Monday, October 31, 2011

Cantopop 港土茶記 (Hong Kong)


Cantopop has been opened for quite some time and it got quite some attention in the media at the beginning thanks to its sustainable dining concept carried throughout its chain of restaurants such as Linguini Fini and Posto Pubblico. It is not until recently that I finally got a chance to visit Cantopop. It was by invitation (which nowadays seems to be a very popular thing amongst restaurants but I do have something to express on this point on a later post, so stay tuned) but my experience at Cantopop was a pleasant one with a few misses of course. I will explain why a bit later but one thing I have to say is that I admire and support their sustainable dining concept by sourcing locally and minimize food wastage by using all animal parts if possible, but the question is where to draw the line at times. I am spending quite some time to writeup this post because I think there is a need to, a need to express my opinion in all perspectives which may or may not be different from the general public or even fellow foodies.


Many will notice the sheer amount of negative reviews out there on Cantopop's food especially the often criticized Homemade Luncheon Meat and Homemade Char Siu (inspired by the commonly known BBQ Roast Pork in Hong Kong). Let's get the story straight here, at least to my humble knowledge. Cantopop is more or less a cross-over of two ideas / concepts, 1) sustainable dining in Hong Kong & 2) "Chinese tea café" aka cha chan tang. It is actually quite smart to link the two concepts, cha chan tang being a unique dining category in Hong  Kong and setting up a restaurant under this theme by offering locally sourced ingredients sounds like a plan right? I certainly think so but it is for the same "linkage" that got itself the negative reviews out there. Comparisons are being made to the "finest details" with traditional cha chan tang, be it the food, the atmosphere and the greasiness of the food as well.

Take the Luncheon Meat for example, Cantopop make their own homemade luncheon meat using locally sources pork and tends to be very lean compared with ... ... . See, I almost made the same comparison with traditional canned luncheon meat used by many cha chan tang. Why are we comparing? Simply because they named it luncheon meat so we instinctively would compared with the canned version we are very familiar with. However, in my opinion, the so-called "homemade luncheon meat" by Cantopop is not luncheon meat, it is a sort of ham. If we treat this as a piece of homemade ham, would it result in a different valuation? It is an open question by the way. The same applies to their homemade sous-vide char siu (roast pork). Again, the problem here is the naming if you ask me, if they name it different, the response would be different. Obviously the way they are making their luncheon meat and char siu is greatly different from the so-called tradition method, can we still name them so and judge them accordingly? Maybe I am being ignorant here but why sous-vide cooking could be judged on its own category while homemade "ham" inspired by luncheon meat cannot?


This post is going to be more of a overview rather than an item by item review because I fell like doing it this way for a little change. For better or worst, it is up to you to decide but I do like a little change in style once in a while. I honestly like the homemade "ham" aka homemade luncheon meat be it the in the Homemade Luncheon Meat and egg sandwich or the Luncheon Meat and Egg Rice. Quite lean yet flavorful, did not overpower the flavors of the egg in both dishes. If you are looking for traditional "spam" which I am a great fan of, then better visit another store.


One of the featured items was their homemade soup which was made without MSG. Actually if you ask their staff or PR, one thing they do stress would be the fact that they DO NOT USE MSG in anything, hence the lighter flavors in all their dishes. It is a known fact their items are light in flavors or some may say under-seasoned. However you like to put it, they would say we don't use MSG.


Okay I get it, there is no MSG in any of the dishes but without the use of MSG does not mean dishes had to be light in flavors right? What happened to soy sauce? I am sure there are many locally produced soy sauce brand which they can use and make suitable dishes from it right? The objectives of no-MSG and health-focus do not need to be at the expense of flavors in my opinion. They just need a little twist on their menu I think.


One of my favorite dish of the night got to be the Luncheon Meat Egg Fu Yung which was basically a huge egg omelet with various ingredients in there. When having dinner at Cantopop, the sustainable dining concept might be kept in mind throughout the meal because there can be occasion whereby you want to complain about the texture of the lettuce or shrimps but once you recall how they sourced them locally you may phrase your concerns differently. Instead of asking why ... one may ask, how do you ensure consistency in food quality when you source almost everything locally? 


I think by now you will notice from the images that many of the dishes have one thing in common, egg!   Yes most if not many of the items we tried that night contained egg. Their egg is actually the so-called Musical Eggs which means the chickens listened to music throughout their life in the farm. You can actually find these type of eggs everything in Hong Kong but it seems Cantopop is proud to present it in more items than one can imagine. If you are an egg lover like me then you will be fine but if otherwise, pick something else perhaps. I think Cantopop tried very hard to push out as many relevant items as possible in order to fit within their sustainable dining concepts that some ingredients will be repeated a little too often. Then again, it is good to be focused right? Each to his own ...


One thing Cantopop differs from other Cha Chan Taeg, you can have Champagne here. Whether this is a good thing on a Monday night is totally a separate issue!


It was a rather complicated experience here at Cantopop, not that I don't like it, I do to a certain extend but I think they can work on the menu and present itself with its own identity and personality and not merely a reflection or shadow of Cha Chan Taeg. They can create their own category perhaps, a category that put more focus on the sustainable dining concept yet "sustaining" the ... food creativity (ie:: homemade items) without the need to let go out necessary flavors.


