And if you thought that Marc’s just talking up this joint as a favour to his pal, chef Keita Abe – simply because they used to work together at Wasavie restaurant – then here’s exhibits A, B, C, D and E: since Marc’s early call, this yakitori joint has earned impressive write-ups from Gourmet Traveller (always quick off the mark), Time Out Sydney, Daily Telegraph, Broadsheet and Grab Your Fork. I’m sure I don’t need to unbag more evidence to prove that Marc’s major-league fandom is more than justified.
Part of the next-level charm of restaurants is the way they effortlessly redraw the world’s boundaries and borders – so when you walk through the doorway of Chaco Bar, it feels like you’ve found a secret express exit direct to Japan.
In fact, Abe (who has also worked at Toko and Mamasan in Sydney) has rewound the hands on the clock and paged backwards through the calendar to bring you a version of the yakitori eateries from his youth. This ultra-cosy spot is a direct translation of what you’d find in the industrial back streets of “my prefecture” in Fukuoka, he says. Emblazoned on one wall is a hard-to-miss portrait, a painted version of a photograph taken in 1943 of his grandfather and father in costume at a local festival. Abe decorated Chaco Bar with his wife (sweethearts since high school), and they’ve pulled off that classic Japanese trick of stockpiling as much character and charm into a place, without ever getting close to tripping off the “dangerous hoarder alert” alarm system. You’ll notice lines of calligraphy on the walls; cute low-slung mismatching lamps, and shelves that are lined with jars of various fruit – cumquats, custard apples, quince – that have been ‘sleeping’ in brandy for the last six or so months.Some do get tipped and splashed out, like the banana-infused brandy that’s used in the boozy Granita with Vanilla Ice ($10) on the dessert menu.
There are also rows of wooden signs that spell out dining items in Japanese writing – beer, yakitori, dumplings, and wine (the latter is a bit of a joke, because even though Chaco Bar’s licence is about two to three weeks away, Abe plans to only serve Japanese beers, sake, shochu and omit wine – it’ll keep things “interesting”, he says; you’ll still be able to BYO bottles, though, as you currently can for $4 corkage).
“Old chefs in Japan eat a lot of different meats,” he says, and here, nothing is spare parts. On the menu at Chaco Bar, listed under Chef’s Favourite Yakitori are Heart Pipes, Gizzard and Gizzard Skin ($4 each), chosen for their flavour intensity. And despite worries, upon opening the restaurant, that “no one will eat the guts”, Abe admits, “I was wrong, luckily”. There was no need to push the Pink Centred Liver – or any of the skewers that he suspected might be a hard sell (Gristle, Chicken Tail, Wagyu Tongue, etc). But if you’re “not quite there” yet, you can order less daring options, such as Chicken Crackling, Wings or Pork Belly. The skewers are served on a bed of cabbage, which is not only a handy landing pad for all this protein, but multitasks as a way to palate cleanse, soak up all the juices, and maybe sneak in some greens to go with this meat-heavy menu.
While inspired by yakitori bars from home, Abe says his place is “95 per cent traditional” – leaving room for him to create a unique calligraphic twist on what’s expected. He points out that the Spicy Lamb Shoulder skewer is not so conventional; neither is the Vegie Trio ($14) of grilled okra, corn and asparagus on ‘Chaco hummus’; or the fact that chimichurri is one of the table condiments you can choose from. It’s not a regular custom to serve Taro Chips With Aonori ($9) either, but let’s all be glad that Abe has circuit-busted expectations, particularly on this delicious score. The chef created this dish because he was bored with the usual potato version; here, he simmers the ‘chips’ in dashi stock for 30 minutes before deep-frying them. The result is an addictive batch of crisp starchy balls ‘ashed’ in seaweed powder. Take that, tradition; rebellion tastes pretty damn good.
As you’d expect from a yakitori joint, the majority of items are cooked over charcoal; though if you want some more options than just notching up a collection of sticks at the end of the night, there’s also a good assortment of entrees, from House-made Sizzling Gyoza ($16) served with a chilli hit of rayu, to Smoky Edamame ($6) and Nagasaki-style Pork Belly Slider ($7). One of the most-ordered items is the Tsukune House-Made Meatballs ($14/$20 with 62 degree egg).
And if you’re a vegetarian and wondering if it’s one of those doomsday situations where you walk into a Japanese restaurant and it’s basically “edamame or bust”, Chaco Bar definitely goes beyond that. Sure, guts on skewers get a big focus here, but the menu offers a small but worthwhile selection of options. The only thing that Will and I tried that we didn’t exactly love was the Spinach and Red Papaya Shiraae ($9) – I mean, papaya already suffers from its factory-setting of being mushy and underwhelming and this dish didn’t really flip any prejudices you might have about this underachieving fruit. It’s also a remarkably cold dish (in contrast to the grilled goods that hit your plate), and the intense temperature drop is the only standout effect it has.
But otherwise, we really loved this place; it seems a lot of people already do, too, given how tough it was to get a seat here on a cold Monday night. (Sorry to our friends at Moon Park who missed out!) It’s interesting how the strong reception to Chaco Bar has also galvanised Abe, and transformed him from someone who second-guessed whether people would be adventurous enough to try liver and gizzards – to a chef who confidently says this: “I want to be the pioneer of guts in Australia”.
He’s definitely adding new territory to what people can expect from a Japanese restaurant, despite the small floorplan he has to work with. But this is an establishment that’s measured not in centimetres, but in the buzz and delight of sitting in a crammed, parallel-universe version of Fukuoka. While the sizzle of the grill and hot plates are a big drawcard when people want to cosy up in cold weather, I ask the chef if he’s worried that the coming warmer days might make things trickier. Not at all, he says. “Yakitori in Japan is perfect summer food. In fact, with a beer, it’s a golden combination.”