Chase Kojima was still a teenager when he encountered Chuka cuisine in Kyoto. The cooking style, effectively a Japanese interpretation of Chinese cooking but geared to suit local tastes, paved the way for popular dishes such as miso ramen and gyoza. One of his favourite stars, Aya Ueto, had tried shark fin ramen at Fukahire Ramen; but when Kojima arrived at the restaurant, the signature item was off the menu. He tried the restaurant's lesser known dishes, and liked what he tasted.
It was the general approach to Chinese food in Japan rather than the detail that stuck with the youngster, who went on to run Japanese diner Sokyo in Sydney. Growing up in the US, his early experience of Chinese food was confined to take-out. "Everything in Japan is light," he says. "It was so much better."
Fast-forward and Japanese-Chinese fusion is on the chef's mind again. His new Sydney restaurant, Chuuka, is built on the fusion of the two cuisines. Due to open on 3 July, it's a collaboration between Kojima and Victor Liong, chef at Melbourne's mod-diner Lee Ho Fook.
A meal at Liong's restaurant a couple of years ago sowed the seed. "I thought 'if I was a Chinese chef, my food would taste like this'," Kojima says. Chuuka will be "Sokyo plus Lee Ho Fook", he says. "We can go way Japanese or way Chinese."
This means using Japanese ingredients – sansho pepper, cherry blossom, nori or Japanese red vinegar, say – to create Chinese dishes. Or making XO sauce with dashi and salmon, and serving it with pipis or fried rice. A vegetarian ma po tofu, meanwhile, draws flavour from miso and yuba instead of pork.
In the lead up to opening Chuuka, there's been a lot of email back and forth between the chef. And plenty of travel too between Sydney and Melbourne. Kojima once had to fly directly to Liong's restaurant, because they couldn't agree on what kitchen equipment to use for their project. "I'm going over there, and we're going to work this shit out," recalls Kojima. Menu-wise, Liong might have started with a dish of bang bang chicken, for example, to which Kojima would add yuzu kosho and a shiso slaw to ramp up the spice and citrus. Or Liong would translate Kojima's Japanese take on lemon chicken into a dish cheekily named Tastes of Yuzu Chicken.
So has Chuuka benefited from the input of two chefs? "100 per cent," says Kojima. "One brain, you've only got so much ammo. It's always better when you have more people."
Here's what to order at Chuuka.
Salmon, roasted macadamia, heirloom tomato, ume plum dressing
Kojima believes that a signature fish entrée is the mark of a great contemporary Japanese restaurant. At Melbourne's Nobu, where he worked for several years, it was the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño; over at Sokyo, diners flock for the kingfish miso ceviche. At Chuuka, he's made a "kick-ass spicy" salmon dish dressed with a hot-and-sour combo of doubanjiang, tenmenjan and ume plums; it comes with an strange-but-it-works salad of tomato, onion, celery, coriander stems and Chinese deep-fried bread. "It's a staff meal-type salad – put everything in, toss it and go," says Kojima. "But man, it tastes really good."
Chawanmushi: steamed foie gras custard, blue swimmer crab, carrot and ginger sauce, shellfish essence
Traditionally, savoury Japanese egg custard is flavoured simply with dashi stock. At Chuuka, they dial the umami up to 11 with the addition of foie gras. "Foie gras was Victor's idea – it gives a whole other buttery flavour," says Kojima. It's a rich dish, so they only serve it as a small portion. "It's like eating pâté, but in a chawanmushi way."
Ma po doufu
It was in Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province, that Kojima recalls eating the best-ever version of the dish. "But to execute it in the Chuuka kitchen would be impossible – it has all these fermented Chinese pastes, and it's too powerful for the Australian market." So he added sundried tomatoes and diced firm tofu to mimic the texture of pork; yuba, fried tofu and silken tofu for texture, a sauce of doubanjiang and minced black beans; and Sichuan and sansho pepper flakes.
"I played around for about four months getting the ratios right to create this really complex flavour," says Kojima. "I'm not saying it's better than the original, but it's really good."
Chase’s tempura yuzu chicken, dried chilli, sweet-and-sour yuzu sauce
This dish marries Kojima's fascination for old-school sweet-and sour-pork and "orange chicken" from Panda Express, a Chinese fast-food chain in the US. "Victor said I was wasting my time. But I like making what people enjoy eating, but better," says Kojima. He tweaked his tempura recipe so the batter remained light and crisp, but was sturdy enough to hold the yuzu-spiked sauce. "It's my perfected version. Eventually Victor said: Okay, let's call it Chase's tempura yuzu chicken," he says.
Yoghurt pudding, Okinawan black honey and roasted soybean powder
Yoghurt is a theme on Chuuka's dessert menu. There's a playful take on the once-popular frozen yoghurt franchises that dotted the city, and it comes in the form of yoghurt sorbet and mascarpone ice-cream, with assorted toppings like yuzu jam and Vietnamese coffee jelly. But Kojima's favourite is the panna cotta-like yoghurt pudding with Okinawa black honey and kinako (roasted soybean powder). "It's a very wagashi, Kyoto-style dessert. Think mochi, but with yoghurt," he says. "It's got this funky sourness that is so addictive."
Chuuka is set to open on Wed 3 July. Jones Bay Wharf, Lower Deck Wharf, 19-21 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, NSW, (02) 9657 9882, chuuka.com.au. Open Tue–Sat noon–3pm, 5.30–11pm; bar open noon–11pm; Sunday noon–3pm.