Etsy meets Eastern at Lee Ho Fook. Photo: Paul Jeffers
I really think it's time we put away the rivalry and accept that Sydney and Melbourne are the two magnetic poles of Australian dining, bouncing chefs and restaurateurs back and forth between their bi-city business interests. Just the past few months have seen Stokehouse joining MoVida in Sin City and Paul Wilson doing his thing at Icebergs while its owner Maurice Terzini plots his Melbourne comeback at Comme. Exhausting, non? The payoff is that along with clocking up the frequent flyer points, Australia's answer to those US east coast-west coast sophisticates are propagating a ''we'll have what they're having'' mentality.
There has been, I confess, a degree of envy watching Sydney embrace the Asian new school with the likes of Ms G's and Mr Wong, which in their turn hitched a ride on the pioneering Billy Kwong. Envy at the slicked-up take on the crash of Honkers and the cool of the Asian youthquake, but the green-eyed monster was kept at bay by the certainty it was only a matter of time before we got our own. Our own arrives thanks to Peter Bartholomew and David Mackintosh of MoVida and Pei Modern fame. Not so much restaurateurs as the vision guys who spy deals, put them together and leave others to run the show. They did it recently with Rosa's Kitchen and they've done it again at Lee Ho Fook, cutting in former Marque and Mr Wong sous chef Victor Liong to lure him south, and stumping up more dash than cash for a makeover of the former Boire.
It's a simple refurb of the tight 45-seater, with a bar now taking up a slice of the floor action, a panda etched on to the smoked-glass front window, and a swirly two-tone charcoal and white paint job that could be a depiction of Beijing smog.
Go-to dish: Tea-smoked egg. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Fish bowls anchored by occi straps pass for light pendants; it's an Etsy ethos taking over the world one restaurant at a time, the informality underscored by the paper napkins and a soundtrack unafraid of early 2000s pop anthems.
All in all, Lee Ho Fook presents a unified vision that's very Smith Street, our homegrown land of the free and home of the brave.
Service is switched-on without compromising the relaxed brief and the wine list's global scattergun approach is a sensible response to food that's robust, not particularly regional, and refuses to be nailed down. Liong calls it cheeky Chinese (he also calls it ''not-shit Chinese food'', which I rather like), which means he'll use the odd European technique when it's warranted without joining the dreaded gel/foam school.
He's off to a blistering start with the tea-smoked eggs - two halves of a hen's egg with a flicker of smoky tannins and avruga (faux caviar) dobbed on the just-gooey yolks and a viscous slick of spring onion oil hiding in the bottom of the black bowl (nice crockery is a recurring theme). Tangy, crunchy pickled vegetables are another beeline dish, with crushed peanuts and fiery dabs of Sichuan chilli paste and fried wonton skins filling the cracker brief.
The ''small'' menu heading also has raw scallop that amazingly nails a balance with shiitakes and lup cheong (pork sausage, here rather like Chinese prosciutto), but prawn toast with an odd mandarin emulsion is simply too clever for its own good.
There's plenty of enjoyment - a classic clams with fried Chinese doughnut soaking up the XO sauce; savoury soy custard topped with tangy-sour carrot, spring onion and a roll call of mushroom exotica - but there's a self-conscious swagger at Lee Ho Fook that occasionally lets it down. The food leans heavily on salt and sweet. Sometimes it's just plain sweet. The fried eggplant could be classified as confectionery. The beef sang choi bao (big-flavoured wagyu tri-tip) has great texture thanks to dehydrated-then-fried carrot but the lasting impression is of muddy, in-your-face flavours.
It all adds up before you even get to dessert (a super-sweet white chocolate mousse and raspberry sorbet dusted with crushed peppercorns) and adds a measure of ho to Lee Ho Fook's considerable hum. Melbourne's excited about the Chinese new school - as am I - and there are plenty of giddy good times ahead. This isn't a bad start, but it's short pants for a while longer.
The best bit An exciting new spin on Chinese
The worst bit Palate wipe-out
Go-to dish Tea-smoked egg, $4
- 03 9077 6261
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Prices - Typical entree $15; main $24; dessert $12
- Features - Licensed, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating
- Chef(s) - Victor Liong
- Owners - Peter Bartholomew, David Mackintosh and Victor Liong
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Wed-Sat 5.30-11pm; Fri noon-3pm; Sun noon-11pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki