Monday, August 18, 2014

Ho Lee Fook-ing Good

I didn't come with particularly high expectations when I walked down the stairs to Ho Lee Fook, the new, stylish Chinese restaruant in the basement location at the foot of Soho. I thought it's going to be another one of those "Chinese" restaurants serving dishes that you more likely find in Chinatowns around the world, catering to out-of-towners' tastebuds. Nostalgic it might be dealing with the likes of moo-shu pork and general tso's chicken in the funny-looking takeaway box, I am not sure whether this is the part of the memory I want to re-live by.

Anyway, I am here to meet up a bunch of friends - we set up this impromptu dinner gathering after tons of whatsapp messages talking anything from food, restaurants, more food, and other funky random things that I won't even dare quote here. Somewhere in between those conversations someone mentioned this new restaurant, and dozens of exchanges later, we managed to set up the date and time for trying the place together.

Name of the restaurant is a tongue-in-cheek pun which loosely means in Chinese "Blessed with good food on your tastebud" literally and you can figure the rest in English. Behind the wok is Chef Jowett Yu, a Canadian-Chinese who moved to Austalia in late 2000s, first made his name at the Tetsuya in Sydney then later on a pair of restaurants he co-owned in Sydney serving contemporary Asian cuisine.

Our dear friend who made the reservation also called ahead and reserved a few dishes that need to be ordered in advance. (the restaurant has a no-reservation policy but does allow booking for party of 6 or more) And in addition to that, I think we literally ordered everything on the menu and shared among all 12 of us or so.

The menu was a mixture of western dishes with extensive use of Chinese/Asian ingredients or cooking techniques, and contemporary interpretation of some of the traditional Chinese dishes. Chef Jowett seems to favor rich and bold flavors, which I happen to love, and he paid special attention to the seasonings to wow his customers with unique combination of spices and tastes. 

I must say I like most of the dishes we had, but there were a few particularly remarkable ones. The "Mom's 'mostly cabbage, a little bit of pork' dumplings" brought back memories of Chinatown takeaway food in a good sense. I don't know whether it's the sheer size, the predominantly cabbage filling, or the thick wrapper skin but it sure worked well with the heavily vinegared sacha (satay) soy sauce with shreads of green onions. They tasted wonderful.

I was also more than impressed with the few roasted meat we had. For a chef with no formal training in a traditional Cantonese kitchen and without full-fledge facilities to do roasting, the roast goose, soy-sauce chicken and the kurobuta pork char-siu could easily rival those from any better local restaurants.

The wagyu short ribs probably represented the best example of what Chef Jowett is trying to bring to the culinary scene. The tender ribs was marinated and glazed with soy then char-grilled to medium-rare doneness. On the side was a generous smear of the bold Jalapeno puree and green shallot kimchi on top accented the overall flavor. You can't possibly categorize this into any particular cuisine, but overall this is epic with all these intense tastes coming altogether and going right in your face. And yes, it does sound unhealthy, but if I died of a heart attack because of this, at least I am sure I would have died happy.

I also loved a few dishes with spicy yet balanced flavors - including the deep-fried chicken wings with shrimp sambal, which was the first dish to arrive, the steak tartare with that tongue-tingling Szechuan peppers, or the pork belly with roasted chili and almond salsa.

Well, if we had to pick any dish that we would rather not ordered in the first place, I probably would choose Lu Rou Fan and the Prawn Lo Mein. Both the Lu Rou Fan - Rice with Braised Ground Pork Taiwanese style - and the Prawn Lo Mein infused with shellfish oil and served with shallot and crispy garlic were too one-dimensional and definitely not on par compared to other dishes we had. I also found the Hamachi sashimi - served with lemon jam, horseradish, cucumber and puffed buckwheat - a bit too sweet and unbalanced. Tried and not liked - that's just my personal preference.

The desserts were fine - I like the surprising combinations of flavors and textures, similar to the way he designed the savory dishes. I particularly loved the granny smith granita served with Calpis sorbet, mochi and koji jelly (Calpis is a popular Japanese soft drink). All these were familiar flavors but I just never thought they would work together that well in a dessert.

This hip Soho neighborhood has long suffered from the lack of good Asian restaurants, and Ho Lee Fok seemed to have filled this gap spot on. Yes, Chef Jowett, you just gained a new fan. The restaurant provides an unique and fun dining experience with solidly executed and creative dishes to show forth. This is not my everyday Chinese food, nor a place I would consider for a traditional family gathering type of a meal, but it was nonetheless excellent and it's a cool place to hang out. I came with rather low expectations but I am happy that my prejudiced initial impression was proven wrong.

When? July 23 2014
Where? Ho Lee Fook, 1 Elgin Street, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Roast Wagyu Short Ribs, Jalapeno puree, green shallot kimchi, soy glaze

No comments :