Sunday, April 10, 2016

Weekday Urban Farm Lunch

I came to learn about this cool café/bookstore called ACO in Wanchai purely by chance (thanks to the almighty power of Facebook "recommendations"), and after seeing the posts on their Facebook page recently about the lunch they offer as part of the "Food Art Experience" project, I was intrigued by what they are trying to do and asked a few friends of mine to join me on a Friday afternoon to check it out.

ACO, which stands for Art, Culture and Outreach, is located at Foo Tak Building, an old, 14-story building at a busy junction in Wanchai. Since about 10 years ago, this unassuming building has become an unusual cultural hub of sort filled with independent art galleries, workshops, bookstores and alike, all because of the generosity of the landlord who decided to lease much of the building space to budding artists or cultural groups at a deep discount so they could develop and grow. ACO currently took up the top floor of the building as an office, café, bookstore and event space, along with almost two-thirds of the rooftop which they use as an urban farm.

The lunch forms only a small part of what ACO set out to do as they focus on social topics such as sustainable development, urban farming, and environmentally-responsible food production. For a few times every week, a 4-course vegan meal is offered based on seasonal ingredients sourced either from local organic farms or their own rooftop garden just upstairs, cooked by a volunteer chef which develops new dishes every week based on the resources in hand. All they asked in return was a suggested donation which goes towards their operations and projects.

I must admit the meal was quite a mind-liberating experience. Okay, given I wasn’t exactly a fan of vegan diet (or any restrictive dietary scheme for that matter), I thought the food itself was pretty decent. We began with  the fennel vegetable soup which was refreshing with complex flavors, thanks to the scores of fresh vegetables used including fennel and celery which they grew themselves on the roof. It certainly went well with the slices of house-made sourdough bread with rosemary.

And we couldn't have asked for a fresher salad served with many of the ingredients, including lettuces, kale, watercress and mint, literally just harvested right before landing at our table with a surprisingly sweet wedge of local tomato marinated with preserved plums. In the past as much as I am a proponent of local ingredients, I was of the opinion that tomatoes grown in Hong Kong lack intensity or sweetness to be any useful in cooking because of the lack of sunshine and heat. But I guess I was wrong – there is a way to get around to make them presentable and tasty.

I was somewhat surprised when the chef explained our pasta main course to us, with organic fusilli served with an Indian Lettuce "pesto" sauce, as a last-minute make-shift substitute to basil which they ran out. We were more familiar with Indian Lettuce (油麥菜) being a common local vegetables for sauteing than being used as a herb, but turned out it worked just as fine, giving the pasta dish a deeper grassy taste rather than being aromatic like basil or parsley, plus both the sweet potato and the mini potato which served on the side were delicious even without much seasonings. For dessert, okay, let's just say I would very much prefer a normal panna cotta with strawberry sauce instead of one made with almond milk, soy milk and cottonii (some coral algae used as common substitute to gelatin), but maybe it’s just me not quite used to that taste and that texture.

After the meal I wish I could stay longer just enjoying the quiet space, checking out their books for sale on the shelves, or walking around the rooftop farm, but I literally had to run off right after we finished the tea and coffee to catch an afternoon meeting in office. But I was curious enough to return the next day (which happened to be a public holiday) and went for an interesting guided tour by a lovely lady who tended to the rooftop farm on part-time basis. For us city-dwellers, it certainly was an eye-opener seeing all these produce being grown in such a tight space and made us appreciate so much more the efforts required to turn them into the food we eat. And we learned quite a bit that afternoon.

I definitely recommend this to anyone – it goes way beyond just a healthy lunch at ridiculously low price. It's a valuable experience indeed, making me think more about nature, sustainable farming, the balance between urban development and preserving traditional culture, and the enjoyment of food in general. Or as many of my friends would say, if I ever said anything good about a meatless meal, it has to be something extraordinary - and I must say, this is one of those meals.

When? March 24 2016
Where? ACO, 14/F Foo Tak Building, 265-267 Hennessy Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong

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