Can a restaurant be run by no one with any experience cooking Japanese food, set in a not particularly Japanese-looking room, served by not particularly Japanese-looking people, with flavours that can't really, truly be said to be authentically Japanese still be called a Japanese restaurant? More to the point, could it be any good? Working backwards, the answers to those questions, if we take Cho Cho San as our example, are, "Yes. In fact, it's really bloody good," and "Maybe, maybe not, but does it really matter? Hand me one of those lamb cutlets."
The not-Japanese restaurant people involved are restaurateur Sam Christie, best known for Longrain (a Thai restaurant) and The Apollo (a Greek restaurant) and Jonathan Barthelmess, late of Manly Pavilion (an Italian restaurant) and Coast (an Italian restaurant), and still chef at The Apollo. Nic Wong, who does Cho Cho San's cooking day to day, is formerly of Ester (a modern Australian restaurant) and Billy Kwong (a Cantonese restaurant). Its design was by the talented George Livissianis, whose recent work includes Café Paci (a Finnish-Mexican restaurant, sort of), Jac & Jack (an Australian clothier), The Apollo and the recent refit at Longrain. The restaurant's name comes from the lead character in Madame Butterfly, a short story by John Luther Long (an American lawyer and writer), perhaps best known as Madama Butterfly, the opera adapted by Puccini (an Italian composer). In other words, let's check the idea of pedigree at the door.
Just as the Impressionists lifted things like bold new approaches to subject matter and composition from Japan in their heyday, so too do our heroes take a bowerbird approach in their work, seemingly intent more on capturing the essence of their subject for maximum effect than its details. The menu is written in bold strokes, very like The Apollo, only with its list of share plates rendered in a bright impasto of miso, ponzu, green tea and yuzu in place of oregano, oil and olives. There's even the same feed-me-style chef's menu, a steal in any language at $65 a head.
Christie and Barthelmess like the idea of the restaurant having something of an izakaya vibe, so the booze offer is more nuanced and substantial than up the road. The long, narrow space is given over as much to bar seating as tables (the bar is where it's at), so it makes a lot of sense. Sake gets a full page, and sake-lovers and novices alike are well served by Steve Darazs, a smooth operator on the floor whose nihonshu knowledge distinguished him at Izakaya Fujiyama. Beers are excellent, covering both the mainstream (monster cans of Kirin and Sapporo), and the small and interesting (Robot Ninja on tap, Hitachino Nest stout in the bottle). Christie's flair for giving cocktails kooky names hasn't deserted him (the Nippy Rockshop is a successfully sake-fuelled twist on the Negroni), and his wine list is dangerously drinkable. It leans mostly and sensibly white and light, with familiar European names such as JJ Prüm riesling, Christophe et Fils Chablis and Tempier Bandol interspersed among savvy local choices along the lines of Chalmers vermentino, BK savagnin, Luke Lambert chardonnay and Bill Downie's pinot noir. It's equally suited to the Tuesday-night-fried-chicken hit with a tinnie as it is to the let's-get-everything-on-the-menu-bugger-the-expense splurge.
So about that fried chicken. Its secret ingredient is rice bubbles in the batter. Crunchy. Clever. It's so moreish with its spicy mayo accompaniment that it oughta be against the law to sell it without a beer on the side. If you were to come in just for a drink (somehow edging out the committed diners who have packed the place since the day the doors swung open) you could graze very happily on the chicken, a plate of pickled cucumber, the nasu dengaku-inspired eggplant and miso dip, and the excellent buns, a Momofuku-ish steamed one with smoked duck, and a toasted mayonnaisey one with spanner crab, chips and chives.
The room confirms George Livissianis as an interior designer of note. It's almost as stripped-back as The Apollo, but almost everything is painted white. There's not a waving cat, stand of bamboo or scrap of lacquerware to be seen. The tops of the walls are punched with circular holes, while the menu is rendered in an all-caps face that recalls The Matrix. One of the few overt concessions to the Japanese theme is an oversized paper lantern by the pass on a stack of red plastic Sapporo crates. The room is noisy, there are always people pushing for walk-ins (about a third of the seats are available for reservations; otherwise plan to come early or late) and the soundtrack swings from The Avalanches' "Frontier Psychiatrist" to vintage Peter Gabriel. In a good way. There's fine detail in the lovely ceramic wares, the proper double-ended chopsticks, and the eminently stealable heavy brass chopstick-rests. The overall effect is more Kill Bill than Hello Kitty, Osaka-hip rather than Kyoto-tranquil. And Potts Point is lapping it up.
"Do you pay George less because his work is so minimal?" I asked Christie as he worked the room one evening. "No," he said, "we have to pay him more." It's money well spent.
I wouldn't say the same about an order of the yakitori. Maybe it's the unmet expectation of smoky meat on a stick that the name conjures, but the breaded-looking chicken strips that come to the table with an almost chemical-tasting pickled lime accompaniment just don't do it for me. Apart from maybe the beans with miso (a bit one-dimensional), the yakitori is perhaps the only one of the 27 dishes (from a possible 30) I've tried that I wouldn't order again.
The desserts are good rather than great, and tend towards the sugary. Ginger custard has a fabulous lushness, its texture sublime, but the sweetness is off the chart, where something more like a gingery Japonaise-leaning take on the bitter caramel and Sauternes custard at Marque would have been sensational. Go the cute green tea soft-serve in a waffle cone, or the perfectly comforting steamed, yuzu-lifted take on the classic semolina citrus pudding instead. It's a pretty impressive strike rate, especially for so new a restaurant.
Everything I've had from the raw section has been excellent, most notably the slices of highly marbled beef rib laid over wild rices steamed (nutty) and puffed (crunchy), and diced cucumber, made electric by a brown butter, soy and ginger dressing. The sides can almost be considered meals in themselves, especially the hearty, chilli-rich udon with minced pork (Christie takes his with a fried egg on top) and brown rice with an egg and shiitakes through it. "Miso cod", a fillet of buttery white flakes of sablefish tender under a dark, sweet miso glaze, takes the Japanese home-cook favourite popularised by Nobu to elegant heights.
I'm among those confounded by the Japanese take on curry, and normally react with a mixture of revulsion and perplexity. The version Wong and Barthelmess have created, though, where it's turned into a sauce for mud crab (sold thoughtfully in whole or half portions), is neither perplexing nor revolting. Far from it, in fact. Could it be that it leans a bit more Malaysian or Sri Lankan in its spicing than the sweet turmeric-heavy example you'd find in an ANA business-class lounge? Whatever the case, it works.
"In painting you must give the idea of the true by means of the false," Degas once said. In creating their restaurant the Cho Cho San team has ignored the rules and relied on their own sense of what's good and what's going to work instead of relying on tradition. For three Greeks and a Chinese-Vietnamese guy opening a Japanese restaurant, it seems like the smarter move. They've come up with something spontaneous-seeming and energetic, a neighbourhood restaurant worth going out of your way for. It doesn't taste just like the real thing, perhaps, but it tastes good. The value is strong, the atmosphere magnetic. You'd best bet they'd love it in Japan.