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Sunday, 26 January 2014

Lee Ho Fook

You know how life is sometimes like a weird puzzle with all the bits slowly connecting or disconnecting over time? 

For example, Lee Ho Fook (92 Smith Street, Collingwood). I feel connected to it, sort of. In a tiny way. Let me try and explain. (If you don't like detail, skip to after the next photo!)

When I still lived in Sydney, I went to a Halloween party where I met a cool chick (Miss Hospo) who, like me, was moving to Melbourne soon. When I arrived, I knew just one other person (Mr Chef), who I'd worked with in retail at Grace Bros (back when it used to be called Grace Bros). I was determined not to rely on him to show me around, introduce me to his friends, etc. But this was right after the GFC, and I found it much harder than I ever had before to land a job. So I asked Mr Chef if I could crash on his couch for a while to save money. While I was there, one of his housemates moved out, so I moved in and quickly became best friends with his other housemate (Miss Fun). The three of us went for lots of dinners (this was after I found a job, of course), including several at French restaurant Boire on Smith Street. In the process of getting to know everyone, and Melbourne, I discovered that Mr Chef also knew Miss Hospo from Sydney! What a small world. Mr Chef had gone to cooking school with Miss Hospo's brother, who happens to be Victor Liong, head chef of Lee Ho Fook, which is currently housed in the former Boire site on Smith Street. 

Confused yet? 

After a few years of living with Mr Chef and Miss Fun, I moved into my present house, which happens to be walking distance from Smith Street, making it officially "my 'hood". So - before it had even opened - I had heard of Lee Ho Fook through Mr Chef and Miss Hospo, and then only had to walk up the street to try it! Add to this the fact that I had started blogging maybe a year earlier (and when you blog, you hear of new places more through Twitter, street press and other bloggers) - plus I work in "the industry", which exposes you to a lot of HOT news - and I was chomping at the bit to try Lee Ho Fook. 

By the way, this is not one of those name-dropping exercises (clearly - because it is highly likely you have no interest in and/or connection with any of the aforementioned people): I have never met Victor Liong. And now I possibly sound like some kind of crazy stalker lady who seeks out head chefs of new restaurants. But no, that is not me. I'm painfully normal. Lee Ho Fook was merely the culmination of a number of pieces in my life puzzle. Geddit? 

So. Now I will attempt to describe my experience there. 

First up: the Look.

I liked it. Not much was done to transform the former Boire site, which was basically one long room with kitchen at the back. Design was taken care of by Techne Architects, and paid for by the very same folks who back MoVida, Pei Modern and Rosa's Kitchen (visioniaries!). The walls had been painted black to about halfway up, like someone forgot to finish, but from further back it gives a dark, floaty feel, like you're bobbing upon a black sea or something. There was now a bar installed halfway down one side, well-stocked but a bit hemmed in, manned by a hat-wearing bartender.

My lovely friend posing so I could get the wall and lights

There were simple round hanging lights trailing along the ceiling, connected by a bunch of colourful wires strung in an arty fashion. And there were pieces of chunky mismatched Chinese crockery, interspersed with gleaming, tinted, stemless wine glasses.

Round wooden tables with black chairs, a few tall tables with stools lining one wall, exposed concrete flooring -- just yoink a name from Warren Zevon song Werewolves of London, and ladies and gentlemen, you have a restaurant.

The menu is short, which some people will not like, but this means it can be changed more often. I actually love having fewer options, because I take aaaages to choose what I want. (You can check out the current menu on their website.) We ended up saying, "feed us, to amount x per head", and it was pretty spot on in terms of dollars and amounts of food.

This was the menu when we were there:

It's essentially Chinese cuisine, referencing Liong's heritage, but also reigning in his most recent experience, having come from the kitchen of Sydney's Mr Wong (and before that, Marque, where he learned his schmancy technique under Mark Best). But Liong's angle on the food is that it's Chinese done with a fun, funky twist - not the same mediocre traditional stuff murdered by western interpretations and takeaway joints. I think he succeeds - you can tell it's Chinese food, but it's definitely not Chinese food as you already know it.

Raw scallop, shitake and lup cheong

Raw ocean trout and jellyfish salad (AMAZING)

Candied pork and cucumber milk buns. Cute.

Crispy eggplant served with spiced red vinegar

Yes, this is 'just' rice - but how cool is the bowl?!

Saltwater duck and red salad

Stir-fried gai lan with oyster sauce

Steamed barramundi with ginger and shallots

Sweet and sour pork

Presentation was simple, colourful and lovely. Highlights for me were the salads: trout and jellyfish, and duck and radish. Less salad-y than protein-based, both had fantastic, light, unusual flavours and left me wanting more. The milk buns were cute, but frankly I wasn't blown away by them. I don't recall trying the famed tea-soaked eggs - next time, for sure. A few of the items we tried are no longer on the current menu.

