It’s hard to walk by 1 Elgin street and not stop to stare at the open-style, mahjong-tiled kitchen housing chefs clad in white, furiously char-grilling food. When you name a restaurant Ho Lee Fook, you expect a little cheek, a little drama, and a whole lot of ‘good fortune in your mouth’. That would be the literal translation of the restaurant’s name, which if said fast enough sounds like a certain expletive.
Unusually, the open kitchen is situated on the street level, right by the entrance, and as you go downstairs to the dining area, you’re assaulted by the various scents emanating from the kitchen. It’s clever really. Because before I’ve even been seated (and admittedly on Fridays and weekends this can take some time) or seen the menu, I know I want what I smelled in the kitchen and saw on the grill.
The décor itself takes you back to 1960s Chinatown, New York- a dark and dramatic intersection between the Orient and the West. The soft rock tracks in the background fueling the lively conversations generated from nearby tables mostly occupied by groups of people sipping on drinks served cha chaan teng style in sealed plastic glasses. My own mint apple ice tea mocktail was perfect for a humid night.
Ho Lee Fook is Chef Jowett Yu’s attempt to reinterpret classic Chinese tastes for a wider range of palates, reinventing tradition by fusing old-style Chinese recipes with Western-style marinades, and various South/East Asian herbs and spices. This was evident in the first appetizer we chose- Hokkaido scallops with snow peas, pickled enoki, shisho and salmon roe.
The scallops were plump and juicy, complemented by salty fish roe, crunchy peas and a tangy dressing. The infusion of Japanese flavors making this ceviche style dish, light and fresh. Our next appetizer was fried cauliflower and Brussels sprouts with a maple bacon chili jam.
Having mostly only ever liked cauliflower South Asian style, I wasn’t sure how much it would appeal to me but I liked the crunch that the vegetables retained, and being a fan of sweet-savory flavor combinations I really enjoyed the maple bacon jam, although, traditionalists might find the dressing a little heavy and sweet. We opted for a lighter, greener appetizer next (a special not on the menu), of Okra and mint.
Seasoned with shrimp salt and Vietnamese mint (Vegetarians can request the shrimp salt to be omitted), I appreciated that the okra was left as untouched as possible, cooked just enough to remove its natural glutinous texture, but would have preferred the tangy and spicy flavor from the bed of mayonnaise it was served on (maybe mayo-maniacs will love it but for me okra is a bland vegetable which needs far more doctoring).
The Wagyu Steak Tartare, Yunnan style (served hot and sour), the spicy and citrusy meaty complemented by cassava crackers and cucumbers providing the necessary crunch and earthiness (although if you’re not a huge carnivore the chunky cut of the raw meat might not appeal to you).
Our main was a Grilled Pork Belly (which is cooked for ten hours!) served with a red cabbage salad and roasted chili almond salsa. This was perhaps the best savory dish of the night. The pork belly was so tender but not fatty, and nicely charred. The dish charmed with its perfect balance between smoky, dark, rich, acidic flavors.
I feel, however, whenever I’ll think back to Ho Lee Fook I will think of the awesome desserts that followed. I’m greedy. So I chose two! “Breakfast 2.0” was Horlicks ice cream served on a bed of cornflakes honey joy, oats, dried longan and cocoa coffee crumbs. This brought back so many childhood memories of cornflakes with warm milk and sugar on winter mornings. It was warm and cold, sweet and malty, milky and crunchy. And if I could ever figure out how to replicate this dish I would start eating breakfast regularly.
The last dish was a warm homemade pineapple cookie, with banana ice cream, honeycomb, passion fruit and salted caramel. This would be, I imagine, Chef Yu’s more luxurious take on Taiwanese pineapple cakes. Warm, tangy, chewy. If I could learn to replicate this dish… I might be reduced to a walking stomach.
Overall, I really enjoyed my meal at Ho Lee Fook. The menu translates traditional Chinese food into a language that will appeal to a larger range of palates, though it’s true that carnivores might enjoy the selection more than herbivores.
A meal for two came to $800 (without wine/cocktails), a little steep for two, which is also why, in addition to the very laid back feel of the place and the higher decibel level of noise, I would recommend it as a great place to go with a group of friends for a relaxed night out.
Ho Lee Fook | 1 Elgin St, Central | +852 2810 0860