I don’t think canteen food normally tastes this good…
With Hong Kong stuffed to the rafters with fine-dining restaurants it makes such a refreshing change to have a slew of casual, humble and reasonably priced eateries opening up. This city, as always, has a habit of flooding diners with restaurants of the same cuisine in a short space of time, and recently it has been French food following hot on the heels of the Spanish and Mexican invasion. But before the likes of the cosy Les Fils à Maman and Bistro du Vin, the funky La Cantoche opened its doors to the public back in July. My girlfriends and I first popped round soon after its opening, (yes, yes, I know I’m really behind on the posting, but better late than never! I have returned since, but have done nothing, till now, except stare at the poor quality photos I took). I love that La Cantoche (‘The Canteen’ in French), is tucked away off Hollywood Road and if you spot the small sign on the corner of the side street, it points you in the right direction. The glass entrance is bright and cheerful and the eye is drawn to the foosball table and the colourful, graffitied, white-washed brick wall inside.
I arrived early and was greeted by an ebullient David Sung, the French-born owner, who gave me a huge smile and welcomed me like a long-lost friend. His equally buoyant staff ushered me upstairs and settled me at a table in front of a wall projection of an awesome, old-school kung-fu film which I gazed at, mesmerized, whilst waiting for the girls. When I pried my eyes away, (I’m easily distracted by TV, am such a child), I managed to drink in the rest of the decor and liked what I saw. The interior is very minimalistic, with a mix of concrete and white brick walls, cement flooring and almost playground-like primary-coloured chairs. It has a hip, industrial feel but it doesn’t try too hard to be achingly cool.
Our waiter was brilliant. Introductions were made, water provided and the menu explained. David later came up and took time to tell us a bit of his background. The menu is simple and pretty much a hark back to his childhood, with French, homey comfort food a mainstay. His mother grew up in Vietnam, which explains the Vietnamese influence in the appetisers and salads. A lot of the recipes are his mum’s and the joy on David’s face as he talks about his dishes is quite infectious.
We started with the Boulettes Viet, two herb-infused meatballs skewered and balanced over a salad of cabbage and carrots dressed lightly with nuoc nam and lemongrass. The meatballs were a tad overdone, their bottoms overly scorched, but I could taste the potential within and would definitely give them another go and hope that they are less eagerly cooked. The salad was lovely though and saved the dish.
The Rice Krispies de la Cantoche were great and warrant a bit of fun DIY- wrapping the puffed up rice and Vietnamese-spiced minced pork combo into a lettuce leaf before taking a big flavoursome bite.
The Goat’s cheese spring rolls, (Nems au Chèvre) were incredible. I loooveee goat’s cheese, and love it even more when its in all its gooey, melty glory, which was the case with these golden delights.
The mains selection is concise with seven hearty dishes to mull over. All come with a side dish of your choice- including potatoes three ways, ratatouille and buttered macaroni. I have a massive weakness for mashed potato, and David was not kidding when he said I would want to cry with joy after one mouthful of his creamy Purée maison. It was seriously potato heaven. My girlfriend was obsessed with the pommes noisettes, (something I’ve not had in many years since my less than enjoyable French exchange when I was 13 years old), which are these glorious bite-sized, crispy golden potato balls hiding mashed potato inside. Our waiter was starting to think we had a carbohydrate problem as we also ordered the frites. They were very helpful as well, as we were able to get half portions of our potatoes to make room for some peas and carrots and the ratatouille.
Anyway, back to mains, and I ordered the Cordon bleu, a beautiful breaded, then fried cutlet of tender chicken breast rolled around ham and soft cheese. For me, this was the most outstanding dish, made more mouth-watering by my generous slathering of mash. The roast chicken (which I had the second time I went) gets my vote for second best dish followed by the Poisson Papillote, (fish wrapped in foil), which my friend had on our first visit. As we unwrapped the foil, a billow of steam was released, revealing the delicately textured fish with a lovely buttery sheen from basting in its own juices.
The desserts are definitely worth attacking. I’m pretty much in love with their M&M nougat ice-cream which was absolutely divine. It’s playful presentation reflected the essence of La Cantoche, and us girls couldn’t help but ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’ over every spoonful. We were also in raptures over the crème au chocolat which would make many a chocolate addict happy. At this point, David then popped up with a slice of his ridiculously yummy chocolate cake sitting in custard. If you want to win over girls’ hearts, this is the way to do it.
We were utterly replete with sugar. With smiles on our faces from the chocolate high, we got ready to settle the bill and give a good tip (there’s no service charge, so it’s up to you, but they deserve it!), but not before David produced 3 shot glasses of vodka, toasted our health and gave thanks for visiting La Cantoche. The best bit about the shots? The naughty glasses reveal a naked lady at the bottom when you’ve downed your drink. Ooh la la!
I love this place. It’s fab to have a laid-back spot to hang out and enjoy simple, good food with your mates. Even though I’m not French, I can pretend to be one for a few hours and hop over there for a slice of ‘home’.
Chopstixfix rating: 4/5
La Cantoche, 5 Wa Lane, Sheung Wan, 2426 0880. Mon-Sat midday-3pm & 7pm-10.30pm. Closed Sun.