Lee Ho Fook Melbourne is one of the most hotly anticipated restaurants to open on Collingwood’s burgeoning Smith Street this year. Taking it’s name from the Chinese restaurant referenced in Warren Zevon’s 1978 song “Warewolves of London”, Lee Ho Fook is brought to Melbourne by Peter Bartholomew and David Mackintosh of Movida and Pei Modern fame and head chef Victor Liong, who has worked at Sydney’s Marquee and Mr Wong.
Liong is trained in classical European cooking and is using what he’s learned to put a new spin on old-style Chinese food or, as he likes to put it “funky new-style Chinese” that’s “produce base and technique driven”. A lot of what is on the relatively small menu comes from Liong’s experiences with family and travel and all of the food is designed for sharing.
Lee Ho Fook has been very busy during it’s first 2 weeks of operation, but thankfully when my wife, friends and I visited at 3pm on a Sunday the pace was very relaxed. The fitout is suitably funky with white walls fading to black as they reach the floor and “corded” rooftop lamps. Coat racks dotting the walls all over the restaurant had me thinking “why don’t more restaurants do this?”.
The music fits the vibe with an eclectic mix that switched from 80s top 40 to 90s house to old school hip-hop, modern pop and everything in between. I love that Melbourne’s dining scene has reached the point where Notorious BIG’s “Juicy” can start playing while you’re eating your meal and nobody bats an eyelid but more than a few people start subtly bopping their heads to the beat.
The wine list is a mix of new and old world and isn’t designed to be matched with the food per se – rather diners are advised that they should feel comfortable drinking what they like. I don’t know much about wine and more often than not I’ll order wine at a restaurant based on what I like or what sounds interesting so this philosophy is something I can definitely appreciate.
Smoked Tea Egg, Avruga and Dill ($4.00)
I’d never tried tea eggs before so was keen to see what they were like. They were as the name suggested – smoky with a bright orange gooey yolk. Very tasty.
Sichuan pickled vegetables With Crackers ($5.00)
Moving on from the interesting observation that Google’s spell check wanted to change “Sichuan” to “Sicilian”, were the pickled vegetables. Again these were quite simple, and the light, plain crackers really provided a good counterbalance to the acidity of the vegetables.
Milk Bun, Candied Pork and Salted Cucumber ($6 each)
The milk buns were essentially a brioche and the pork is not at all what we expected. It was sweet, crispy and very similar to bakkwa. It took me back to eating bakkwa at Bee Cheng Hiang in Singapore. There was also pork floss added in for good measure. I’m not sure how to explain pork floss to someone who hasn’t tried it before, but trust me when I tell you that you want this milk bun.
Raw Ocean Trout and Jellyfish Salad ($18.00)
This was one of the highlights of the meal. I was with two Singaporean friends who told me that this dish is similar to one that is eaten on Chinese New Year. You mix it all up and try to get it taller and taller, which brings good luck. It wasn’t Chinese new year on this occasion, and I’m not Asian but I certainly felt lucky to be eating such a tasty dish. The soft fish, gelatinous jellyfish and crispy “bits” on top all combined with the tangy sauce to produce a dish that was texturally varied and tasted great.
Saltwater Duck and Radish Salad ($16.00)
This dish was surprising. None of us quite knew what to expect and what we got when we pulled away the vegetables was very tender slices of duck breast with a very slight perfume like fragrance to it. It was a very light dish and was really nice.
Fried Rice ($8.00)
The fried rice was, as with many of the other dishes that we ate, surprisingly light and very tasty. Banish all thoughts of greasy, salty fried rice as this was neither.
Wagyu San Choi Bau ($28.00)
The san choi bau differed from the traditional version in many ways. Cos lettuce meant that it was eaten open rather than closed and the dish had more of a spicy kick than expected. The dried carrots (almost crisp/chip like in texture) were an interesting touch too. It all worked really well, and the wagyu beef was very tender.
Jasmine Tea Custard ($5.00 each)
The custard was creme brulee like, with subtle flavours of the jasmine tea coming through. It was tasty but be warned if you don’t like very sweet things as this was quite a bit sweeter than we had expected.
Chocolate Green Tea Brownies With Chocolate Mouse and White Miso Ice Cream ($12.00)
This dessert was a real stand-out. The brownies were delicious and had the perfect soft on the inside, crispy on the outside texture. The mousse was tasty and the white miso ice cream provided a salty counter balance to each bite – similar to what salted caramel has done for caramel.
Osmanthus Jelly ($5.00)
This was really simple and light. Osmanthus jelly on the bottom and a white peach sorbet on the top.
Head chef Victor Liong and his crew taking a moment to breathe before the dinner rush commences.
The below photo has nothing to do with the restaurant as such, but as I’m a big fan of street art I was excited to notice a mural from French street artist “Invader” next to the entrance. How long it’s been there, who knows.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype when a new restaurant opens with the sort of fanfare that has accompanied the opening of Lee Ho Fook but in this case, the hype is justified. The space is casual, the staff are really friendly and passionate about the restaurant and the food is tasty, providing interesting twists and subtle surprises on dishes that range from the obviously traditional to the not so traditional.
Will Lee Ho Fook change the way Melbourne diners think about Chinese food? Will it do for Chinese food what Movida did for Spanish food and Mamasita did for Mexican food? Only time will tell but if the meal that I ate today is any indication, I think the answer could be yes.
Lee Ho Fook
92 Smith Street