For ‘modern food’ to pass the taste test
it must impress to the point of acceptance in its own right
whilst paying homage to the beauty of tradition that paved the way for its success.
It is like the young and beautiful woman
with whom a widower falls in love to the point of marriage.
For she reminds him of the undying love and beauty of his previous union.
Whenever I interpret Chopin on the piano
I aim to create my individual style whilst honouring his tradition.
For it is his beauty that enables my own playing to touch the hearts of those who listen.
Chopinand, co-author of ChopinandMysaucepan
So when young chef Victor Liong opens a modernistic Lee Ho Fook in food trendy Collingwood, food fashionistas are writhing with sexcitement.
Lee Ho Fook, Collingwood
On this cold winter evening in Melbourne, I am dining with friends Molly, KC, Towkay Tilam and his wife, Datin Tilam.
The decor is modern and the room feels warmer than it appears. Despite balls of white light dangling from the ceiling, the ambience is cosy yet cool and trendy.
We are planning to visit the Mornington Peninsula tomorrow to taste some wine so it might not be such a co-incidence my friend KC chooses a 2011 Hurley Vineyard “Estate” Pinot Noir from this beautiful wine growing region.
These days, I give the thumbs up to restaurants that serve wine with stemless glasses. It is modern yet retains the tradition of wine appreciation and definitely less precarious on a crowded dining table.
Beautiful garnet hues are swirling in my glass and it immediately release dark plummy notes with hints of ripened strawberries that make pinot noir such a sexy and intoxicating grape varietal. It reminds me of a woman who is understated yet elegant. Subtle hints of earthy spice tells of deeper sophistication to her persona.
It is easy to mistake chunks of white silken tofu for scallop though the latter is a little more translucent.
Scallops seared with butter are one of life’s simple and delicious pleasures. Paired with tofu and soy, this dish is perhaps chef Liong’s take on a marriage between Western and Asian flavours.
And it is a loving marriage too.
Because juicy and succulent scallops that I consider to be the vivacious and voluptuous wife is a great match for soft tofu as the mild and accommodating husband.
Tea eggs date back hundreds of years through the pages of Chinese food culture.
I am happy to wager my last dollar that Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, would not have envisaged in his wildest dreams for this humble street snack to appear in the heart of Melbourne food culture some fifty years later, let alone laced with the decadence of Avruga caviar and dill.
I love eggs – scrambled, poached, soft boiled, pan fried but preferably not an omelette with all kinds of unnecessary stuffing like diced mushroom, chives, capsicum and the like or hard boiled, unless it’s in a nasi lemak.
At Lee Ho Fook, boiled eggs are cured in a mixture of soy, tea, stock and spice. The egg white is firm with subtle tea flavours while the deep orange yolk is rich and gently oozy. Paired with fish eggs, I think Liong’s message to us is one for fertility and good fortune.
Eggplant is deep fried until crisp on the edges yet creamy and soft inside.
These crispy logs are drizzled with a sticky concoction of sweet, red vinegar and sprinkled with sugar, diced shallots and chilli. Every bite is a spicy, sweet and tangy explosion in the mouth.
And this standout dish alone will entice me to come back for more.
Triple cooked duck is presumably steamed, deep-fried then roasted.
Crisp as the skin may be, I find the meat too firm and overcooked from the thrice cook process.
Served as a duck Maryland to be shared among everyone, Chinese dining etiquette is also summoning a volunteer to carve out this duck leg for everyone else. For the uninitiated, this could potentially be a tiresome and messy affair.
Orange paired with duck is iconic in a French duck l’orange. Here, it is a deconstruction because Valencia orange sauce is hidden beneath a bowl of chrysanthemum leaves. So, if you did not slather enough of this sauce on your pancake, you will find the duck meat on its own to be rather subtle, and perhaps too subtle for my liking. I also wonder if the slightly bitter flavour of chrysanthemum leaves is the most appropriate for the pancake wrap.
I much prefer the bold flavours of star anise and cinnamon in a traditional Peking duck or aromatic five - spice duck with their accompanying pancakes, both of which are also always carved out skillfully by a waiter at your table.
I love culinary creativity that actually works because it introduces excitement to traditional comfort flavours. And chunky pieces of pork hock crisp on the edges and succulent inside is a case in point.