I do think it is worth at least a try if you are in doubt (especially from the many reviews out there) and BE YOUR OWN JUDGE! This brings me back to one of the most frequent asked question on my blog, why no ratings for my reviews? It is because I believe when it comes to food, the most important is what you, the actual diner, prefers; I am merely here to share my experiences in a factual way as best as I can for readers to decide. Of course I am entitled to my own opinion you may disagree as you please, I actually welcome your opinion as well, so feel free to drop me a note anytime!

UG/F, The L Place,
139 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong
Tel: 28572608


e_ting said...

A really interesting post, I like this "style"! I think you're quite right about the branding issue. If they call it char siu, we (or at least I and all the other naysayers) expect char siu. But by referencing something familiar, they also appeal to diners, because otherwise a technical term like sous-vide alone may alienate your average Central luncher. The egg fuyong looks quite good btw - it's hard to get it in HK (despite everyone overseas thinking it's a common Chinese dish!). We tried to get some from the takeaway menu at Yung Kee but they said we had to wait half an hour! Might try it at Cantopop.
I think the personality you speak of will come with time, and perhaps also some slight tweaking of the marketing message - I'm sure they're reading your post and will take your advice!
And I just wanted to reiterate - I like this pensive style! More, I say!

Razlan said...

Great post, and very succinctly put. I didn't read any reviews of Cantopop before going, and so my take on its food was based entirely on my own judgment and experience. You would have known I didn't have a good one from our Foursquare discussion. The "crossover" is definitely confusing for (1) diners like me who will definitely compare it to the typical char chaan teng, and (2) health-conscious diners whom will like the concept of sustainable eating but wondered if this is what HK-cafe-style food is about. It is a niche in the market, but a shoe that is hard to fill. The question is, is there such a demand for such a niche in the market? Debatable. Only its profitability in the long run will tell.

Edena said...

Great post, J! Agree it's all about perspective. A change in the marketing strategy will help though. It is after all sustainable healthy eating and living they are after, no?

Jason said...

@Edena: I reckon if this concept is executed in UK then its start would be quite different. They may want to change the idea of cha chaan teng from being a place for hearty food to local joint with healthy options but sometimes something will never give. I think it should change its focus to CCT inspired resto, then again that's just me! :)

Geoffrey Wu said...

Dear Jason,

On behalf of IHM and Cantopop, thank you very much for your review on Cantopop which we will share your post with our team. Thank you for your visit on the night and may I wish you a wonderful week ahead.

Should I be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us directly.

Yours Sincerely
Geoffrey Wu

Director of Communications

Jason said...

@Janice: yeah, a slight tweak in the marketing may be the trick but we will see in time how this will turn out. I still think the concept is a solid one just how they decide to execute it would determine the final outcome.

As I was talking to @Razlan, the have time and recourses to figure it out. With their own "farm" and several restos to back it up in any case. Their sustaining dining concept goes beyond individual resto I think, it is a concept for their operation as well in terms of semi-centralized supplies chain. Quite smart way to do it if you ask me. It seems Cantopop has a mission to achieve so let's wait and see how things will turn out and then return for a visit!


Unknown said...

What a great and honest post as usual. I also encountered similar issues when visiting Cantopop over a few separate visits as you probably already know..

For me the whole concept of having sustainable and ethnically sourced ingredients and being all of home-made is what enticed me to give it praise for its effort - but at the end of the day I do also treasure taste and versatibility, as well as execution (well, that affects taste lol)

I think Cantopop has the potential. But from my point of view, short term pain is good for the longer run rather than juggling between whether to support its underlying concept or just give them direct feedback. There are certainly dishes that I like, but equally others which needs addressing to! But if Posto Pubblico has set an example for the group, hopefully they will eventually rebound and become a leader in leading forward this responsible and ethical movement of approach. :S

gary s said...

I think the beauty of its positioning as cha chaan teng is that it can be anything and everything. That gave them a platform to keep inventing new items on the menu using a limited set of ingredients (essentially what a local cha chaan teng does) and do 家常小菜 (Cantonese home-style cooking) with a twist!

Of course the musical egg and homemade luncheon meat blah blah blah gave them the much needed hype to get people's interest in the opening, and if and when they can grow out of it by putting ppl's focus back on local ingredients, sustainability along with solid cooking, it does provide an unique alternative for comfort, no-nonsense food.

Of course in many ways it's still a work in progress but I do admire their vision of trying to do something different and finding ways to improve. We definitely need more of these in local food scene.

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Suzanne said...

Good read! Nice and honest review with valuable feedback! Keep it up!:)

Miss C said...

I was in HK for a couple of months earlier this year and it would have been great is this place was open then. Great review and totally agree with what you said about perception and comparison.

As for "What happened to soy sauce?", I could be wrong - but perhaps it's because most of the soy sauce in HK contains MSG? That's what I noticed on the ingredients list. I can't remember the brands, but L** K** K** for sure - there's MSG.

Blogger said...

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