Happy Year of the Horse! Celebrate Chinese New Year at possibly the hottest Chinese restaurant in Melbourne at the moment - Lee Ho Fook.
When Lee Ho Fook opened in October last year expectations were high as the head chef, Victor Liong, had previously worked at Marque and Mr Wong. Now that the initial hype has died down the small one room restaurant is still going strong.
The space fits only around 50 people at the bar and on tables and the room is sparsely furnished. There are no dragons or gold leaf in sight – in fact, nothing on the exterior or interior that would really alert you to the fact that it’s a Chinese restaurant, even if you noticed that the shape in the smoked-glass window was a panda.
The menu is similarly understated with its Chinese origins. Every dish is Chinese-with-a-twist, which didn’t agree with my (Chinese) parents every time but still makes for delicious food. Plus I think what they’ve done with a traditional cuisine is pretty inventive.
We visited Lee Ho Fook with 7 people and when you book for over 6 diners you are forced to order a set 8 courses ($48 per person) or 10 courses ($68). The set menus are a sort of greatest hits selection and when the bill was toted up the set menu was better value than the dinner for two my parents had ordered the night before. We were all big eaters and we didn’t feel you needed the 10 courses to be satisfied.
To start, we had the ‘Chinese Huxtaburger’ – addictive mini sliders of steamed milk bun skewered with a crispy hunk of candied pork, a slice of salted cucumber and fluffy pork floss.
The prawn toast was just as awesome, finely minced prawn sprinkled with black sesame and domed over crispy toasts. It was served with some fresh butter which was an unnecessarily rich, Western, ingredient and no one touched it.
Next up was the raw ocean trout and jellyfish salad served raw. It was an update on a classic Cantonese new year dish with sashimi-grade slices of fish, shredded jellyfish and topped with coleslaw and fried wonton crisps for colour and crunch.
Another highlight was the crispy skin Shandong Chicken. Shandong chicken is basically crispy skin chicken that has been twice cooked (boiled then deep-fried) and served in a black vinegar, chilli, soy sauce and coriander sauce. It was like Chinese KFC and just as addictive. Crunchy, paper-thin crackled skin covering juicy meat on the bone and served with the classic Shandong dressing.
More crispness in the form of lamb belly fried with chilli and garlic. A high impact, flavoursome dish perfect with steamed rice but a little too fatty for my liking.
The best dish of the night for me was actually the most straightforward Cantonese dish that you’ll find in most Chinese restaurants – steamed barramundi with ginger and shallots. What was different here was that the fish was filleted, Western-style, meaning no bones or fins or popping eyes. It was steamed to perfection, with no hint of rubber and with the clean freshness of the seafood enhanced by the aromatics.
The dessert was the most removed from traditional Chinese fare. Each person received an artistically laid out platter of miniature desserts - a subtle jasmine tea custard with burnt caramel, sort of like an Asian creme brulee, plus osmanthus jelly with a gently sweet white peach sorbet.
Lee Ho Fook is Liong’s first restaurant and it’s a great debut. It will be moving to new premises in Duckboard Lane, CBD next year. I imagine that rents are higher in the city than in Collingwood (even eat-street Smith Street) so you may find prices will necessary be going up. Just in case, I recommend that you book yourself a seat at Lee Ho Fook before it decamps south.