Place cucumber slices onto a cos lettuce leaf and slather it with black vinegar. The cut of acidity on crunchy pork hock, crisp garlic bits and coriander leaves works like a treat.
Moreton Bay bug tails with leek and fragrant Sichuan chilli oil is spicy, perhaps a little too spicy and numbing.
It’s a shame because it would have been good with red meat. But for more delicate seafood, the subtle flavour of these bug tails is drowned and lost in a pool of fiery chili oil.
Cone Bay in northern Western Australia produces spectacular ocean grown barramundi.
Steamed Cone Bay barramundi fillets are swimming in a green sea of ginger and shallot sauce. Topped with fresh coriander leaves and shallots, it’s classic Chinese done elegantly though for me, a sprinkle of salt brings out flavours even more.
True to the traditions of Chinese culture, white cut chicken is served on the bone with an array of Hainan style condiments.
But this white cut chicken lacks the trademark succulence and smoothness from superior poaching technique. Flavour wise, it is missing the nuttiness of sesame oil and special soy sauce that has made Hainanese style chicken so identifiable and popular in South East Asia.
I look forward to the comfort and familiarity of fried rice in Chinese restaurants because it is like the loving arms of a wife after a long day.
A Lee Ho Fook fried rice tastes like a first date because it is tentative and shy. The rice grains are firm but love is lacking in the form of ‘wok hei‘. And just like any loving relationship, this depth of substance can only be experienced when there is intense heat and passion.
I’m not a fan of dessert because I don’t have a sweet tooth.
But I’m in love with Liong’s savoury guava sorbet because it is clever. A prolate spheroid of guava sorbet nestles on a pink and pillowy cushion of lychee and rose hip foam – clever because it is an elegant and modern take on fresh guava when the tang of sour plum powder is sprinkled on top.
A burnt caramel takes on a gentle smoky aroma while the custard is redolent of Jasmine tea flavour. It is another elegant twist from traditional creme caramel.
The price is six bucks a serve for these two desserts. My advice to chef Liong is this – offer three servings in each dessert.
I guarantee the trendites on Smith street will pay eighteen dollars for a standard dessert this good. I’m neither a dessert fan nor a trendite. But either one, eighteen bucks I will pay for a triple ‘shiok‘ value.
Overall, I enjoyed my meal at Lee Ho Fook but I believe there is a ‘special benchmark’ for modern’ interpretations of well-loved, traditional recipes to be judged upon.
Cantonese steamed fish, Hainanese style chicken, Peking duck, duck l’orange and even the humble Chinese fried rice are legendary and date back hundreds of years in the food history of China and France, two great cuisines of our world today.
Young chefs, as creative and well-meaning as they may be, need to remember visual presentation, tastes and flavours for these iconic dishes are deeply entrenched, both in the taste buds and in the heart. In chef Liong’s cooking, there are nouveau hits but there are also misses. It is definitely not due to a lack of technique. It is definitely due to how customers perceive his technique. And he is best to judge who he wants his customers to be. But on competitive Smith street, I believe that choice is not even his to make.
And just like chef Liong, I am also a little uncomfortable with the term ‘modern Chinese’ because it is subjective and argumentative. Instead of ‘modern’, I prefer the word ‘contemporary’ when describing a food or cuisine. Its connotation bears less reference to tradition and what ‘traditionalists’ may hold to be ‘culturally correct’, therefore allowing more creative room for the contemporary take.
For ‘modern food’ to pass the taste test, it must impress to the point of acceptance in its own right whilst paying homage to the beauty of tradition that paved the way for its success. It is like the young and beautiful woman with whom a widower falls in love to the point of marriage. For she reminds him of the undying love and beauty of his previous union.
Whenever I interpret Chopin on the piano, I aim to create my individual style whilst honouring his tradition. For it is his beauty that enables my own playing to touch the hearts of those who listen.
ChopinandMysaucepan acknowledges the generosity of Victor Liong for complimentary dishes received during our meal at Lee Ho Fook. All views and opinions are our own.
Lee Ho Fook
92 Smith street, Collingwood
Tel: +61 3 9077 6261
Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday to Saturday 6pm to 10.30pm, Sunday 12pm to 10pm.