The wait is finally over. As we previously reported, Black Sheep Restaurants announced plans to bring Soul Food Mahanakorn, one of Bangkok’s most popular eateries, to Hong Kong this fall — and it’s ready to soft open this week. We recently got an exclusive first look inside the space and a taste of the menu, so read on for our initial impressions.
Helmed by American food-writer-turned-chef Jarrett Wrisley, the 38-seat space in Soho aims to recreate the fun, funky vibe that’s made the Bangkok location an institution since it opened six years ago. The narrow dining room immediately creates a convivial vibe, as do the lively music selections and the open kitchen and bar area. Much of what you’ll see in Soul Food — plates, bowls, glasses, decorations — was sourced in Thailand, including the large digital collages, created by a Bangkok artist, which depict the Thai capital as an urban mash-up of cultures and buildings.
As for the menu, Wrisley is serving up what might best be described as Bangkok shophouse cuisine, which is itself a conglomeration of flavours and ingredients from various regions of Thailand. As Thai cuisine has become streamlined and industrialised — anyone can buy a packet and curry paste and mix it with coconut milk — the chef has chosen the opposite approach, hewing closely to traditional methods and what he calls ‘labour-intensive cooking’, adding that ‘my recipes take a lot of time, the curry takes seven hours’. There’s a large focus on making nearly everything from scratch, and using high-quality-local ingredients whenever possible, though the chef is importing items that can’t be found here, via his established relationships with Thai farmers.
Wrisley also pays close attention to seasoning and spice because he wants diners to ‘taste the ingredients’ rather than, say, MSG or spicy chilli pepper — ingredients commonly used to cover up low-quality produce and bad cooking. His goal is to give each dish nuance and ‘roundness’, allowing for appreciation of spicy and sweet components as well as aromatics. In other words, his aim isn’t to overwhelm your taste buds with one dominant flavour, even though some diners seem to gravitate towards extreme tastes these days. There’s a certain element of irony in a white American chef preparing Thai recipes that are more traditional (and of better quality) than you’ll find in much of Bangkok, but Wrisley says there’s proof of his success in the fact that, even as he’s introducing younger diners to a different style of cooking, the older generation of Thais find his food familiar and authentic.
The menu represents the best of the chef’s travels around Thailand. To start, there are addictive, two-bite chicken wings topped with a fragrant cashew and lemongrass salad — an instant bar-snack classic. Similarly, there are southern Thai samosas filled with chicken and cumin, and grilled pork jowl meant to be wrapped in lettuce with chillies, fried garlic, peanuts, ginger and tamarind jam; both make nice cocktail companions.
Yam makrua yao is a sour, smoky Bangkok classic made with grilled eggplant and soft-cooked duck eggs, plus mint and coriander, forming an unctuous salad of sorts. For curry, there’s the pleasantly surprising gaeng hang lay, a Shan/Burmese recipe featuring tender pork belly that’s been braised with ginger and garlic and soured with tamarind, a far cry from the sweet or spicy curries many diners are used to. In total, the soft opening menu features just over a dozen dishes — no noodles yet — but expect the list to grow soon.
For drinks, there’s a list of wines that have been selected specifically for their ability to pair well with Thai food, as well as a selection of five cocktails, including a twist on a traditional Aperol Spritz made with pomelo, though that number will expand over time as well to match the ambitious cocktail list at the Bangkok location.
Though Soul Food Hong Kong is in its early days, it’s already clear to see that Wrisley and his team are offering something unique and successfully managing to stand out from Hong Kong’s other Thai restaurants. With its laid-back vibe, high-quality cooking and those irresistible chicken wings, this is yet another spot we’re happy to see joining the ranks of Black Sheep Restaurants.
Soul Food Hong Kong, 26-30 Elgin Street, Soho, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2177 3544, soulfood.com.hk