Hong Kong’s SoHo district is full of bustling restaurants and bars. Diners are certainly spoilt for choice, but there are a few spots that seem to be constantly packed with customers. Rain or shine, and even during this particularly turbulent time in Hong Kong, there is one particular restaurant situated on the slope of Peel Street that is buzzing every night of the week.
Chôm Chôm has been on the scene since 2013 and was given a bia hoi (meaning “fresh beer” in English, referring to street-side beer watering holes in Vietnam) makeover thanks to Black Sheep Restaurants about four years back. This catapulted the much-loved Vietnamese spot into becoming one of SoHo’s most popular hang-outs, with guests spilling out onto the street.
The steps leading up to the restaurant act as a vibrant watering hole in themselves. I myself have spent many evenings sipping on Chôm Chôm’s signature cocktails and Vietnamese beers on those steps. This time, I visited on a Wednesday evening, and the restaurant was filled to the brim as usual. Not an empty table in sight, groups of four crowded around tables for two and, of course, those beloved steps full of street-side after-work drinkers.
Chôm Chôm has recently welcomed a new, highly acclaimed chef to the team. Chef John Nguyen was born in Saigon, raised in California and made a name for himself in New York as the executive chef at Hanoi House. In 2017, Chef John was given the coveted title of Chef of the Year by Eater. Known for his unorthodox approach to Vietnamese cooking, Chef Nguyen uses the French techniques he has mastered as well as fresh local ingredients to breathe new life and flavours into Vietnamese classics.
Chef John Nguyen
I had the pleasure of meeting Chef Nguyen on my visit to Chôm Chôm. He spoke passionately about his new dishes and culinary roots and how he plans to continue to experiment with new dishes. Chef Nguyen is a big fan of Hong Kong’s wet markets and has found a way to incorporate the seafood found there into the menu in dishes like the grilled diver scallop and pomelo ($128) and charred king clam ($98). He also visits Vietnam every six weeks to see what dishes, ingredients and flavours are trending and to bring more inspiration into his kitchen.
For those diehard fans of the OG Chôm Chôm menu, have no fear – many of the signature eats are still available. But the new dishes and chef are certainly causing quite the stir, and I couldn’t wait to find out why.
For an amuse-bouche, I was presented with this uni toast. This is not on the menu, but it should be – the rich butter and crisp toast accompanied by salty and smooth sea urchin made this dish irresistible. Uni is not what you might expect at a Vietnamese restaurant, and Chef Nguyen mentioned that while sea urchins can be found in Vietnam’s waters, most Vietnamese people do not realise that you can actually eat them. I was already catching a glimpse of the chef’s unique culinary approach.
I had never had a Vietnamese pizza ($88) and was eager to try it. Unsurprisingly, this dish is not in any way like a pizza except for it being flat. On top of a crisp rice paper base sits sriracha mayo, braised short rib, peanuts, shallots and Vietnamese herbs. It’s a beautiful medley of flavours, with the short rib melting in the mouth and the sriracha mayo adding that satisfying tingle.
While not necessarily the most photogenic of dishes, the seared black cod on sesame cracker ($168) is definitely one of the most flavourful. Drenched in tamarind sauce, the exceptionally tender fish had a mouth-watering, tangy finish.
How do I begin to describe Chef Nguyen’s pho? Available only on special, the beef pho ($179), which comes with a Chinese doughnut (for dipping purposes), is quite honestly one of the best pho I have ever had – including the many bowls of pho I’ve eaten in Hanoi. The broth is incredibly rich, but I found myself guzzling it like water thanks to its smoky, aromatic flavour. Side note: the actual serving size is much larger than the tasting portion pictured here.
Another dish that pairs perfectly with a Chinese doughnut, the roasted bone marrow ($128) had a subtle flavour and fatty texture that beautifully soaked up the brown butter nuoc cham (fish sauce) and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) oil.
After some meat-heavy small plates, the vegan bun rau ($148) was a welcome addition of some healthy veggies. This vermicelli bowl, which is seasonal and available upon request, is made with Chef Nguyen’s vegan version of nuoc cham. He noted that Vietnam has a strong vegetarian culture and that more and more diners all over the world are embracing plant-based foods. This dish was a delicious and nutritious addition to an indulgent meal.
One of Chôm Chôm’s original dishes, the pho roll ($98) is as good as ever with its succulent beef filling, chewy noodle casing and delectable spring onion oil dressing.
There are few dishes I love more than fall-off-the-bone ribs, and these braised pork ribs and egg ($138) do just that. While I am not exactly sure what the egg adds to the dish, the ribs were so tender that you could eat them with a knife and fork (although why would you want to?), crispy and drenched in a sinful butter sauce. What more could I ask for?
Now on to the large plates (although to be honest, all the previous dishes were very decently sized), first up is the shaking beef ($228). The marinated USDA tenderloin had a Sichuan feel to it thanks to the sharp and spicy peppercorns, but it also had a tint of sweetness.
The short rib lettuce wraps ($208) are loaded with vermicelli and pho-braised short rib and topped with chilli peanut sauce. This dish was packed full of flavour, but the size is not what I would consider a “large plate”. This is the only dish on the menu that does not quite fit the price point.
Served sizzling to your table, the caramel black cod ($218) is another one of Chôm Chôm’s traditional signature dishes. The fish melts like butter. While I enjoyed the caramel sauce, I could see how some might find the sweetness overwhelming.
A popular breakfast dish in Hanoi, I actually hadn’t eaten bun cha (HK$188) outside the Vietnamese city. It’s another very rich dish made with pork belly and patties served alongside a vermicelli rice bowl. The patties have a bit of a kick, which complements the freshness of the cold vermicelli. This was the dish that made me most nostalgic about street-side Hanoi eats.
Cha ca Hanoi ($188) is a fish dish that’s starkly different to the sweet caramel cod. The white sole fillet is crusted and spiced with turmeric and dill, giving it a satisfying crunch and lightly charred finish.
After a rather heavy meal full of diverse and rich flavours, these pineapple ice lollies were a delightful finish and palate cleanser. Served with chilli salt for dipping, licking them felt akin to drinking a margarita on a hot summer’s day.
Chôm Chôm has solidified itself as a stalwart of Hong Kong’s unpredictable dining scene, and it’s honestly quite baffling how they’ve managed to ensure consistent quality and reliable, friendly service throughout the sheer volume of customers. I was blown away by Chef Nguyen’s renditions and creations; each bite of each dish was different and absolutely oozing with flavour. The beef pho, pho roll and pork ribs are a few of the standout dishes, and they won’t break the bank either. For an evening that is unpretentious, vibrant and delicious, you can’t go wrong with Chôm Chôm.
58–60 Peel Street, SoHo, Central, 2810 0850 (no bookings)
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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