There's so much going on at Chuuka that I don't know where to start. It could be the soundtrack, which ranges from Lorde remixes and The Avalanches to what I'm tempted to describe as arcade synth-wave disco. It could be the garish design shoehorned into the heritage wharf building, or the $38 frozen yoghurt service for dessert. Or it could be the website, where the same Chinese dragon and Japanese koi carp that decorate the walls of the restaurant snake their way behind a neon "Chuuka" sign and the phrase "rebel, renegade, outlaw, punk" sits awkwardly above a footnote reading "brought to you by The Star".
At its worst, Chuuka is an example of a decent pitch gone askew through too much corporate workshopping. At its best, it's a place where the coming together of two chefs in their prime – Chase Kojima (Sokyo, Sydney and Kiyomi, Gold Coast) and Victor Liong (Lee Ho Fook, Melbourne) – manages to drown it out. Where dishes that on paper shouldn't work do and hint at this Sino-Japanese collaboration having serious staying power.
Take the ebi chilli, for example, a spin on the Japanese version of a Chinese dish of prawns stir-fried with a Sichuanese chilli sauce. At Chuuka, the prawns sit proudly on a base of chilli-miso butter sauce and wok-tossed spring onion. They're crowned with eschalot and chilli for sharpness and heat, and smartly dressed up with crisp-fried prawn legs for crunch. Plump little Japanese milk buns come on the side to clean up.
This is one of a few dishes riffing on Chuka cuisine, defined loosely as Japanese Chinese food – in the same vein as American Chinese, say, only rendered with the same level of enthusiasm that gave the world the likes of tonkatsu and curry rice.
Tenshindon, one of many glorious entries in the eggy rice canon of Japan, is another. In its straight form, it's a base of rice topped with a crabmeat omelette and covered in a thick sweet-sour sauce. At Chuuka, that rice is stir-fried with Japanese XO sauce – made on a base of dashi and scallop – and the broth, which has raw egg and blue swimmer crabmeat folded through, is topped with coins of sashimi scallop. It's rich, decadent and extra saucy. It probably doesn't need the XO, but when was this a question of need?
Other dishes fall at varying ends of the spectrum. There's a special of Peking duck (half or full) that hits the proper crisp, sweet and meaty notes, the most obvious concession to Japan a hint of cherry blossom in the sauce. A hot, fragrant vegan ma po tofu is given bite with tofu skin and length with salted black bean. And a warm salad of stir-fried potato dressed with threaded chilli and tempura kombu recalls the spice of Singapore noodles. All are clear and precise, and joys to behold.
You can see both chefs running free with their styles. Kojima gets the raw bar – there's roe service, lobster tanks, and sashimi tuna and kingfish presented with the same flair on show at Sokyo – and Liong gets the garlic cucumbers and the Sichuan eggplant, which arrives like a mix-it-yourself taco bowl complete with fried wonton skins, chickpeas and herbs. (Would it be better to just find a way to Japanify the Lee Ho Fook eggplant and be done with it?)
But for the level of excitement this collaboration caused when Chuuka was first announced, there could be more Liong. It feels like an offshoot of Sokyo. And, even if the end of Jones Bay Wharf is a decent step away from The Star, you can feel its presence in the straight and expensive lines of the wine list, in the stilted service, the showy cocktails, the dry ice.
I'm not sure why The Star put an extra "u" in the word Chuka, or what they meant it to stand for, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a reminder for staff to upsell, so frequent are the attempts to proffer extra specials, dessert cocktails, more oysters, a sashimi platter.
The food here is exciting, thrilling at times. But I wonder if it would be a more exciting restaurant if two broke but talented young chefs got together and threw everything they had at a warehouse space in Surry Hills and built something all their own. Instead, to quote their website, Chuuka is Chuuka.