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Urban Renaissance
Get High on Wan Chai

By Lynn Fung | Oct 09, 2008

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It’s all happening in Wan Chai. The beleaguered district was once best known for its run-down buildings and seedy saunas, but with a number of high-profile regeneration projects, reasonable rents encouraging small businesses, and several brand-new luxury apartment blocks, the district is booming. To meet the demand, new shops and restaurants have been springing up all over. Here are the three streets to watch.

St. Francis Yard

The area around St. Francis Yard is quietly transforming into a fun shopping and eating destination. A combination of low- and high-rise residential buildings, it has an eclectic range of shops, from petite French restaurants to ground-floor nooks selling curios.

Shop

Kapok
Relocated from its Tin Hau premises just a month ago, Kapok (5 St. Francis Yard, 2549-9254, ka-pok.blogs.com) is proud of its status as an outlet for creative designs. You can find anything in this Aladdin’s Cave, including candles, T-shirts, CDs, books, wallets and accessories, all part of owner Arnault Castel’s collection. He showcases products by up-and-coming designers as well as finely crafted items from all over the world. “If the shop were in Causeway Bay or Central, the high rents would require me to sell what people want, not what I like,” says Castel. “And shops nearby are doing the same. I think this will make for a very interesting
environment here.”

Art

Hulahoop
Sitting among the residential blocks and family-run shops of Sau Wah Fong, Hulahoop (23 Sau Wa Fong, www.hulahoop.hk) is a hidden gem in this corner of Wan Chai. The tiny gallery has an important mission: to promote local young and promising artists. Since its opening last November, it has staged eight exhibitions featuring photography, contemporary art and sometimes offbeat paintings and illustrations.

Eat

La Fleur
La Fleur (16 St. Francis Yard, 2866-7337) aims for French rustic chic. Produce is imported from France three times a week and the menu includes seafood like fresh oysters, clams and escargot, and game such as quail, duck and game hen. Our favorites are the quail and the escargot, which are a fraction of the price of fancier European eateries nearby.

La Fête
Dining at La Fête (1/F, Block 3, Hoover Towers, 15. St. Francis St., 2893-5891) is like going for dinner at a bohemian friend’s place. It’s cluttered with trinkets and curios, a piano in the corner opens up the possibility of drunken sing-a-longs, and everything is served in an informal family style. The private kitchen only opens when there’s a booking, whereupon chef Malki treks up to North Point that day for fresh seafood (a must-try is the seafood platter). A six-course meal comes in at $380 per person.

Dining Wok
With the help of a team of ex-chefs from the Ritz Carlton, American-Chinese eatery Dining Wok (12 St. Francis St., 2861-2722) has successfully carved out a bizarre niche, catering to homesick New Yorkers craving a taste of Chinatown. Located in a 60-year-old Chinese building, it serves up all the classics: crab rangoon, General Tso’s chicken, moo-shu pork, but without that layer of grease that so often comes with American-style Chinese food.

Olala
Olala has three outlets in the area—Olala on Electric Street, Olala Charcuterie on Star Street and Olala Noodleshop at 33 St. Francis Street (2294-0426). While the first two are no doubt respectable restaurants in their own right, it is Olala Noodleshop that has attracted the most press with their $150 bowl of noodles. While they are indeed pricey, the deluxe braised beef noodles—with succulent beef and a rich hearty broth—are worth trying at least once.

Sun Street

Getting to Sun Street is a bit of a hike, but it’s well worth it. A mixture of one-of-a-kind shops and quality eateries have made this peaceful terrace their home.

Shop

Chen Mi Ji
Chen Mi Ji (4 Sun St., 2549-8800,www.chenmiji.com) is not just another thrift (read: trash) shop. Most of the items in this vintage furniture store are in sound condition. Rather than just tables and chairs, you can find everything from a baby stoller to an old-school thermos. Chen Mi Ji doubles as a gallery, displaying paintings by contemporary artists. Its founders also do art direction, photography, and graphic and web design.

