Friday, 3 April 2015

Ho Lee Fook - much more than a funny name

I'd only been in Hong Kong for a short time, just wandering around, exploring and trying to get my bearings, when I stumbled across a restaurant in trendy Soho's Elgin Street.  I actually did one of those comical double-take moments, you know the one, you catch a glance before your head snaps back to double check you've actually seen what you thought you saw.  Now, maybe it's just because I'm Australian, but when I see a place called Ho Lee Fook, I'm pissing myself laughing....  This is what happened, and then of course, I took some photos to share with my friends on Facebook.

Behind a very funny name is a very serious dude, Chef Jowett Yu, a young chef who's achieved a lot. A native from Taiwan, Yu spent most of his formative years in Canada before moving to Sydney in 2005, where he worked for legendary chef Tetsuya Wakada in arguably Australia's best restaurant of the last decade - Tetsuya's.  Not satisfied with working for one the world's best Asian chefs, Jowett went on to further success with Sydney's Mr. Wong and Ms. G’s - Mr. Wong's picking up the Australian Gourmet Traveller's best new restaurant of 2013.

It took me a couple of months, but I finally found my way back to Ho Lee Fook, this time with the express intent of satisfying my desire for some kick-ass Asian fusion.  We'd tried to make a booking for the restaurant, but as with many in Hong Kong, Ho Lee Fook had a no reservations policy, so it was get along and wait for a table....  Of course, we hate waiting for anything, so, with careful planning, we found ourselves standing at the top of the stairs that led down to the main dining room and scored the last available...  With a promise that we would be out by 8pm.

As we made our way down the stairs, we had a good look into the glass enclosed kitchen where the main action for the restaurant took place.  I also had a little bit of a chuckle at the wall of those golden maneki-neko cats that wave at you, also known as beckoning cats and generally believed to bring good luck to the owner.  With so many beckoning us into the restaurant, it was no wonder Ho Lee Fook was one of the more popular spots in Soho. I just hoped that much luck translated into a great meal.

We were at once put at ease in the cave-like confines of Ho Lee Fook, with it's low light and striking pieces of colourful street scene illustrations by Jonathan Jay Lee around the walls. It felt great to be seated.  It also helped that the completely packed dining room was filled with people just interested in having a great meal and a fantastic time.  In a night of contrasts, we were presented with a blood red menu that held a great selection of options that were designed specifically for sharing.  We love the concept of share dining, but it often leads to minor disputes about who gets that last bit, especially when sharing food as amazing as Ho Lee Fook's.

One of the first dishes we choose when it is on a menu is the beef tartare and here we had no hesitation in ordering the Yunnan style steak tartare with hot and sour flavours, fresh herbs and an irresistible crunch.  Simple presentation belied the complex flavours from the high quality beef covered with herbs and chilli, along with some toasted shallots.  There were a couple of large toasties to scoop the tartare and each bite was a textural and taste sensation.  A little bit of egg yolk was present to give some sweetness and every couple of bites there was a little heat from one of the chilli slices.

Sticking with raw foods, our next dish was the delectable Hokkaido scallops, which came presented in a neat little salad of two different coloured salmon roe, shallots, pickled enoki and snowpea.  We loved the colouring and presentation of the dish, but the real highlight was the sweetness of the scallops and the contrast of the slightly salty roe.

Our time in Hong Kong has been filled with dumplings, and if you're a regular follower of my Instagram account, you probably know know how many dumplings I've chowed down on over the last few months.  I'm ready to admit though, that the house specialty of 'Mom's mostly cabbage, a little bit of pork' dumplings were something special.  They were extremely well constructed with a lovely dough, looked beautiful and were filled with high quality ingredients.  Probably what elevated them though was the stunning sacha soy sauce, which had sweetness and heat in equal measures.  Most definitely the first thing we will order next time we're in.

When we ordered the Kurobuta pork char-siu, were were offered either fatty or lean pork. Unbelievably, we asked for the pork to come out lean, which turned out to be a big mistake!  Not because the Kurobuta pork was bad, no, quite the opposite.  The pork was so amazingly good without the added sweet pork fat, we could only imagine how mind blowing it would have been if we'd only ordered the fatty version.  The pork was simply delicious and the sweet and sticky sauce a sensational match, while the dumplings were a highlight, the pork was THE highlight.

Our last savoury dish of the night was my least favourite and one I wouldn't order again.  The DIY pork san choi bao or minced pork lettuce wraps, were fun to put together but there was something about the blend of pork, cucumber, kimchi and chilli bean paste that didn't sit well with me.  I have to say I'm not a big fan of kimchi anyway, so it probably detracted a little from my enjoyment.  On the other hand, SC quite liked them and ended up eating most of the big bowl of pork.

Not eating all of the pork san choi bao left plenty of room for dessert, so I went for the very refreshing sounding mandarin granita with smooth mascarpone sorbet, chewy maple-candied kumquat and crunchy sablee biscuit.  Presented in a glass, the mandarin granita was superb and refreshing, but what it hid was a creamy centre of mascarpone sorbet that was so delicious, it was worth the multiple 'brain-freeze' that hit me while digging for 'gold'.  It was a mixed pot for me though, I hated the candied kumquat as much as I loved the granita and mascarpone.  Remove the kumquat and it would have been the perfect dessert on a hot Hong Kong evening.

Aside from a funny name, Ho Lee Fook is a pretty serious restaurant and with the name also meaning 'good fortune for your mouth', it delivers on all fronts.  A sweet underground location that makes you feel welcome at the same time as having that X factor vibe, it's a cool spot to eat a meal while not feeling like it's trying to be at all pretentious.  

Staff in Ho Lee Fook had that edgy, uber cool look about them that fortunately didn't translate into attitude and were really friendly and helpful throughout the night.  It was interesting watching them strut around the restaurant but at the same time, notice that there was purpose in their movements.   

I've walked by Ho Lee Fook a heap of times since our meal and always pay special attention to it, noting that there is always a queue of people standing around waiting to get in.  Here is my tip, get in about 6"30pm - I know it's early for dinner by Hong Kong standards, but usually there is no wait at that time and surprisingly, Ho Lee Fook is already pumping....

The upstairs kitchen - you can see the action from the street
I wish my mum made dumplings like this
SC's green tea cake dessert
Our fortune cookies - SC and I definitely picked each others!!
Jonathan Jay Lee
Jonathan Jay Lee
Jonathan Jay Lee

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