The original Lee Ho Fook, the one in London's Chinatown name-checked by Warren Zevon in his 1978 song "Werewolves of London", was by all accounts a pretty standard Anglo-Chinese kind of joint. It's no longer around to defend itself, but the fact that the werewolf in question was going there for a jumbo-sized beef chow mein suggests a certain lack of culinary derring-do.
Melbourne's Lee Ho Fook, though, is out to attract a different kind of werewolf altogether. For starters, there's an energised young chef, Victor Liong, late of Sydney's Marque and Mr Wong, helming a kitchen for the first time and looking to make a splash. Then there's the prime position on hip, food-obsessed Smith Street and the backing of a team with multiple MoVidas and Pei Modern in its arsenal. Add a faint whiff of modern-Chinese bandwagon-jumping and you get a package that's the stuff PR and social media dreams are made of, one to make restaurant fashionistas howl at the moon.
And yet, despite first impressions suggesting an almost OCD level of box-ticking, Lee Ho Fook doesn't feel at all as though it's the product of some cynical marketing master plan. It's actually more interesting and original - and humble - than that.
Liong is a chef who's obviously aware of food trends. Yes, there's a pretty decent version of the ubiquitous pork bun on the list, and he likes to mess with Chinese classics, but he seems equally concerned with feeding people food they're actually going to enjoy - and not just intellectually. There may be some experimentation and fooling around, but a large part of the equation is focused solely on flavour.
As with any keen young chef flexing his culinary muscles, Liong doesn't clear every hurdle, but when he does it's something to write home about. Take his version of sweet and sour pork. You read it on the menu, immediately think: "ah, retro Aussie-Chinese irony", and are tempted to move on, eyes averted.
But that would be a mistake. Sweet and sour pork, despite its tawdry sugary, gluey reputation, is truly a dish for the ages when done well, and the one at Lee Ho Fook nails it.
Along with the sauce of vinegar, sugar and ketchup, the pieces of good pork neck and the lengthy cooking process (marinate, starch, deep-fry, stir-fry) Liong has added a thoroughly satisfying background hum of chilli and has given the sauce a sprightly fillip with the addition of fresh pineapple, strawberries and muntries (the tart native Australian berry). It's still sticky, sweet and a little bit childish, but the hits of acid and heat elevate it beyond stodge and straight into comfort-food territory.
It isn't the only dish here that lodges in the memory with startling speed. Many of these most memorable moments come at the beginning of the meal in the same "Small" section of the menu that contains the milk bun stuffed with pork and cucumber. Liong's tea eggs are quite brilliant. He boils the eggs until the yolks are just set, then places them in a warm mix of aromatic stock, soy and smoky black tea that cures the yolks so they become sticky, almost jammy. The eggs are halved, topped with Avruga imitation caviar and a sprig of dill, and served in a bowl with spring onion oil sloshed in the bottom. It's an expertly balanced dish that pops with flavour and texture, and could well inspire return visits all on its own.
There's also the excellent crunchy pickles flavoured with fermented broad bean paste and served with crisp fried wonton skins and peanuts, or the combination of raw scallops, slices of lap cheong sausage and shiitake (the dried mushrooms are slow cooked in a combination of Shaoxing wine, shiro dashi and spring onions) that again scores high in both the texture (slippery, silky, chewy) and flavour (sweet, salty, earthy) stakes.
Don't be too devastated if that particular scallop dish doesn't make it onto the menu every night. Liong is picky with ingredients (well, mostly - the trout in his trout and jellyfish salad is bland and wants for textural interest), but he's also interested in mixing things up, testing things out, feeling his way a bit as he goes. If that scallop's not there, another will take its place, perhaps warmed and served with tofu and soy butter. The tea eggs and a couple of other dishes might stick around, but for the rest of the menu it's game on. It's a kind of shifting, morphing approach that adds to Lee Ho Fook's distinctly pop-up feel.
This maquette-like ambience might explained by the news that leaked just weeks into Lee Ho Fook's opening that it'll be upping stumps towards the end of the year and relocating the main operation to a renovated CBD warehouse in the same laneway as Tonka (the original will remain in some capacity). But the current shopfront - formerly the austere wine bar Boire - has had little major commitment, in terms of décor dollars anyway, embracing the stripped-back Collingwood aesthetic of concrete floors and ockie straps, while recycling much of Boire's furniture and fittings.
The bar has been moved to the centre of the room and is now surrounded by red metal-legged bar stools mostly populated by walk-ins (bookings are taken for part of the restaurant). Otherwise, there's a two-tone paint job on the walls, a stylised panda covering the front window, some high tables attached to one wall and round glass shades on the end of the tangled occy straps. It's cute, reasonably comfortable, a little noisy and can easily be read as temporary.
Not so the drinks list. It's a sharp document - about four pages of wine, beer (including 2 Brothers' thirst-quenching Kung Foo rice lager on tap), cocktails and tea - that's been chosen with care, and has a comradely regard for the food. Wine in particular is well matched with the menu's flavours which can bounce around like Tigger, firing off sometimes disconcerting blasts of sugar, chilli and salt. The wine list bounces about, too, grabbing pinot gris from Slovenia, chardonnay savagnin from France, monastrell from Spain, blaufränkisch from Austria, and aglianico, syrah and marsanne-roussanne from across Australia. It's a charmingly mixed bag and one that keeps up with Liong's cooking.
Some dishes are easier for wine to get along with than others. The saltwater duck that's been poached in an aromatic bouillon that includes star anise, ginger and cinnamon before being brined, sliced and served cold with radicchio, purple radish and witlof is not just a lesson in the power of subtlety; it's a great match for some of the lighter reds.
And the heirloom tomato salad, a strange but successful Asian take on a panzanella with crisp fried tofu standing in for the bread, and sumac, ginger oil and dried shiso leaves all being tossed in a dressing of soy, balsamic and olive oil, proves to be great friends with aromatic whites.
Liong's food often leans towards the sweet. Sugary strips of deep-fried eggplant served with spiced red vinegar might be an overwhelming case in point but then, equally, the superb black vinegar sauce sweetened with a caramel-like mix of glucose and sugar that accompanies the crisp-skinned Shangdong chicken strikes the right note.
Another dish that gets the balance right is a chawanmushi-like soy custard that arrives in a lovely textured ceramic bowl. The custard, set at the bottom of the bowl, has a texture like silken tofu and is accompanied by a sauce that uses a classic slightly glutinous hot and sour soup as its base, mixing it with a variety of Asian mushrooms and fungus, and some pleasantly numbing green Sichuan peppercorns.
The desserts at Lee Ho Fook are a change of pace from the rest of the meal. Where the savoury courses give a nod to the look, flavour or tradition of a Chinese dish, the desserts come across as decidedly more restauranty. They're by no means bad - chocolate brownies rolled in intensely acidic beetroot powder with chocolate mousse parfait, red miso and cherries among other elements is an enjoyable rollercoaster ride of a dish - but they seem at odds with what's gone on before. It's a bit of a bum note, but this discord could also be read as a kind of tossing around of ideas by a clearly talented chef to see how they fall.
To say that Lee Ho Fook is in the "watch this space" category would do it a disservice, with the implication that nothing here yet hits the mark. Plenty does. The wait-staff in particular stand out as pleasant, funny and all over the food, and there are dishes on the list that are quite brilliant, with many of the rest of them completely capable of showing you a good time. But there are also plenty of indications that things could get even more exciting. The werewolves of Melbourne should be very happy.