chilli prawns (off-menu) were as unbelievably delicious and juicy as they were photogenic, with just the right amount of spice. Garlic is a prominent flavour throughout the menu, but I am of the firm belief that you can never have too much garlic. Some may disagree, but they are wrong!
The cha gio, or crispy spring rolls ($128), are filled with crabmeat and fresh grouper straight from Hong Kong’s wet markets. While these spring rolls were tasty, they were not particularly memorable, and the greens were not as fresh as I would have hoped.
We sampled two of the pho available on the menu: beef prime rib pho ($138), made with 12-hour Angus prime rib, and chicken pho ($128), made with local three-yellow chicken. I was excited for the pho, having sampled Chef Nguyen’s pho as a special at Chôm Chôm. These pho are noticeably northern in style, served sans bean sprouts with pickled garlic and an insanely addictive mixture of chilli and chicken fat. There are few pho in Hong Kong that even come close to these decadent slow-cooked broth and noodle bowls. The 24-hour beef and 12-hour chicken broths are thicker in texture owing to the fatty ingredients, and they absolutely explode with flavour. It’s hard to pick between the two, but if I had to choose, I would pick the chicken broth along with the melt-in-your-mouth Angus beef. Can we please have a superpho, Chef?
The com ga, or Hoi An chicken rice ($168), is essentially a Vietnamese version of Hainan chicken rice. This sharing dish is made with local three-yellow chicken, chicken meatloaf and turmeric and garlic chicken rice and topped with a perfectly fried sunny-side-up duck egg. The rice is wonderfully fragrant, and while the plate may seem a bit overwhelming, the flavours complement each other well.
Same same but different, the com tham thit nuong, or classic broken rice platter ($178), does away with the chicken rice in favour of crisp bean curd sheets, white rice and a choice of topping. We had the pan-seared sea bass fillet, which was lightly charred and grilled to perfection. This dish is a great choice for pescatarians, however, I don’t think I would choose this option over that moreish chicken rice.
There are many things to love about XUÂN – the atmosphere, the passionate staff and the unbeatable pho being just a few. It is still early days for the restaurant, and it seems that, in some ways, they are still finding their feet. However, XUÂN shows tremendous potential, and I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with next, especially considering Chef Nguyen’s love for culinary experimentation.
18 Lun Fat Street, Wanchai, 2891 1177, firstname.lastname@example.org
This write-up is based on a complimentary media tasting provided in exchange for an honest review and no monetary compensation. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s.
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