Scene: a warehouse on Commonwealth Street. Bright young things line up outside, teeth and hair gleaming, eager to get into the throbbing darkness inside. The lights are low, the volume high.
To the left is the bar, where supplicants cool their heels with cocktails and snacks while they hope to land a seat in the room over to the right, a broad expanse filled with big tables, smoky with scorched chilli and caramelised fat, ringing to the thunk and sizzle of woks, and that special barking din Sydneysiders make when they know they're in the hottest place in town right when it's at its most intensely fabulous. The year is 1999. The place is Longrain.
Inside Chin Chin Sydney
Perhaps you think it's a little bit strange to take that concept and do something very similar roughly 12 metres down the same block as Longrain, 18 years down the track. Perhaps you fancy that a Melbourne restaurateur coming to Sydney and opening a cocktail-drenched modern Thai restaurant in a Surry Hills warehouse makes about as much sense as someone from Sydney opening a wine bar in an old factory in Fitzroy selling long macs and Lune croissants to punters sheathed in black skivvies and Aesop.
The good people of Chin Chin Sydney appreciate your concern. And they would love to discuss it further, but they're busy right now with a restaurant that's packed at lunch and dinner with Sydneysiders fighting tooth and nail for a piece of the action.
Don't go to Chin Chin if you don't like a loud restaurant. Don't go to Chin Chin if you don't like being unable to figure out if the toilets are still under construction. Don't go to Chin Chin if you like your wine more natural than not or are going to get your knickers in a twist about whether and how the food hews to Thai tradition, or if you want your meal served at a leisurely pace tuned more to your needs than those of the kitchen.
Which leaves the rest of us wondering not if we'll check it out for ourselves but when. Go early or, better yet, late. Take friends who prize noise and movement over stillness and clarity. This is no place for mindfulness; you're here for pink neon, hot chilli, wine on tap, and the contact-high of 160 people in a room really giving the place a nudge.
General manager Craig Hemmings, executive chef Benjamin Cooper and owner Chris Lucas (seated)
And you're here for the Isaan-style chicken. The kitchen at Chin Chin in Sydney is twice the size of the original in Melbourne, with a grill and a rôtisserie, and the A3 placemat menu stretches to more than 50 dishes. I've eaten maybe 20 of them now, and so far this chook, which is cooked on the rôtisserie, chopped into chunks, showered with lemongrass and served with a sour-sweet shallot relish that's somehow reminiscent of baba ghanoush, is the standout. Watch out for that tablespoon of dry chilli on the side there; its fire brings the bird to life, but burns with the heat of a thousand suns if mishandled.
It's not easy bringing a 50-dish menu to heel. I've struggled to locate nuance under the sweetness and fat of the Massaman brisket, been surprised by the dryness of the beef rendang under a toasty and handsome sauce rich in chunky spices and coconut, and encountered graininess in the coconut custard on black sticky rice.
But I've also been overjoyed to find liver chopped in with the duck, ground rice and lime of a larb, and plan to sneak back asap for another plate of the prawns and bug tails folded through beautifully elastic egg noodles with garlic chives and a goodly helping of "hellfire" chilli oil. The Chin's take on son-in-law eggs convincingly combines twice-cooked, gooey-yolked eggs with sour-sweet tamarind duck, while the contrast of textures in crisp barramundi with caramelised pork and peanuts is a fine thing. Staff have proven informed, flexible and almost scarily enthusiastic.
A word on the music. Technotronic's "Pump up the Jam" (1989) and the Fugees' 1996 cover of "Killing Me Softly" are representative recent highlights.
It's possible they were picked for their basslines; the top-end of any given song is lost in this room to the date tables' Tinder screams and the humblebrag rumble of the big corporate bookings. Meanwhile, the Chin Chin Sydney déjà vu works its magic: you might have to wade through Vanilla Ice and Coolio to get there, but there's enough "Blue Monday" to keep you hanging on. And hey, just because you've heard the tune before doesn't mean it won't have you tapping your feet.