FRANCIS, SITUATED IN THE HIPSTER STAR STREET precinct of Wan Chai, has been mobbed since opening in early 2018. With its no reservations policy, save for a limited number of group bookings, crowds often wait patiently outside this buzzy venue for a table or counter seat to come open.
It’s not an easy place to pigeonhole. Founder James Ward had wanted to set up something wine-based. “In Hong Kong, the market is dominated by the larger hospitality groups, which use the same pool of wine merchants. So, lists are similar from venue to venue,” says Ward.
Francis’ user-friendly list contains about 50 lesser-known labels, with most bottles priced at HK$350 or HK$600 each, and up to a dozen wines are available by the glass and half-bottle. Ask to see the ‘little black book’, a handwritten list of hard-to-find bottles – often with just two to three available on any given day – secured by sommelier Simone Sammuri.
The ethos is to keep the list constantly updated and surprising. Wines are primarily from smaller, low-intervention producers, which have a low environmental impact.
The Lightbulb Moment
Although he had a strong wine concept, when Ward first leased the space for Francis, he had no idea what the food would be like. It was only while interviewing for chefs that he met Tel Aviv-born Asher Goldstein, who was cooking Italian food at 121BC in Hong Kong.
Ward, sensing a gap in the market for Middle Eastern food, suggested that Asher cook the cuisine from his native country instead. It was an instant ‘yes’ from Goldstein.
“Actually, the reason I signed Asher was the carrots,” says Ward.
Goldstein smokes local baby carrots, roasts them in the oven, drizzles them with a secret spiced honey mixture, and serves the carrots on a bed of almond cream. It’s a sublime vegan dish to tempt the most hardened carnivore.
The flavours are Middle Eastern, but it’s the type of dish that could “quite happily sit on a Greek, Italian or Turkish menu”, says Ward. He adds that he wants diners to see Francis’ food not as Jewish or Israeli, but reflective of the cosmopolitan nature of Tel Aviv. There is even pork on the menu, because Goldstein enjoys eating it.
Recipes From Grandma’s Kitchen
Ward is adamant that Francis is not fusion, and the flavours are true to the Middle East. Many of the chef’s recipes have been passed down from his grandmother and mother, and nearly all the spices used are sourced from Tel Aviv. Dishes are made from scratch, including the pita bread that accompanies the No. 1 dish, hummus.
“Chef takes more time and care on his hummus than any other dish. It’s the bestselling dish by far, and people come just for this,” says Ward. The production for the house-made pita sees the kitchen team rolling out 300 pitas every afternoon. “It’s a lot of labour and hard work, but nothing beats hot bread at the start of meal,” says Ward.
Nothing beats a good glass of wine, either. Ward and his team are happy for people to drop in for a drink or two without feeling like they have to sit down and have a full meal. Ultimately, he wants it to be a bar with great food, somewhere he can “turn up the music up a couple of notches and have a bit of fun”.
4 & 6 St. Francis Street, Wan Chai, Shop A, St. Francis Mansion
T: (852) 3101-9521