On paper, Lee Ho Fook sports a flawless formula for success. Here’s the maths:
(Chef Victor Liong of two-hatted Marque + two-hatted Mr Wong) + backed by David Mackintosh (Pei Modern) + Peter Bartholemew (MoVida) + (a novel concept x booming neighborhood) = 1 x eagerly anticipated restaurant.
Lee Ho Fook talks the talk but, I was desperate to discover, could it walk the walk?
What’s the story?
Lee Ho Fook is one of the newest additions to Smith Street, Collingwood’s burgeoning culinary microcosm. Over the years, it has been fascinating to watch the previously dodgy and derelict strip, slowly and surely transition into a (less dodgy) blossoming branch of innovative eateries and bars.
The atmosphere at Lee Ho Fook is expectedly funky and modern – light shades are suspended from the ceiling by colourful ropes, and coat hooks stud the grey walls. However, the vibe is understated. The long and narrow space, with its calm lighting, creates a warm ambiance. The staff also seem to be having a ball which gives the place a sense of playfulness and instantly made us feel comfortable.
The menu, which is designed to be shared, is a new-style take on traditional Chinese cuisine. We were informed that the chef likes to ‘play’ with the dishes on offer, and this sense of creativity emerges through a punchy menu packed with deliberate and thoughtful offerings. Not a dirty dumpling or mango pudding to be seen here.
What we ate
We kicked-off our meal with crisp Sichuan picked vegetables and ‘crackers’. The pickle flavour of the vegetables was quite subtle, and the dish was laced with a peppery kick of a Sichuan paste, and a slight texture of crushed nuts. The accompanying crunchy, fried wonton ‘cracker’ was a perfect vessel to scoop them up with.
Our next dish was raw scallop and shitake mushroom, peppered with a few paper fine slivers of Chinese sausage and eschalot. The scallop was so inconceivably soft that it melted to the bite and was almost creamy. This is a testament to the high standard of produce. The sweet scallop teamed magically with the meaty texture of the shitake, the smokiness of the sausage and the light soy dressing. Another fresh and clever dish.
Our final savoury dish was saltwater duck served with red salad – a handsomely plated dish of moist duck breast poached in salt water,and adorned with bright red bitter salad leaves and translucent discs of radish. Beneath the duck flesh sat silky morsels of duck skin, which isn’t my thing, but I appreciated the textural contrast and my dining partner happily gobbled them up. A lovely clean dish.
We were then presented with a stack of crunchy, golden planks of eggplant which were so that good my dinner almost halted into slow motion. A bite into the crisp tapioca- flour batter gave way to an eruption of silky juicy eggplant, and a sticky and tangy red vinegar reduction. The eggplant was dusted with an intriguing alchemy of something like finely ground nuts, chicken salt and the trademark tongue-tingling nip of Sichuan pepper.
I wouldn’t usually prime my stomach for dessert at a Chinese restaurant but, here, dessert is a must. We therefore skipped the main dishes, and opted for the chocolate brownie with chocolate mousse, white miso ice-cream and green tea dust. The texture pairing of the airy mouse, the crunchy but chewy-centered brownie, and the cool creamy ice-cream was ingenious. The hints of salt added by the miso ice-cream and the green tea powder lifted the dish somewhere celestial.
The diverse and extensive drinks menu at Lee Ho Fook will be something to delve into on our next visit. However, on this occasion, we were unable to pass up $5 Ha Noi beer, reminiscent of balmy nights on our recent trip to Vietnam where we guzzled these down seated on plastic seats at bustling roadside bars.
Lee Ho Fook strikes at the neglected middle-market of Chinese cuisine in Melbourne with gusto and style. I really hope it weathers the concerningly high turnover of eateries on the Smith St / Gertrude Street bend. Get down there for a new take on traditional Chinese food that is playful, interesting and, above all, downright delicious.