Those who’ve been in mourning since beloved Wan Chai coffee and sandwich haunt, Café Zambra, shut up shop a little while ago should dry those eyes now that Bolaven has opened its doors in its place. The new restaurant may be a different business with a different vibe but it’s kept Zambra’s warm heart as well as its top-notch coffee.
The former café was a colourful spot with soft brown furnishings and an early 90s aesthetic (think early Friends era). But Bolaven kind of resembles a daycare centre, with a baby blue colour. That’s a big change – however the heavy Laotian presence serves as a nod to Zambra, which specialised in finely-roasted coffee from the Asian country, just as Bolaven does. The restaurant also spells out ‘Laos’ in big, bold and bouncing letters on its counter and there are poster-sized photos of smiling Laotian kids plastering the walls.
There’s a reason for all these Laotian themes as Bolaven is more than just a restaurant. It’s part of a socioeconomic rejuvenation project started by Sam Say, a Laotian refugee-turned-Hong Kong businessman who made a fortune as a commodities trader and now wants to focus on giving back to his country of origin. Bolaven’s goal is to give Laotian farmers the capacity and incentive to produce high-quality coffee beans using sustainable tools and methods. The beans can be purchased online and shipped to Hong Kong and they are also on sale at the eatery as well as in Bolavens in Laos, Malaysia, Shanghai and several other countries.
We’re impressed and warmed by all this charity. However, we’re also hoping to be impressed and warmed by the food. The menu at Bolaven spawns an array of Indochinese cuisine – from Vietnamese pho and Khmer prawn cakes to Malaysian laksa and Laotian larb salads – and it boasts about its use of fresh ingredients and no MSG policy.
The dishes we order come fairly quickly but although there’s a serious attempt at impressive presentation – all our food is served on a pretty, light wooden tray and the appetisers form a neat pattern on the side – it’s nothing to shout about. But, then again, Bolaven never really aims to be a fancy five-star spot…
Be warned: most of the dishes come with a kick. The vermicelli with barbecue chicken ($55) is harmless enough by itself but it comes served with a sweet chilli sauce which is hell on Earth and drowns out the meat. It’s so fierce, in fact, we have to request a milder one. It really would have been helpful to have been warned about the punches some of these sauces pack – so that’s what we’re doing for you now. However, the ‘spaghetti spicy beef a la lao’ fares much better, with just a tinge of spice to complement the sweetness of the noodles’ sauce. All the other dishes we try – like the million elephant larb ($55) and Khmer-style prawn cakes ($55) – are a little food courty, with flavours which aren’t bold enough to sizzle. We wash our meal down with (of course) a regular brewed Laotian coffee ($20) in all its organic and fair trade glory. As we expected, it’s strong and as impressive as the joe which Zambra used to serve up. Fans of the old café’s brews won’t be disappointed.
The food at Bolaven is barely better than your average budget Indochinese spot in Hong Kong – but that’s no reason not to like it. It’s comfortable and comforting. It just doesn’t shine. However, it’s still worth trying out due to the fab coffee and the enormous sense
of wellbeing as you do your bit for Laotian farmers in need. Janice Jann
Million elephant larb $55
Khmer style prawn cakes $55
Spaghetti spicy beef a la lao $89
Pho Phnom Penh $59
Banoffee in a cup $39
Brewed coffee $20
Total (for two) $317
Bolaven 239A, Jaffe Rd, Wan Chai, 2598 1322; bolavenfarms.com. Mon-Sun 8am-10pm.