Many people might consider what I hold in high esteem to be a little bit odd. Sure, I am as common as the next person when it comes to holding family, friendship and my relationship near and dear. Travel and gaining a good amount of life experience, with a healthy handful of happy memories collected along the way, is similarly important to me. However, when it comes to getting me excited – and I mean really excited? Food. Restaurants are my temples and Chefs are my heroes.
So on our most recent trip back home, the moment The Swede learned that the announcement of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants was to coincide with our stay in Melbourne, it was met with a knowing sigh, shake of the head and a roll of the eyes – it must have appeared all too coincidental. However, I promise you that is all it was: a coincidence. Nevertheless, I must admit, being the Chef Groupie that I am, I did have a subconscious keen eye set wherever we ended up over the course of the few days we spent in the city.
Melbourne was the final destination on our road trip, which took four adults across three states in two weeks…in the one car. After spending the day along the Great Ocean Road, we arrived in the late afternoon, surprisingly still amicable, dropped our things at the hotel and ventured out for an early dinner at Lee Ho Fook. A late addition to my list of reservations, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The concept of Victor Liong’s restaurant is described as new-style Chinese, which had me slightly worried, given Mumford has very traditional taste when it comes to this type of cuisine. That issue aside, I had read a good few positive things here and there and was excited.
Conveniently located in the Melbourne CBD, we strolled down the unassuming, graffiti-laden laneway that was Duckboard Place, past a small bar, up a narrow flight of stairs and into the main dining room of Lee Ho Fook. Upbeat and lively, with a head-nod worthy collection of tunes playing overhead, the space was on trend, carrying the look and feel of a converted warehouse. You know the story: exposed red brick, undressed wooden beams, high ceilings…it was cool.
We got the ball rolling with a selection of snacks and starters to share. Up first came an interesting interplay between soft textures, with warm Hervey Bay scallop being paired with cubes of silken tofu, both of which were bathed in a moreish soy brown butter [AU$10 per piece]. An excellent beginning!
Even better was a humble dish of black fungi with aged black vinegar [AU$6]. I don’t know what it is, but Chinese black vinegar is an odd weakness of mine and I cannot get enough of it [not entirely true, as I do recall downing so much of it during a single sitting at Din Tai Fung that it basically burnt the roof of my mouth out – a lesson I do not care to learn from]. Sharp and textural, Mumford and I engaged in a war of chopsticks down to the very last bite.
Raw cobia [AU$26] arrived next. Another tasty dish, it was paired with ruffles of white fungi, crunchy kohlrabi, rose, white soy and [the very Australian addition of] macadamia milk.
I don’t know what it is with me and tartare, I just love it. If it’s on the menu, you can bet your life on the fact I will be ordering it…and, in all instances of a sharing concept, that I will be eating most of it. A welcome departure from the classic, this version featured a chunky [exactly how I like it!] dice of wagyu beef and carried flavours of ma po tofu [AU$26]. Served with rice crackers and spring onion, this was quite possibly my favourite of the starters.
The crispy eggplant with spiced red vinegar [AU$20] also won me over, perhaps because the dish took me by surprise. Slightly scarred from the memory of being rewarded with an oddly itchy mouth whenever I ate eggplant as a child, I generally go out of my way to avoid it. But, this…THIS! Uniform batons delivered a crunchy, sweet, caramelised coating that gave way to a soft, silky interior. This was certainly one of the tastiest renditions of that weird purple vegetable I have ever had the pleasure of putting in my mouth. And it didn’t even itch.
At this point in time, movement on an adjacent table caught my eye and I glanced over my shoulder to see a larger party being seated. I immediately recognised a face in the crowd: Virgilio Martinez. And then a second: Gaston Acurio. Eep!
Mumford, probably noticing that my face colouration had gone from perfectly normal to a violent shade of crimson in under twenty seconds, questioned who they were. Who are they…who are they? Only two of the best chefs in Latin America…nay, the world! More than that, Virgilio Martinez is a personal hero of mine. I actually travelled to Peru to dine at his flagship restaurant, Central, which remains to be one of my favourite dining experiences. Ever. You can read me gush relentlessly about it here.[NB: For the sake of keeping with the theme, when the World’s 50 Best Restaurants were announced just a few days later, Central ranked at number five and Astrid y Gaston came in at number thirty-three].
Momentarily sidetracked from the task at hand, our attention returned to the food [not entirely true in my case] and we got stuck into the more substantial of the dishes. Xin Jiang spiced lamb ribs [AU$40] with cumin caramel, cashew nut butter and baby cos were good.
…But of the two, it was the Fujian style blue swimmer crab and scallop fried rice with house made XO sauce [AU$42] that stole the show. Absolutely delicious.
By the time dessert rolled around, we were all quite full. However, Papa Bear being Papa Bear, wanted to end with a sweet mouthful and convinced us to share one between the four of us. To be honest, I have next to no recollection what this was [probably the outcome of becoming horrifically flustered over our neighbouring table]. From memory, there was osmanthus jelly involved. And jasmine. Perhaps some white peach? Anyway, it was refreshing and proved to be a nice way to end proceedings.
Meanwhile, Mumford had pestered me throughout the final three dishes to go and introduce myself to Virgilio – to which I flatly refused. I wouldn’t go up to someone in the street, let alone disturb them during a meal. I prefer to gush from a distance […which I am well aware, in writing, makes me sound like a total creep].
We paid our bill and began to make our way to the front door. I was halfway down the flight of stairs when my ears were suddenly filled with the sound of Mumford shrilly calling my name from the restaurant above. I stood momentarily rooted to the spot, trying to decide whether I should feign deafness and make a mad dash down the remainder of the stairwell and out into the relative safety of the street below…or heed to her beckoning call.
Papa Bear’s grinning but almost apologetic face peered around the door frame of the dining room and I stared up at him, mortified. “You had better come up”, his expression appeared to say…and so I did. I re-entered the restaurant to find Mumford smiling excitedly up at Virgilio, who had kindly risen from dinner and had his arm around her shoulders. I wandered over, completely red in the face, whispered an apology, fumbled my way through a [completely genuine] ‘I am a huge fan’ speech and stole a hug.
After doing the same for Gaston, I made my way to the restaurant exit for the second time – still red in the face, but with a little added spring in my step. I left with a nagging sense that I very much appreciated having a mother who was willing to bulldoze simply to get me what I want.
Did I enjoy Lee Ho Fook? Very much so. Will I return if I once again find myself in Melbourne? Without question. The food, the wine, the atmosphere, the music…it made for an all-round good time. In fact, this was perhaps my favourite meal of the whole trip…and undoubtedly the most fun.
Oh, and by complete and utter coincidence, I saw Virgilio outside my office on Charlotte Street in London a couple of weeks later [his restaurant, Lima, happens to lie just around the corner on Rathbone Place]. On this encounter I did what any adult would do: I turned bright red and ran away.
Where is Mumford when you need her?