It was pretty big talk from the Press Room Group — a promise that was literally hung high above the streets of Wan Chai in big, bold typeface that The Pawn redux would be “worth the wait”. Although The Pawn did kickstart the transformation of Wan Chai into a dining destination in its own right, the British gastropub had become a little tired over the last few years.
Cue the sleek marketing campaign featuring well-known local creative talents and the reveal of heralded British chef Tom Aikens as culinary director, a man who knows a bit about a brand rebuild, having gone through a pretty highly publicised one of his own during the global financial crisis.
“I’ve always been very determined and thick-skinned,” replies a stoic Aikens when asked if, during that time (which saw the closure of one restaurant after just six months’ service and the subsequent sale of another two), he ever thought he’d cook again.
It was a period that sent Aikens — to this day, the youngest British chef to ever be awarded a Michelin star, receiving two at age 26 — crashing back down to earth, while also helping him realise that he needed to operate better in accordance with the ever-expanding job description of today’s chef.
“As well as cooking, there’s a lot to consider,” Aikens says about these increased responsibilities. Running a kitchen from a perspective other than in his chef’s whites is something he clearly gets — talking about The Pawn’s menu, he discussed both the food and its “price point”.
He’s the first to admit, however, that changing the “crap, non-existent” management skills of his younger self has brought increased success. Aikens has a network of chefs he trusts, and acknowledges that if that weren’t the case, he wouldn’t be able to expand internationally.
“It’s not just a question of saying ‘Okay, let’s do one restaurant in Hong Kong, let’s do one restaurant in Dubai, I need 10 chefs for this, and 10 chefs for that’,” says Aikens.
“You need to have someone at the top who understands who you are and how you work and what you want out of this concept or vision. If you don’t have chefs that have worked with you, then it becomes a much more difficult business to run.”
Indeed, each of the three small open kitchens at The Pawn is headed by a chef who has worked directly under Aikens at one of his other sites. It’s perhaps this perspective that distinguishes Aikens from other international chefs who have planted flags in here — rather than expansion for expansion’s sake, Aikens seems a man determined to continue challenging himself.
The new Pawn is pretty much unrecognisable from the old. Gone is the stuffy if consciously colonial vibe of the first floor bar; in its place is an open, clean and modern design, heavy on the rendered concrete and accents of lighter coloured woods, and featuring large-scale, specially commissioned artwork by local artist Stanley Wong.
The upstairs dining room follows this aesthetic, and also hints at Aiken’s affinity for fresh produce and botanicals (there’s also a roof garden) with plenty of greenery dotted throughout the main dining room, spacious private room and open kitchens. Alan Lo, co-founder of the Press Room Group and the creative mind behind the redesign, has created a space that is at once luxe but comfortable, the way modern fine dining should be.
“I wanted to create something that was that balance between high end, but also good honest British cooking,” said Aikens about his vision for the menu at The Pawn. And while it’s not a Tom Aikens restaurant per se, the menu features several of the chef’s signatures, but with a local twist — a touch of five spice here, for example, or a jasmine tea emulsion there.
The duck liver ‘parfait’ (HK$200), for example, is prepared rillettes, layered with perfectly crispy skin and seasoned with the aforementioned five spice. Though the thin long toast was bit hard to control, it only served to enhance the deceptively simple flavours in the surprisingly light but completely moreish dish. Another starter, a creamy and smooth house-made ricotta (HK$95), is prepared fresh every morning, and served with a pool of aged balsamic and olive oil and dried herbs with a thicker, slightly sour toast. Ricotta has no right to be this tasty.
The stand out starter was juniper-marinated venison, served with beetroot snow and smoked beetroot with a puréed pea smear (HK$230). Microherbs and florals added colour and just the right amount of textural offset to the sweetened, diced protein, which itself had a pleasingly unexpected depth of flavour belying the size of each piece.
The venison reflects Aikens’ approach to presentation, which he describes as ‘unstylised’. Listing his food heroes as Pierre Koffman and Joël Robouchon (having worked under both), his presentation takes its cues from the example set by the former — “naturalism on a plate”.
“Once you start pre-arranging things, ‘This must go here, this must go here, this must go here and it must form a very neat rectangle’ or whatever, it looks a bit tried and contrived.” And while the venison dish is pretty, it’s not to the point where you don’t know how to go about enjoying it.
For mains, perfectly cooked brined pork belly (HK$250) was given earthiness by fermented grains, saltiness by dehydrated crackling, sweetness by braised onion and fried onion rings, and was brought together by a ‘botanical’ miso glaze.
The beef burger ‘extraordinaire’ (HK$180) is no misnomer — a perfectly seasoned and constructed rib eye patty brought to life with a subtle, smoked cheddar, sticky plum jam, and three (yes, three) types of onion: fried, braised, and a generous serving of caramelised. Aikens can be forgiven the cheeky hubris with its name, because this is hands down one of the best burgers in Hong Kong.
The dessert menu too provided good insight into the reinterpretation of the traditional that Aikens dishes up. A violet and chocolate éclair (HK$80) is a creamy, fragrant throwback (and is also topped with some of the most perfectly tempered chocolate we’ve had in a while), while the lime leaf and basil panna cotta with macerated strawberry and black olive dust (HK$80) is a multi-layered masterclass in marrying elements of texture and flavour.
Listening to Aikens talk about British food, it’s easy to make a connection between its story and that of The Pawn: “There’s always been a love affair with it, and I think it’s really got a new, improved name for itself,” he said.
“I think 10 years ago, people were pretty horrified at what British cuisine stood for in terms of ‘classic’ British dishes. And I think over the past few years, people have definitely seen a marked improvement in what it is, what it stands for and how it’s interpreted.”
The Pawn, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, +852 2866 3444, www.thepawn.com.hk
MORE: See pictures from The Pawn’s grand reopening party.