Lee Ho Fook is the new kid in the Pei Modern, Rosa’s Kitchen family and the most hotly anticipated restaurant to open on Smith Street this year
You won’t find menus packed with ironic Engrish at this modern Chinese restaurant (we’re looking at you, Happy Palace). Kitschiness has no place here. Charcoal walls blur softly into white in a subtle yin yang paint job, and the lights are opaque orbs strapped to the roof by ocky straps. A solitary golden cat waves the air and while the soundtrack may be Rihanna and Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, it’s not being rammed down your earholes – the food is perfectly capable of making things fun without the assistance of 100 BPMs.
This is the first head chef gig for Victor Liong, and the pressure is on. He’s all flying hands and sweaty brows, and at one point we hear him yell “I’m so in the shit!” But he’s not.
The dishes hitting tables tell the full story of Liong’s love of Chinese flavours, his recent occupation of Sydney’s fun and fancy Cantonese joint Mr Wong and his rigorous training under chef Mark Best at Marque – the Sydney fine diner where classical French technique and science unite.
Dainty prawn toasts are like gingery deep fried party favours, made bracing by a sour swipe of yuzu purée. A tiny toasted milk bun holds a thin square of pork belly that’s been shredded, sugared and compressed into something like sweet, soft jerky, which adds chew to the crunch of lightly pickled cucumbers and more candied pork, pounded into fairy floss.
Liong does good riffs on traditional. It could be as simple as a cheek of Chinese cabbage braised soft and shrouded in an enoki mushroom gravy and another sweet meat praline dust of candied prawn shells and ham. And then there’s two soft yolked egg halves, herbal from a pickling in oolong tea and nutty, salty and slippery with sesame oil, soy and a tiny crown of avruga. We’d come back just for those suckers and the nice thing is that you can.
On a Sunday night we’re sitting at the bar surrounded by a complete mixed bag of punters. We see locals – some toting kids – dissecting big hunks of slow cooked lamb and bowls of silky soy custard set on fire with a peppery sauce packing shitake and fried tufts of enoki mushrooms (do it). Outside, a crowd of off duty bartenders are drinking jugs of Two Brothers Kung Fu rice lager, and having their pants impressed clean off by the cocktails of ex-Little Blood bartender Paul Ramsay. He’ll impress yours off too, whether it’s with a simple measure of Lillet Blanc vermouth infused with apricot-y osmanthis tea or a margarita taken for an Asian spin with yuzu juice.
It’s all beautiful, refined, and updated Chinese that holds your interest without ever being too clever for its own good. There's unbridled enthusiasm coming from both the kitchen and bar. There's something special happening here. And after a few quiet months on the restaurant scene, it's about Lee Ho Fooking time.