For dessert, we had the smallest things, because by then we were pretty full. Thankfully, they were very light - in fact, I could have not bothered with them at all. They were nice - there was just no bang/pop for me.

Jasmine tea custard with burnt caramel

Osmanthus jelly with white peach

I really liked the wine list. A similar approach was taken here (by Patrick Walsh of Cellarhand) as with the food: traditional styles and flavours, funked up by method. It was the descriptions that got me in, though; the wine characters were explained in a way that makes sense, not random words thrown together so you don't know what they mean, like on most wine labels (the ones that read something like, "an early harvest blend with notes of passionfruit, an earthy polish and a long finish." Say what?!)

Cocktails are crafted by Paul Ramsey, ex-Little Blood, and if this one was anything to go by, I'm going back for drinks alone:

It looks as though Lee Ho Fook has achieved what it set out to do: put Chinese food in a fun, less traditional context. By all measures it seems to have lived up to the hype surrounding its opening, although the hype does seem to have died down now. 

Despite the restaurant's initial success, it seems Lee Ho Fook has secured a CBD venue to move into later this year. The Smith Street site will probably be retained, but possibly run in a different format. I, for one, look forward to seeing what Victor Liong does next - in a very non-stalkery way, of course. 

Lee Ho Fook on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Hammer & Tong 412

There's a lot of hype about Hammer & Tong 412 (Rear 412 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy), as there usually is about most new decent cafes, particularly ones so close to the hub of Fitzroy. In some cases, it's all hot air; in others, completely justified. In the case of Hammer & Tong, it is a mix of both.

Housed in the former premises of The Brix (a short-lived bistro with a reputation for quality), Hammer & Tong's owners Dennis Ferreira and Simon Ward did little to change the fit-out, so impressed were they by its design. Their website describes the look as "light filled", "stylish" and its "own take on vintage-industrial chic". It is definitely more industrial than vintage. It's all hard surfaces and slate grey, in a long, narrow space with a cool but light and airy feel. I didn't find it particularly warm and cosy, but stylish it certainly is.

I didn't witness too much in the way of "vintage" influence, except for the cutlery and a few random irons dotted around the place. The coffee machine looks the equivalent of a 1950s jukebox meets racecar, and it does a stellar job processing Dukes beans into delicious coffees.

Hot chocolate served in double-walled tall glass

Owners Ferreira and Ward allegedly met whilst working at the iconic Vue De Monde, and between them, bring an impressive array of hospitality experience to the table. Their finesse is pleasingly apparent in their food, both in flavour combinations and presentation. But the real drawcard is Hammer & Tong's unusual take on "daytime" menu options. Served Tuesday through to Sunday til 3pm, you might fancy a breakfast of spiced potatoes, fried egg, pickled chilli peppers and kasundi, or perhaps lavender yoghurt custard with raspberry and mango gel, berries, lychee and basil. Dinner is now also available from Tuesday through to Saturday.

On our recent visit, we were very excited by our breakfast orders, which didn't fail to please. The duck egg looked terrific. The rye bagel was the perfect accompaniment to the smoked trout. My housemate almost internally combusted when she saw breakfast ramen on the menu. Even the ham-and-cheese croissant was spruced up with double smoked ham and jarlsberg. The corn on the cob was an odd breakfast selection, granted, but looked exotic and inviting on delivery, served with popcorn butter and a yoghurt sauce.

Duck egg, oyster mushrooms, truffle butter,
watercress, fontina briont soldiers

Rye & shallot bagel with smoked rainbow trout, kale,
radish, poached egg & nori-hollaindaise

...with eggs cut open mmmmm

Pouring the broth onto the breakfast ramen

Breakfast ramen

Mmmm, noooooooodle

Double smoked ham and jarlsberg croissant

BBQ corn cob, chipotle, popcorn butter,
pecorino & lime

Even the Bloody Mary was stylishly presented, finished with a striped paper straw, and apparently it had a strong tabasco kick to it.

The food couldn't really be faulted, so in that regard, Hammer & Tong has certainly hit the mark (fortunately the most common aim, when you're opening a restaurant). The service was also impeccable: friendly and efficient, and although we had to ask for water, single origin coffee was offered as an alternative to the house blend, and menu items were succinctly explained. (I forgot to ask for clarification on the "62c egg" - I assume this is a reference to cooking temperature in Celcius, rather than cost!)

My main hesitations with Hammer & Tong revolve around its design. Sure, it looks sexy, but it is a bit confused with its attempts at vintage. There was also the issue of the queues when we arrived, still there (in fact, worse) long after we were seated. Apparently this is not an unusual occurrence here, and of course I don't begrudge any venue its popularity, but it was badly managed, with no clear space in which to wait. Patrons were literally streaming out the door, in a thoroughfare also used by staff to access the outdoor (footpath) tables, resulting in some uncomfortable breathing-in and elbow-poking. Since the layout clearly isn't set up to accommodate waiting, I think there should be some system installed to manage customers' expectations and cope with demand.

