Searching for Kevin Lim’s new restaurant feels a bit like a treasure hunt. Weaving through the streets of Sheung Wan, you won’t find this place sitting along Des Voeux Road Central, next to the glow of the iconic Western Market. Instead, you’ll have to duck into a secluded side street, where a nondescript grey façade is punctuated by the bottle-green window frames that are synonymous with old school, hole-in-the-wall eateries across the city. Walk up the steps, take in the mismatched turquoise tiles, the word “MEAN” emblazoned above the bar in statement-making copper and neon, and the unmistakable air of conviviality.
Two years ago, architect William Lim invited the Zolima CityMag team to enjoy dinner at his studio. Now it’s Kevin’s turn. The designer-turned-chef recently opened a contemporary noodle shop called Mean Noodles, and we were eager to check it out.
The first wave of guests are immediately greeted by Kevin’s brother, Vincent, and his wife and business partner Elaine Lu. The duo run interdisciplinary architecture firm Lim + Lu. Their father William, meanwhile, is the founder and managing director at architecture and interior design studio CL3, while their mother Lavina is also an interior designer in her own right. Even Kevin and his wife Caroline Chou have their own interdisciplinary design firm, openUU, which was Kevin’s primary career focus — until he opened Mean Noodles last summer.
When I mention our last feature about the Lims, Vincent recalls the occasion with a laugh. “That was a special one,” he says. “Somehow it had actually never came up before — that we’re a family of designers.” The brothers and their parents even all studied their trade at the same school — Cornell University in the United States.
Kevin appears soon after, sporting a red cap and a denim overall with the restaurant logo in one corner. He’s here to welcome and briefly chat with the group, but he’ll be spending the majority of the evening preparing the delicious dishes and drinks that we are set to enjoy. There are a number of comments from the guests on how hidden the restaurant is — we weren’t the only ones who had gotten a bit lost, apparently. But Kevin reveals that the obscure location was selected intentionally. “I was inspired by speakeasy bars,” he explains. “With a lot of them, you have no idea how to get in or how to locate them. I wanted to tag along with that whole trend and create more of a destination for people to come for the purpose of having a good time here, not going ‘I saw that restaurant, I’m going to go and try it’.”
A noodle shop might seem like a somewhat odd side project for a designer, but Kevin has been cultivating a love for food ever since he was young. “My interest started developing more after I went to college and lived with friends,” he says. “I became the designated chef of the house. It was fun. That’s when I started creating and playing more with cooking.”
So strong was his interest that he went on to pursue a culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu, being one of only four students in his year to graduate among a class of 21. He then went on to work at East-meets-West fine dine Blue Ginger in Boston. Is that where the idea for Mean Noodles first emerged? “[Mean Noodles] really grew from my roots,” Kevin says. “My grandfather is a Malaysian immigrant, so I went to Malaysia a lot as a kid. Every time we went back, I ate more Malaysian food and my flavour palette increased. I liked Southeast Asian flavours because of how bold and intriguing they are. I didn’t see lots of those ingredients while training as a Western chef.”
Soon, the restaurant is packed from wall to wall with family and friends — many of whom are gallerists and other art industry professionals who are gearing up for Art Basel madness — all engaged in lively conversation while the wine and cocktails flow. The family booking out the restaurant for private parties like this one is a fairly regular occurrence, and their enthusiasm for Kevin’s project is palpable. William helpfully distributes plates at one point, while Caroline, who masterminded the restaurant’s interiors, explains some of the dishes. We nibble on laksa-battered chicken wings and fries and sip on Southeast Asian-inspired cocktails such as the Ginger and Tonic and Lime Mojito while mingling the crowd. All the while, Kevin is busy behind the bar — stir-frying on the stove, pouring drinks, laughing with the restaurant staff, and graciously accepting compliments from guests.
Soon enough, we’re seated along the bar and at counters along the wall, not unlike a ramen shop. It’s time for the main event: the noodles. We start off with the laksa, a mix of egg and vermicelli noodles topped with egg, fish cake, chicken, water spinach, sambal, and a single juicy king prawn, which is followed by the Hokkien mee, filled with shrimp and octopus. By that time, our stomachs are almost filled to the brim, so the last dish of the evening — the char kuey teow — is passed around among us.
As its name would suggest, Mean all about the noodles. Kevin initially focused on five dishes: Penang Hokkien mee, Nyonya laksa, Vietnamese pho, char kuey teow, and Thai yen ta ho feng. The menu has since expanded to eight dishes, with plenty of appetizers to join the mains. “For me, noodles are a comfort food,” Kevin says when asked why this choice of focus. “Most Chinese people prefer rice, but I prefer noodles.”
As the evening draws to a close, dishes of coconut mille crepe and pandan flan are brought out for a sweet end to the meal. A contented lull falls over us as we enjoy our desserts. It’s the silence of an evening enjoyed to the fullest and of well-satisfied appetites — reactions that Kevin finds most rewarding about the project. “The most fruitful comments we’ve gotten are that we’ve managed to create a really authentic flavour,” Kevin says as the night winds down. “My aunt from Malaysia tries to stop by whenever she’s in Hong Kong, and she commented that we’ve managed to turn street side hawker food into more elegant dishes. I was honoured to hear that comment from her.”
Kevin’s genuine love for what he does is contagious — we find ourselves filled with renewed appreciation for good food and good company. When we finally bid Kevin and the Lims goodbye, as the evening edges towards late night, we do so looking forward to the next time that we can come together over a delicious meal.
Mean Noodles is located at Shop 4, 148 Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan, but the entrance is in the back alley.