Who would have thought that an eggplant dish would become a must-eat Melbourne classic? Not me, and probably not Lee Ho Fook’s Victor Liong, who stuck eggplant chips on his menu on day one and, six years later, still sends a plate to just about every table in his modern Chinese laneway restaurant. Even eggplant haters take suspicious nibbles then subside into swoons.
Back to restaurant reviews
11-15 DUCKBOARD PLACE, MELBOURNE, (03) 9077 6261
My score: 4/5
So what’s the big deal with these battered batons? They’re dusted with rice and tapioca flour and deep-fried so the outside is crisp and the inside molten. They’re dressed in a China-fied version of French gastrique, a sweet sauce cut with vinegar, in this case Chinese black vinegar, plus ginger, garlic and chilli. A drizzle of glucose syrup turns the sauce into a magic coating that allows the eggplant to stay crunchy crisp, even as it cools.
It’s this mix of European technique and Chinese flavours that keeps Lee Ho Fook so interesting, and makes it more of a Melbourne restaurant than a Chinese eatery that just happens to be in Melbourne.
The restaurant has been here for four years, and was in Collingwood for two years prior. It’s mature enough to have classic dishes and energised enough to always be trying new things. If you haven’t been – or not for a while – this is a great time to visit. The service is crisp, the drinks list supports interesting small producers as well as the food, and the first-floor dining room – connected to the downstairs kitchen by a doughty food lift – is a happy blend of off-Broadway buzz and consistent class.
Liong spent three years working for demanding chef Mark Best at Sydney’s now-closed Marque, where creative, fastidious, surprising dishes were the thing. Lee Ho Fook is less intense but the influence shows in clever ideas and a canny balance of exuberance and rigor.
Dishes are built for sharing. Raw kingfish plays off lightly caramelised, tamari-spiked onion cream, which adds a silky cooked element to the un-Chinese raw fish. (There’s a nod to Japanese cuisine here, something Liong will explore more at Chuuka, his new Japanese-Chinese restaurant collaboration with chef Chase Kojima, launching this winter at Jones Bay Wharf, Sydney.) A scallop and silken tofu dish is another investigation of raw versus cooked: tofu softens as it cooks, while scallop firms up. This dish brings the two main elements to a confluence, while wasabi-spiked brown butter adds toasty spice.
Ginger, spring onion and soy are bedrock Chinese flavours, and they’re seen to best advantage in the steamed barramundi. The inspiration is Cantonese; the edge comes in a finely balanced dressing of white and dark soy, rice vinegar and seaweed extract, plus an emerald oil made with spring onion tops. It’s beguilingly simple but the sweet, textured fish is intercut beautifully with salty prods from the dressing.
Chinese desserts aren’t always rave-worthy. They are here. Chocolate pave, an old-school French choc slab on a base of cognac-soaked sponge, is given the Lee Ho Fook treatment by dusting the top with cocoa and oolong tea and serving it with a scoop of genmaicha (Japanese roasted rice tea) ice-cream. It’s rich, rounded, intoxicating but amusing too in the way it cheekily tweaks an iconic dish. In this playful, knowing jauntiness, it’s as emblematic of Lee Ho Fook as the eggplant.
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 31st March 2019.