73 Macleay Street Potts Point, New South Wales 2011
|Opening hours||L Fri-Sun; D Daily|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Events, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Groups, Late night, Licensed, Long lunch, Pre-post-theatre, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Chef||Jonathan Barthelmess, Nic Wong|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9331 6601|
Let's see, what have we here? A gun young chef seemingly incapable of a wrong move; a seasoned restaurateur with a proven track record; a hot Sydney architect at the top of his game; a prime Potts Point location … and fried chicken? Clearly, this isn't going to work.
This is so going to work. Cho Cho San, named for the tragic heroine of Puccini's Madame Butterfly, is a new-day Japanese izakaya from the team behind Potts Point's modern Greek taverna, the Apollo, just up Macleay Street. Restaurateur Sam Christie, chef Jonathan Barthelmess, and architect George Livissianis have taken a long, skinny space that has variously been Shogun, Osteria Moana, and Paramount, and turned it into a long skinny space with an equally long, skinny, stool-lined concrete bar and a slightly unfinished air.
With its massive brass sliding door, birch ply tables, and luminous back-lit Barrisol screen ceilings, it's like a whitewashed monastic canteen in a Cistercian convent as seen by British architect John Pawson. Until the food comes, that is.
Barthelmess and talented young head chef Nic Wong, formerly of Bodega, Billy Kwong and Ester, pay their respects to Japanese cuisine while simultaneously taking it to the street as small-dish, cocktail-friendly bar food. So eggplant and miso might sound conventional, but here, it's like Tokyo-pop baba ghanoush, with big, bubbly rice crackers for dipping ($10).
There's a steamed bun (of course) filled with rolled, smoked duck, hoisin and pickled cucumber ($9) that has real character, and a cute little milk bun, split and stuffed with buttery spanner crab and chives ($12), that's messy but fun.
The redevelopment of the Overseas Passenger Terminal has freed up highly skilled sushi chef, Yukio Moriyama, of the Ocean Room, and the raw bar dishes are glorious, the fish consistently served at its most favourable temperature for eating. A curved white bowl - the ceramics are lovely - holds precision-sliced Petuna ocean trout ($20) in an oceanic wave, dressed with a mix of soy, mirin, black pepper and wasabi. Sensational.
Meaty cubes of yellowfin tuna ($22) team with avocado and pickled eggplant in a slippery dip of a dish, dressed with tamari, rice vinegar and sesame.
The kitchen's rendition of miso cod ($38) is better than the feted Nobu version, the Alaskan black cod (sable fish) so delicately cooked, the flesh cleaves away like an iceberg sliding into the sea; a light crunch coming from finely shaved radish. Crusty, soy-glazed angus flank cooked over charcoal ($28) comes with Japanese mustard, wasabi and togarashi chilli sprinkles. Fried Chicken Alert: the small nuggets ($14) are super-tender inside, super-crisp outside. Two more surprise hits: crisp tempura batter turns okra ($12) into something even okra-haters will like, and a side dish of fat, worm-like udon noodles ($15) in a crumbly-rough pork and chilli ragu is Jap Spag Bol. A bowl of firm, almost-crunchy fried brown rice with mushrooms and fried egg ($12) divides opinion; our bar neighbours call it weird.
Along with a mostly experienced team headed by Aidan Eriwata, long-serving Sydney somm Charles Leong is on the floor, ready to suggest a glass of dry, tangy Kaishun Chokarakuchi Junmai sake ($11 a glass), or a bottle of the crisp, floral 2012 Grace Gris de Koshu from Yamanashi ($72).
Intelligent, easy, drinking food from a crack team, with high-detail simplicity, bookings taken (a miracle), and green tea soft-serve ice-cream in a waffle cone ($6) for dessert? If this doesn't work, nothing will.
Best bit: Japanese izakaya taken to a new level.
Worst bit: They don't do sushi.
Go-to dish: Petuna ocean trout with mirin and wasabi $20.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.