Despite this, I'd certainly recommend Hammer & Tong. Once seated, you won't be disappointed. The food is confident, well-crafted, and pleasingly exciting. The coffee is also very good. I hope Hammer & Tong retains its popularity because it is well-deserved; nevertheless, I'm interested to see how much the hype wanes off over time.

Hammer & Tong on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 January 2014

Scholars Wine Bar (closed)

*This venue is now closed*

All I knew of Scholars Wine Bar (480 Victoria Street, North Melbourne) was that it was a wine bar, in North Melbourne, that did food - mainly because I knew its sommelier and one of its chefs, and that their gal pals spent an inordinate amount of time there. I myself had never gotten around to sampling its delights until a dinner there was suggested. Despite the obvious connections resulting in us being very well looked after, I was surprised and impressed by our meal, and would have no reservations in recommending it for dinner parties, intimate dates or cosy catch-ups with friends. It's a gateway for accessible upmarket dining.

Walking in, the main bar is to your right, complete with both bar stools and lower, more comfortable seating. Decor is simple and elegant with touches of the antique, clearly in keeping with the 'scholarly' theme: serious, dark, somewhat traditional, always well-presented. 

Veer off to the left and you will find yourself in the newer restaurant section, dimly lit with white tablecloths, gleaming glassware, wood-panelled flooring and more modern touches of dark wood, artworks and black-and-white stripes, a la un French bistro.  

At the time of our visit, Michael Cole was Head Chef, however I believe he has since moved on and been replaced by more-than-capable Kiwi import, Timothy Chittenden, supported by a young but hardworking team. Pegged as 'Modern European' cuisine, the French influence was obvious in dishes like the parfait, terrine, steak tartare, duck, venison, and creme brulee. The fare was beautifully presented with blobs (yes, the technical term), drizzles, decorative flowers and quenelles galore, and dishes were plated artistically, many over to one side. 

Beef carpaccio with croutons

Steak tartare with egg yolk sauce and GOLD BITS

Crumbed sweetbreads with sauerkraut, quail egg and kipfler pototoes

Pork belly with crumbed blood-pudding capsicum

Slow-cooked lamb neck with turnips and parsley puree

Whiting fillet stuffed with crab mousiline
served with zucchini and carrot & tarragon puree

...and from the other side, it looked like THIS!

The smaller touches didn't go unnoticed, with my dining companions practically inhaling the asparagus veloute and the crab bisque... actually, inhaling everything. (For three girls, I'm still utterly amazed at the amount of food we managed to consume. The restaurant side of Scholars is not for the half-hearted diner, and probably not as awesome for vegetarians, with so many amazing meat dishes... sorry.) 

Duck liver parfait 'cigar' with date puree

Enjoying the aroma of delicious crab bisque

Crab bisque, served as it should be - in a jar, of course

"Nom nom nom nom nom"

Even the bread came fancy: accompanied by smoked butter on hazelnut crumbs, and balsamic vinegar with oil. Me likey smoked butter. 

The wine, as expected in what began as a 'wine bar', was excellent. We sampled an amazing Tasmanian Pinot Grigio, among other delights. The comprehensive wine list, lovingly adhered to by Sommelier Stuart Quinn, favours mainly European drops but with a decent smattering of Australia's better regions. Clearly I was enjoying them too much, because I can't remember most of what we had, but there were some beautiful reds in there, and with dessert, I recall enjoying a lovely muscat.

Dessert was a palate-cleansing creme de menthe ice cream served with macaron crumbs and chocolate, and a blobby aerated cheesecake served with rhubarb done various ways - my favourite, visually and flavourly. 

Gripes were few, but I will say the menu was rather difficult to read. Too many swirly fonts and too much culinary jargon for my liking. Fortunately, much of the burden of ordering was taken from us on our visit, and so menus were not heavily required. 

There midweek and pre-summer, the restaurant was quiet for our visit, but it shouldn't have been. The vibe could be warmer, but it's certainly an inviting place, so I'm not sure where the disconnect lies. Perhaps louder music? More of a presence from staff? - who are currently subtly available as needed (normally my personal preference). However, all its other elements redeem Scholars to an almost rave-worthy point in my mind. 

It's not an everyday price-range kind of place, but it's well worth what you pay. If Scholars continues this way, with genteel service, classy food and inner-city proximity, I anticipate that it will be bursting at the seams in no time. 

Our bill was delivered inside Sherlock Holmes.

Update: 25 January 2014

Current word on the street is that Scholar's has simplified its menu, to less fine dining/more fine-dining-style bistro options. At this stage, the new menu is not yet up on their website. Perhaps a second visit is in order soon...

Update: June 2014

Scholars has closed, and on its former site is now a second restaurant by John Rubira: Rubira's @ Swallows, with a focus on fresh seafood.

Scholars Wine Bar on Urbanspoon