Cho Cho San in Potts Point opened last week to such mega-wattage interest – I’m surprised that a power surge and blackout didn’t immediately follow in the area.
You could trace this highly-charged reception through the fast-breaking write-ups this new izakaya received – it was covered in SMH Good Food, Gourmet Traveller, Two Thousand, Broadsheet, Time Out Sydney and many other places within days of the restaurant’s first opening shot. Each review is like a transmission tower broadcasting how exciting this new joint is – and that’s no surprise, given the star DNA involved.
Cho Cho San is the new venture by Jonathan Barthelmess and Sam Christie, who can be credited for their excellent establishment, The Apollo, which is further up Macleay Street. Cho Cho San – although only two minutes away – takes a long flight path from the Greek terrain of their previous project, and lands in the high-circulation buzz of Japan’s bar scene. With the talented Nic Wong (Ester) as head chef, Cho Cho San feels like a guest pass into Tokyo, where izakayas are fuelled equally by good food and fun drinks. There’s not a lot of overthinking needed.
The menu airdrops you through Japanese cuisine – while taking lots of left turns and unexpected detours. Instead of snapping severely to textbook interpretations, there are inventive translations. Agedashi tofu is rewired as Tofu Cooked In Tomato Water ($3), crowned with tempura crumbs and washed in a low-tide pool of tomato consommé. Instead of usual battered and deep-fried staples, there’s Tempura Okra ($12), which (finally!) makes okra palatable to me, upgrading the plant from its slimey and hairy status, and frying the hell out of it, so it has crisp and flavoursome appeal. The zippy ponzu dipping sauce also helps with this okra-rehabilitating dish. And faster than you can say karaage, you’ll spot Fried Chicken ($12) on the menu, as moreish and succulent as you’d expect. Will very quickly turns this dish into a one-man demolition job, dunking the crunchy pieces into the chilli mayo for extra spice and zing.
The Eggplant and Miso Dip ($8) is like a more-please, party-version of traditional nasu dengaku, where you keep digging through the puree for serve after serve. The huge crackers are fun to snap and shovel into the mix, but they don’t quite have the structural integrity to nail the delivery – they sag and buckle under the weight of the dip; you’re better off using a spoon.
The Smoked Duck Steamed Bun ($12) is not something you’ll spot on a typical Japanese menu either; or its rogue twin, the Spanner Crab Steamed Bun ($12) with chive butter and a crisp sprinkling of ‘fries’ on top, both of which you’ll see circulating the room at Cho Cho San.
Even though there isn’t a purist approach to the food, Japanese ingredients are streaked throughout: smoked bonito with Hokkaido scallops, kombu butter paired with Hibachi-grilled prawns, while Pork Fillet and Mustard Greens ($28) comes with a hit of nose-clearing wasabi. Seafood gets large clearance on the menu, and there’s a raw bar, too. Don’t overlook the sides, either – they’re not just afterthought meal-fillers. The Mushroom and Egg Brown Rice ($12) is one of my favourite things you can order here.
As with an izakaya, drinks are a big deal without being a big fuss. Chart your way through Japan with the list of beers, cocktails and extensive sake list. And while sometimes tasting notes can seem like an awkward poetry exercise, where someone pads out descriptions with lofty-sounding flavours that have little connection to what you end up drinking, Cho Cho San’s sake menu is a great navigator and will steer you right to what you actually like. (So if you’re for a fermented rice brew that resembles banana lollies, you’ve come to the right place!) Okuharima ‘Miyanoi’ from the Hyogo prefecture is described as “robust burned brown rice & porcini mushrooms” – an unusual description that just dares you to try it. I did and bullseye – that is exactly what that sake is like. (There are at least three kinds of booze that are compared to mushrooms, actually. It’s my personal mission to try them all!)
The first time I went to Osaka, Tokyo and beyond, I landed a major crush on yuzu. In Matthew Amster-Burton’s very enjoyable Pretty Good Number One book, he writes, “Japan grows a Destiny’s Child-like trio of small, yummy citrus fruits: yuzu, kabosu, and sudachi.” Yuzu is basically the Beyonce of that group. The flavour profile is sweet yet bracingly tart, like a mandarin getting into a brawl with a lime. I like yuzu tea, yuzu sake, yuzu anything and everything – I’ve even had yuzu bread. So when Will spots the Steamed Yuzu Pudding ($12) on the menu, it’s a no-brainer what we’re ordering for dessert. This is a winter-friendly dish that will warm you right through, and the clean dollop of cream helps correct the sweet pitch of all that sticky citrus.
One dessert wasn’t quite enough, though, so we also enlisted dinner-finishing help from the Green Tea Soft Serve Waffle Cone ($6), which comes theatrically planted in a bowl of rice grains. Maybe it’s just fancy structural support, or maybe it’s there so you needn’t worry about scoring awkward ice-cream drips over your hands as you eat. If you’re after something that’s quite clean and understated for a meal-ending note, this is your pick.
Also unshowy and subtle: the room. Cho Cho San’s interior is by George Livissianis (The Apollo), and it smartly channels that Japanese trick of seeming deceptively simple and elegant (when lots of tireless behind-the-scenes work likely went into making it look so casually understated). The room has a really clean bone structure – concrete, industrial and a bit of a timber (from the shelves and Artek stools) – and everything is so toned down that you really notice the small things, like the sculptural ceramics by Sally Cooper and the gold custom chopstick rests that sit on your table, and how quietly beautiful they seem. There is also a cheeky sketch of a butterfly on the door to the women’s toilet, which is the only reference I could find to the name of this establishment.
In case you need a Game of Thrones-style recap, Cho Cho San is the name of an incredibly young woman in Madame Butterfly who falls in love with an American naval officer; being the romantic that he is, he ends up abandoning her and their child in Japan (only to later return with another wife in tow).
This fancy opera reference isn’t meant to make me sound more cultured than I am; the only reason I know this story is because the officer, Pinkerton, happens to be the name of the second Weezer album – a 35-minute slice of semi-angsty, hyper-melodic music that I replayed over and over as a teenager. (Singer Rivers Cuomo memorably called Pinkerton an “asshole American sailor similar to a touring rock star”.)
That lyric in their single, El Scorcho, “listening to Cio-Cio San/Fall in love all over again”, is a lung-busting line I’ve ruined plenty of times. And I used to pry open the back of the CD case of Pinkerton and geekily study the map secretly hidden there (which shows a ship called “U.S.S. Pinkerton” and a peninsula named “Cio-Cio San”). That was how dorky I was about Weezer (but not quite geeky enough to be able to explain the discrepancy in spelling – people seem to alternate between Cho Cho San and Cio Cio San, don’t ask me why).
Anyway, that accidental flashback into my adolescence is a hugely roundabout way of saying the story of Cho Cho San is bitter and tragic; and such a downer of a tale is a strange thing to connect to an izakaya that just buzzes with a lot of fun, and a completely untragic menu. But maybe as I said earlier, don’t overthink it. Just enjoy this short-haul trip to Japan while it lasts. Listen to, eat, drink at Cho Cho San. And fall in love all over again.