With shareable contemporary food, culinary pedigree and a coolly minimal room, Cho Cho San seems perfectly Sydney. So it's fitting that the restaurant comes with that perfectly Sydney response: hype. It's been slavered over on blogs, on Instagram and in social scenarios of every permutation in the two weeks since opening doors.
Our verdict? The place is good, but, as with so many things, it's best if you calm your expectations. Founded by chefs and co-owners Jonathan Barthelmess and Sam Christie, Cho Cho San replicates some of the atmosphere and attitude of their hit restaurant The Apollo across the street. This time, with Nicholas Wong (of Kylie Kwong and Bodega) heading up the kitchen, the cuisine in line to be given that Sydney modern touch is Japanese. (The name 'Cho Cho San' refers to the romantically and culturally exploited heroine of the opera Madama Butterfly. It's nice that they're self-aware?)
Utilising a lot of traditional hibachi grilling and steaming, the menu is relatively light and healthy — a nice deviation in the present restaurant landscape. We lap up the carpaccio-like raw beef short rib ($18), which comes with richly textured wild rice and a ginger dressing, though there's a popular fried chicken option ($14) if you must have something battered. The smoked duck steamed bun ($9) and spanner crab toasted bun ($11) are cute as buttons, and the smoky, creamy crab is a star performer.
Our favourite dishes, however, end up being those that sounded the least appealing. The grilled kingfish head (a bargain at $14, since you're saving it from the bin) is surprisingly full of meat, and succulent, full-flavoured meat at that. This was one of the best fish-eating experiences I've had, period. Then there was the side of radishes with brown butter ($11). This is not an exercise in quaint menu understatement; they are literally raw, seasoned radishes with a pat of mild butter beside. It's an inexplicable taste sensation that sees us hoe into the butter like we've just discovered it for the first time. When you have a transcendent meal out of what sounds like World War II rations, you know you've had a special night.
Green tea soft-serve ($6) stabbed into a bowl of rice is an inexpensive and pretty post-meal palate cleanser, but dessert at Cho Cho is skippable. Drinks-wise, a Japanese white wine like the 2012 Grace Gris De Koshu ($15.50/glass, $72/bottle) is a no-brainer, partly because there's not much else available by the glass. There is, however, a great range of cocktails ($17-19), beers, sakes and shochus for solo drinkers.
All smooth slate and pale beech, Cho Cho San's is a nice room to sit in, particularly if you're at the big communal bar. It's a shame that our service, while friendly, is hurried. We came for the 6pm sitting, and, at the rate the small plates were being piled on top of each other, they could have had us out at 7pm (we were going for 8). It was hard to get to all the dishes before they'd gone cold.
Extreme efficiency aside, Cho Cho San is an arrival worth singing about. Let the lines die down a little, Sydney, then pay her a visit.