I must admit to feeling slightly apprehensive about reviewing Chachawan, the new launch from the creative minds behind 22 Ships and 208 Duecento Otto. Although these stars in Hong Kong’s dining scene have provided me with some memorable gourmet moments in recent years, they don’t specialise in a little known cuisine from the Isaan region of Thailand. A quick Google search of the latter threw up the following fact: “The people of the Isaan region famously eat a wide variety of creatures, such as lizards, frogs and fried insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms and dung beetles.” Help!
Chachawan is located at the increasingly trendy end of Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan and thankfully there isn’t a creepy crawly in sight. The vibe is relaxed but chaotic: street food meets street style. Chef Adam Cliff hails from Australia and is something of a rising star in Thai cuisine. He worked under David Thompson, arguably the world’s most highly rated Thai cuisine chef, at Sailors Thai in Sydney, and the London and Bangkok branches of Nahm. For the past five years he has been at Bo.lan in Bangkok and Kha in Singapore and is now fluent not only in the complexities of Thailand’s food but also its language. His reason for specialising in Isaan cuisine at this new Hong Kong launch is that it’s different, new and very distinctive.
Isaan food is influenced by neighbour Laos so things usually kick off with a salad. We tried pounded green papaya with cherry tomatoes, chilli, crispy pork and a sweet and sour tamarind dressing ($108). What looks like a pleasant palate cleanser is fiery hot and aromatic. Isaan flavours are intense with a salty and sour balance that will leave you intrigued from the first bite. Unlike the more common cuisine of Central Thailand, there’s almost no use of coconut milk, and moderate flavours are replaced with an intense chilli heat.
Other starters included lap, similar to larb. Lap bet ($118) is a combination of chopped duck meat, shallots, spring onions and mint, with a spicy/sour dressing. Intriguing flavours again, though the texture seemed underwhelming.
Mains were the stars of the show. Gai yung is a chicken thigh marinated for 24 hours in garlic, pepper, coriander and grilled until crispy ($158). The meat is accompanied by traditional sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and a sumptuous smokey dressing, jhim jeaw, made from dried red chillies and toasted rice.
We also tried goong golae, whole tiger prawns smothered in dry red coconut curry and grilled over fire with fresh lime ($178). The prawns were enormous and the curry paste, although giving out some serious signs of chilli heat, surprisingly mild and almost fruity.
Chachawan is a gastronomic voyage of discovery and in a city where almost every culture and cuisine is represented; it’s quite a feat to have come up with something new. The restaurant currently is BYO but there is an impressive list of mocktails, teas and soft drinks.
You can’t reserve a table and it’s a small space so my only complaint is that demand for Adam Cliff’s unique take on Thai cuisine may result in demand far outstripping supply.
Must try dish: Pla phao glua, salt-crusted whole seabass stuffed with lemongrass, pandanas and lime leaf, cooked over fire with a green chilli dipping sauce (HK$248).
G/F, 206 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan