92 Smith Street Collingwood, Victoria 3066
Innovative food is often very showy, a culinary yell, a prima donna trying to impress the palate. Not at Lee Ho Fook, where much of the Chinese food looks straightforward: a crunchy battered prawn, seafood with a dab of XO sauce, glistening fried rice, mushrooms smooshed with tofu. It even tastes pretty straight - at first. But the flavours in each dish develop as you eat, coming into themselves slowly, like a Polaroid. For example, the battered prawn crunches like any well-behaved crustacean but it tastes extra intense because it's crumbed in more prawn (dried, grated prawn mousse mixed with tapioca flour) and dusted with freeze-dried honey and soy. It's a simple dish boosted by mysterious wiles.
The chef at Lee Ho Fook is Victor Liong. He learnt contemporary culinary tricks at Sydney fine dining favourite Marque, then schooled in fun-loving Chinese at the amazing Mr Wong, also in Sydney. At Lee Ho Fook, the lo-fi look and unassuming menu belie the thoughtful, geeky action in the kitchen. The food is both time and space-shifting, mixing ancient and modern techniques, darting from old Canton to Paris to Szechuan to Melbourne. That might explain the (small, green Spanish) padron peppers, blackened in a wok and served with a bruleed sauce of miso and black beans. It's not fusion, it's more ''explode the atlas and just make sure it's delicious''.
Some dishes are incredibly pretty. Braised duck is hidden under a purple rain of compressed radicchio and sliced radish, the bitter notes of the vegetables niggling at the firm yet tender, salty duck. Moreton Bay bug tails are dusted with potato starch then steamed so they have a dumpling-like skin that just restrains the juicy shellfish. It's topped with a bacon-heavy XO (a spicy sauce) and sits in white soy dressing offset by bright green shallot oil. Desserts riff on traditional Chinese flavours (jasmine tea custard, for example, and violet and lychee sorbet).
Lee Ho Fook's owners (they also have MoVida and Pei Modern) are planning a second branch in the city in spring. I say a big ''yes'' to having two venues to lap up Liong's exuberant, beguiling take on Chinese food.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)