Tag Archives: The Pawn

The Pawn restaurant review – the Pawn identity

UPDATE: The Pawn has since been renovated with an entirely new menu!

So we’ve talked history, we’ve worried about heritage and we’ve waxed lyrical about the views – but what about the restaurant itself? Well, it’s safe to say that The Pawn acquits itself fairly nicely on the food front as well.

So what does The Pawn have in common with The Press Room Group’s other restaurants (The Press Room and SML)? Amazing attention to detail, that’s what. Part of what makes all three of those places real dining experiences is that no expense has been spared on the décor, the ambience and the little niggly things that all contribute to giving you a great feeling about eating there. Consequently, The Pawn makes the most of its old shophouse setting – airy high ceilings, balcony seating, long iron-grilled windows and decoration that totally fits with the simple grandeur of the place.

It feels like a comfy dining room. Not a posh snooty one where you daren’t clatter your cutlery, not the one in your gran’s sitting room with the conked-out sofas, but somewhere nice in-between. The chairs are proper rustic wooden dining chairs, with embroidered cushions and arts and crafts style engravings, but all slightly different so it’s obvious they weren’t just bulk bought from Ikea. There are strips of beautiful bespoke floral wallpaper (designed by HK artist Tsang Kin-Wah) that, when viewed up-close, is basically pretty graffiti. There’s lots more honest brown furniture that feels old without feeling ancient, like it had a life before The Pawn rather than being created especially for it, whilst the famous HK pawnshop symbol recurs throughout, on their personalised crockery, restored on the wall outside and even on the platter that your bill arrives on. Add a few Hong Kong touches, like simple dangling plastic ceiling lamps and views over bustling Wan Chai with the audible dinging of passing trams and you have beautifully-executed design that’s obviously had hours of thought poured into it but that still feels relaxed and unobtrusive, rather than fake and try-hard. As you may be able to tell, I loved it.

Meanwhile, the menu is pure British gastropub. Ham hock, bone marrow, liver, hearty portions of red meat and mash in various guises, sticky toffee pudding, apple crumble… but all posh-ed up, with modern chef-y twists and served in a becoming manner, hence just about justifying charging $180 for a plate of fish and chips.

The lunch deal, however, is pretty amazing. $150 for three generously-sized courses of such quality is fantastic value and bizarrely, cheaper than ordering any single main from the a la carte menu.

I started things off with pumpkin and ginger soup, definitely only suitable for those that don’t mind their soups being sweet. Despite it being part of the set, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they hadn’t stinted on portion size and despite it being a piping hot day, I was pleasantly surprised that my piping hot soup still felt summery. It was rich, thick and creamily sweet and I loved the warm fuzzy kick that the ginger gave. There were also two glazed crispy toast type things providing a snappy crunch that complemented the soup perfectly.

Onto my main of Dover sole, with a lemon butter sauce, mash and assorted leaves. When my boyfriend tasted it, he commented ‘The sauce is the best thing on there.’ He was absolutely right, begging the question: why wasn’t there more of it?! One of my pet hates (can you tell I watch too much Masterchef?!) is when sauces are dribbled about for artistic effect rather than actual consumption. Yes, it looked pretty, but it tasted even better and I wanted more! My fish was nicely-cooked and, combined with what little drizzle there was, tasted lightly lovely, but the mash was oddly cold and there was too much of it (a problem endemic with mash in general). And, to me, leaves will always be just leaves.

My boyfriend had the fish and chips. I tested the waiter was genuinely curious and asked what type of fish it was – sole again, apparently. Given how thin sole is, chef did well to fry this without making it dry and flaky. It was soft and moist, coated in golden crispy batter that was just about the right thickness. We knew it’d be a good ‘un when my boyfriend stuck his knife in and it crackled and crunched nicely! The boring peas would have been better as mushy peas, with some appropriately chef-y twist like mint and again, the overall portion was huge. But the chips were the star. In Hong Kong, you’ll get served a lot of supposed chips, with very few of them equating to anything like a British chip. French fries, frites, wedges, criss-cut, curly, julienne, slightly fatter frites but still definitely not chips, very obviously formerly-frozen chips out a bag – we’ve seen it all. These chips were the real deal. Reassuringly fat, crispy on the outside, meltingly soft on the inside, piping hot and made from quality spuds, they were just about the closest I’ve come to real chips so far in Hong Kong. Steak-cut slabs of gold.

Finally, dessert. Otherwise known as heaven. It was a banana walnut cake with toffee sauce, which I was ordering mainly for the toffee sauce, hoping it would be similar to the a-maz-ing butterscotch sauce in SML’s profiteroles. I don’t even like banana walnut cake… I’m now banana walnut cake’s biggest fan. Often, banana can be an overpowering presence but here it was a pleasant fruity undertone and the earthy flavour and crunch of walnuts ran through the cake, in addition to some very Chinese candied walnut clusters on the top (often seen as appetisers in Chinese restaurants). The sponge was light and I’d practically scoffed it all before I realised I’d started. But oh, the toffee sauce! I’m in raptures just reliving it now. Sticky, gooey, dark, rich, sweet, syrupy caramel. I would have licked the plate clean if I could (and as you can see, I gave it a good go with my spoon!). My boyfriend kept catching me give little gleeful grins as I set about demolishing it; I think I was hugging myself with delight by the end. Imagine the infamous scene from When Harry Met Sally and you’re probably not far off.

So yes, the prices are a little steep. Yes, the food is not really aiming at Michelin-starred ingenuity. And yes, you’re paying as much for the atmosphere as for the ingredients. But for a special occasion, a luxurious lunch or just because you fancy treating yourself, I think it’s worth it. And if you really can’t stretch to it, just shimmy up to the roof garden instead!

The Pawn, 2F, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, 2866 3444

Banner photo from Urban Renewal Authority’s website

Pawn Again: views from The Roof Garden @ The Pawn

When I used to work in Wan Chai, my colleague and I used to dawdle about the streets until the dying seconds of our lunch hour, bemoaning the lack of pleasant public spaces in the area where we could sit and avoid returning to the office for as long as possible. Little did I know that one such place did exist and could have saved us from being harangued by strippers and grimacing over grotty tattoo parlour displays in the streets of WC.

The Roof Garden (and yes, those are real plants and they’re gorgeous), on the third floor of The Pawn restaurant, is a quiet haven from the heaving hubbub of Wan Chai. It offers spectacular views over the city, a chance to drink in the different styles of architecture and savour the fact that somehow, a little piece of old Hong Kong has been preserved. Admittedly, preserved by becoming a set of swanky restaurants, but preserved nevertheless.

Photo contrasting the old Woo Cheong Pawnshop with the new development, from HK Man’s Flickr, which you need to check out like, now. Hundreds of amazing photographs like this comparing old and new HK.

The Pawn occupies the former premises of century-old Woo Cheong Pawnshop (hence the name), a set of four tenement houses (known as “tong lau”) originally built around the turn of the 20th century. “Tong lau” were unique to Hong Kong and Southern China, balcony-type shophouses featuring a mixture of Chinese and Western architecture, where the ground floor was usually devoted to a family business whilst the upper levels were residential. These ones have four stories, with high ceilings, French windows to the balconies, verandahs facing Johnston Road and other typical Tong Lau features that you can see in some of my photos, like the balustrades and decorative urns on the roof, which have been restored and revitalised. Columns on the ground floor supported the upper levels, forming a covered pedestrian arcade – a feature more HK buildings today could do with, saving us from the beating sun and dripping air cons!

Another nice little detail – the shophouses did not have toilet provisions. Instead, the “nightsoil” was collected by government scavengers at night from the pail latrine (i.e. a bucket). How do I know all this stuff? Well, upon visiting the Roof Garden, you’re met by an attendant from the Urban Renewal Authority (who bought the building in 2003 and helped restore it), bearing a pamphlet snappily entitled “Welcome to The Pawn Roof Woo Cheong Pawnshop Building Cluster”, full of such interesting facts and photos! Apparently, this was a response to The Pawn not exactly encouraging non paying-customers to enjoy the Roof Garden but I certainly had no such problems on my visit. Sadly, the attendant didn’t speak much English so couldn’t answer any of my other questions – like whether some of the racks on the roof were actually from the Woo Cheong Pawnshop itself (they definitely looked rusty enough!).

The preserved terrazo front sign for Woo Cheong Pawn Shop

It’s easy to get frustrated with Hong Kong’s attempts (or lack of) at historical preservation. Many old buildings have ceded to anonymous modern developments already and it always seems to be an uphill battle to prevent sites of historic interest from being ripped apart and swiftly following suit. Although it isn’t exactly ideal that these century-old tenements have survived as a luxury commercial development sold to the highest bidder (with Woo Cheong shunted out elsewhere in Wan Chai to make way for them), I’d rather concentrate on being happy that it’s survived at all, that a stunning part of it is easily and freely accessible to all and that The Pawn has put real effort and thought into making the most of its setting and history (review of the restaurant itself here!).

[And what with The Press Room Group paying homage to the pawnshop, having previously done so with The Press Room itself (its name references the Overseas Chinese Daily News / Hua Qiao Daily newspaper, the 1920s residents of that building), perhaps they’re getting a taste for this kind of thing?!]

View showing the orange lift going up the side of the Hopewell Centre, which at the time of its completion (1980) was the tallest building and first circular skyscraper in Hong Kong

As for the Roof Garden – well, the pictures speak for themselves, don’t they? (As ever, click for enlargements.) It’s a spot of serenity with absolutely breathtaking views and a humbling sense of heritage. (And it would be absolutely great for a private party as well, they have a bar and everything!) There is also a small computer screen attached to one of the columns downstairs as part of the Wan Chai Heritage Trail (quite how it hasn’t been carted off by some hobo yet I’m unsure) which details some of the history of the area – including jaw-dropping maps showing how much land has been reclaimed. Basically, I’d have been standing in the sea!

Whilst we were enjoying having the place to ourselves, my boyfriend wondered when Hong Kong’s legion of “helpers”, who swarm in the thousands upon HK’s various public spaces every Sunday in a sea of fried chicken, hip-hop dancing and piercing babble (making many such areas impossibly crowded and near inpenetrable to the average pedestrian… never mind the amount of debris and mess left at the end of the day – will save that rant for another day!), might discover it. So get down there before they – or anyone else for that matter – does and savour this hidden oasis set in the midst of our concrete jungle. Enjoy.

Ding-ding!

Photos showing the redevelopment and restoration

The instantly-recognisable HK pawn shop logo. Wikipedia reckons it represents a bat (signifying fortune) holding a coin (signifying benefits). The character in the middle is the symbol for pawn shop, the two upper characters the name of the family who own the shop.

Roof Garden, 3/F The Pawn, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai.

For more information and photographs about the restoration and preservation of 60-66 Johnston Road, check out the Urban Renewal Authority’s website here.