Sonjia
Sonjia Norman, the Korean-English owner of this fashion boutique and homeware shop (3 Sun St., 2529-6223,www.sonjiaonline.com), moved to Sun Street three years ago. And fitting in with the bohemian vibe of the street, her strong sense of individuality comes across in the products she sells. Each piece in this beautifully laid-out store is either one-of-a-kind or imported from overseas.

Eat

Chez Patrick
Hailing from Lyon, chef Patrick Goubier offers simple and hearty French fare with less salt, cream and butter than is usually associated with Gallic cuisine. Located close to Pacific Place Three, the restaurant (8-9 Sun St., 2527-1408) offers short two-course lunch sets for $149 as well as daily specials made from the choicest produce available that day. Don’t forget to save room for the scrumptious desserts made by Goubier’s wife, Xuyen.

Spoil Café
Spoil Café (Shop 1-1A, Sun St., 3589-5678) is usually full for lunch and booked out for private parties at dinnertime. Trying to reserve a table there is an aggravating experience, but is it worth the wait? Top marks must be given to its location: on the corner of this quiet street, the tiny shop is a veritable oasis. The food is more commonplace, though by no means bad. The avocado and mango salad with prawn is worth a taste, as are the pork chops and the divine carrot cake. Don’t forget to bring cash and don’t even think about getting a walk-in table.

Naturo+ Wholesome Food
Between Chez Patrick and Spoil Café is a small unassuming store called Naturo+ Wholesome Food (6 Sun St., 2865-0388). While there are some vaguely healthy-looking pastries and sandwiches, presumably stuffed with bran and other fibrous goodies, what’s more interesting is the wide variety of what owner Ellen sees as organic, wholesome and untainted food. Honey from Yunnan, free-trade-certified rice from Thailand, fruit juices from Europe, sauces from Yuen Long, as well as various organic wines and oils are all piled on the shelves.

Wing Fung Street

Right next to Three Pacific Place, Wing Fung Street is your lazy Sunday destination. Packed with coffee shops and galleries, it’s an ideal spot for unwinding after an indulgent meal at one of the many restaurants and cafés in the area.

Art

Agnès b.’s Librairie Galerie
Fashionistas are drawn to Agnès b.’s clean minimalism. Pity they all too often miss out on the designer’s gallery (1/F, 18 Wing Fung St. 2869-5505). Climbing the flight of stairs up to this white space is just like visiting Paris. Peruse through their regular exhibitions of experimental and daring art.

Eat

Classified Mozzarella Bar
Classified Mozzarella Bar (31 Wing Fung St., 2528-3454) is the latest outpost of the rapidly expanding Press Room group. While the Cheese Room in Soho serves French cuisine, its sister outlet offers more casual Mediterranean fare. A concept wine and cheese shop that imports artisan mozzarella from Italy twice a week, it has communal tables that play host to daily soup, pasta and paninis, as well as private dining. For $500 per head, the store can be booked out for a party of 24 with a choice of three appetizers and four mains (choices include roast lamb, chicken, seabass and short ribs), shared family-style.

Xi Yan Sweets
Don’t be fooled: Xi Yan Sweets (8 Wing Fung St., 2833-6299) is much more than just desserts (though the sweet menu is more extensive than at most Chinese restaurants). It’s part of local TV chef Jacky Yu’s culinary empire. Once his private kitchen, Xi Yan became so popular that he decided to take his enterprise mainstream with outlets inside G.O.D. and Elements. His style is a fusion of Chinese with Southeast Asian influences and signature dishes include Zhenjiang spare ribs and drunken duck egg in Shaoxing wine.

Ooi Botos Gallery

A walk through the wet market is usually a fairly artless experience. But walk past some fruit stalls, a butcher and a game arcade in the Wan Chai Wet Market, and you’ll find yourself at the red-gate façade of this unique art gallery.

“The choice of the wet market was a beautiful accident,” says Joanne Ooi, co-founder of Ooi Botos. “It is very unexpected and off the beaten path, yet smack in the middle of everything.” Opened earlier this year, the gallery is currently showcasing Wing Shya’s manga-style photography, the first of many avant-garde exhibitions for this trailblazing venue.
5 Gresson St., 2527-9733, www.ooibotos.com

PLUS Meet four warriors who have helped shape the face of Wan Chai or check out the best bars in Wan Chai.

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