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.
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.