In its heyday, the original Café Locomotive on Wun Sha Street was known as Tai Hang’s best Vietnamese restaurant. But budding competition over the last few years has thrown the restaurant’s grand title into jeopardy. Not to be deterred, it recently opened a second shop in Wan Chai with the intention of proving itself, once again, as the king of modern Viet cuisine.
The Wan Chai outlet is noticeably smaller than the original shop: a tiny space that seats no more than 30, making it all a little too close for comfort. And while some of the design elements that made Café Locomotive famous remain – vintage photographs and traditional paper lanterns juxtaposed against sleek, stainless steel wine cabinets – the aesthetics are substantially toned down from the Tai Hang branch, giving both the staff and the diners more space to focus on the food.
We started with the recommended prawn and pomelo salad ($88). The bowl was a beautiful marriage of textures. Crunchy, chopped, roasted peanuts were tossed in with soft, juicy pomelo pulp and crisp shreds of fresh carrots and cabbage. It brought together a symphony of flavours, fortified by a tart, citrus zing and lifted by the small flakes of red chilli peppers. The three skewered prawns artistically positioned over the salad were all grilled to perfection. Our only gripe with the salad was that the pomelo had a slight bitter tinge to it, but it was a refreshing appetiser nonetheless and one that we happily polished off.
The rice paper rolls ($56) were stuffed with noodles, avocado and soft shell crab. It was satisfying but seemed a little one-dimensional in comparison to the pomelo salad. Luckily, Café Locomotive was back on its A-game when the beef brisket curry pot arrived ($108). This was deliciously sweet with a hidden spicy kick that built up with every bite. We fell for the generous chunks of brisket, which were cooked to chopstick tenderness. The curry comes with either steamed rice or bread rolls. We went with the latter; the rolls were toasted to a crisp crust but remained cottony soft on the inside – perfect for sopping up the flavourful curry sauce.
The signature Locomotive pho (rice noodle) with beef ($69) did not disappoint either. This was served in a bowl large enough to fit my dining companion’s head and was chock full of beef balls, gelatinous tendons, and thin slices of raw beef that cooked to tenderness in the steaming broth. Unlike so many other Vietnamese restaurants in town that flavour up their broths with MSG, Café Locomotive’s is the real deal, made by simmering beef bone with various spices and herbs. The resulting broth is rich, sweet and oh-so-fragrant – stellar stuff.
We rounded off the meal with some of their innovative desserts. The coconut rice flour crepe with mung bean ($39) turned out to be more interesting on paper than on the plate. Thankfully, the ginger lemon crème brulée with cinnamon dusted toast ($42) – a popular dish from the original location – lived up to its creamy, sweet reputation.
It’s too early to tell if the new restaurant will recapture the glory of the original Café Locomotive, but for now it’s an enjoyable meal with some lulls, some surprises, and some awesome noodle broth.
29 Thomson Rd, Wan Chai, 2528 3848. Daily 11am-1am. Meal for two: around $450.
|Venue name:||Cafe Locomotive|
11 Wun Sha St, Tai Hang