Lee Ho Fook

Inside the new Lee Ho Fook.
Inside the new Lee Ho Fook. Photo: Chris Hopkins

11-15 Duckboard Pl Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 12 Noon–2:30pm, 6–11pm, Sat-Sun 6–11pm
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed, Private dining, Pre-post-theatre, Vegetarian friendly, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Bar, Events
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Victor Liong
Seats 40
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9077 6261

This restaurant says a lot about how chef Victor Liong​ was raised. Not by his parents, although sure, the flavours on the plate here have a lot to do with Liong's Chinese heritage, but I'm talking about his chef family, and particularly Mark Best, the Sydney chef behind two-hatted restaurant Marque, a man as famous for his challenging dishes as his take-no-prisoners attitude and wacky dinner music.

That same special kind of confidence is writ all over Lee Ho Fook. The wine list may start at $14 a glass (starring savagnin​ from the Jura at $30), but this sits alongside a room of purple carpets, a joking riff on sweet-and-sour pork and a soundtrack featuring Morrissey, classic Michael Jackson and John Paul Young's Love is in the Air.

Personified, this is the amazing band dork of restaurants: talent wrapped in an uncool package. It's a huge part of the charm – the reason you would trek to the original location on Smith Street, and now here to Duckboard Place, Lee Ho Fook's new home since August.

The new south-of-the-border corn snack.
The new south-of-the-border corn snack. Photo: Chris Hopkins

So, what's changed? Not the tea eggs; those stained half-boiled eggs with fudgy yolks piggybacking avruga (faux caviar) and dill have made the trip to town. As has the eggplant – batons in crisp, candy-like shells.

Mostly, the menu neatly continues the agenda of elegant, new-wave Chinese started at Smith Street. Case in point, kingfish dressed with white miso cream, ruffles of lightly picked white fungus and lurid green herb oil giving the bland fish real life. There's a Sichuan pepper-kicked beef tartare with puffed charred rice and pickled cucumber, to be wrapped in a crisp sheet of nori. Eat it like a taco.

But Liong is pulling from a broader pool of influences these days. A shallot pancake is topped with cream-filled mozzarella to make a Chinezza - Chinese pizza. Roll and crunch.

Go-to dish: Kingfish with white fungus, burnt garlic and miso cream.
Go-to dish: Kingfish with white fungus, burnt garlic and miso cream. Photo: Chris Hopkins

You'll also want the new snack of corn, the ears split down the core so you get a pile of lewd-looking arcs coated in a fermented chilli powder with a cheek of lime that's got a south-of-the-border vibe.

The main big restaurant change is the room itself. With its retro palette of dark woods, red bricks and those angular light fixtures of connecting arms that look like a chemical structure rendered in gold, it's like a small rebellion against the entire modern restaurant mode.

There's no bar, aside from a two-seat station where you can wait for your table, which makes it a less obvious target for a walk-in drink-and-snack on the run, though the relaxed attitude still says that's OK.

Liong's riff on sweet and sour pork.
Liong's riff on sweet and sour pork. Photo: Chris Hopkins

But the emphasis has shifted back to bigger dining, even if the slim, eavesdroppingly​ close tables say otherwise. The snack section is minimised and the tasting menu requires three pals. You're here for a long time, and a good time.

That's not to say you can't come alone. Just that the fried rice packing nubbles of scallop and shrouded in a luxe swimmer crab gloop is better tackled with help. Likewise any of the red meat dishes – the Turkic-Chinese XinJiang-style lamb shoulder stir-fry, for example, for picking up in soft, fatty, dry chilli-hot pinches with flat breads (firm, crisp and chewy, rather than the crepe-like egg breads you might have tried at other Uighur restaurants), is not the stuff of light lunches.

Keeping things light is your challenge with this restaurant where flavour comes on as strongly as the '90s slow jams. For this, clouds of vinegared black fungus, all brightness and al-dente bite, count for a lot.

Sichuan pepper-kicked beef tartare.
Sichuan pepper-kicked beef tartare. Photo: Chris Hopkins

A few people imagined that moving to the city might see the restaurant tweaked – more serious, more city, less of Liong swearing in the kitchen.

And sure, the kitchen is now downstairs, out of earshot of all but the 16 people seated in the atrium, but the heart is the same. Still the frontier for new-wave Chinese, still possessing a certain don't-give-a-damnitude, still unique.

THE LOWDOWN
Pro tip Prepare your ears for a musical adventure.
Go-to dish  Kingfish with white fungus and burnt garlic and miso cream, $22.
Like this Not a lot like it, but Ruyi puts a modern spin on Chinese classics, 16 Liverpool Street, Melbourne.

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.  
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best