What’s in a name? When we’re talking about Chuuka, just about everything. That the restaurant is headed up by Chase Kojima (Sydney’s Sokyo) and Victor Liong (Melbourne’s Lee Ho Fook) is a big enough clue: Kojima a Japanese chef, Liong Chinese.
It’s certainly a better clue than what the admittedly cool – but rather uninformative – website provides*. The best you’ll get is something along the lines of ‘Chinese flavours delivered with Japanese precision…this is East meets East, but not as you know it’. As cryptic as it is informative.
Let’s try and clear some of that up.
*I’ve spoken to Chase Kojima on this and the website will ostensibly be revamped to provide more information in the actual origins of chūka ryōri on which Chuuka is based.
This post is based on two independently-paid visits to Chuuka
A Short History of Chinese-Japanese Cuisine
There’s a term you need to know: chūka ryōri (中華料理). This is a Japanese term that translates literally as ‘Chinese Cuisine’. Due to the idiosyncratic relationship between the two languages, it also translates as the very same in Chinese (albeit with modern characters – 中国菜). A pronunciation note: overbars in romanised Japanese are pronounced with an elongated sound: chūka, then, becomes chuuka. Chuuka.
The restaurant’s name is no coincidence.
So basically, it’s Chinese food as the Japanese see it, right? Well, sort of – but there’s more to it. There are technically two variants of chūka ryōri – the kind that was exported to Japan by the Chinese in the 18th and 19th centuries, for which its constituent dishes have subsequently been adapted to Japanese palates; and a much more recent incarnation in the mid-20th century during which Japanese chefs took much greater liberties in reinterpreting Chinese cuisine into dishes that are ‘sort of’ Japanese and ‘sort of’ Chinese, but not quite either. The best example of the former definition of chūka ryōri is – oh boy, wait for it – none other than ramen (and while we’re at it, the chāshū that’s often a fixture). But given the modern definition, it’s now a distinctively Japanese cuisine – nobody thinks of ramen as ‘Chinese’ food any more even as they acknowledge its Sino roots. An example of a dish that’s closer to the modern definition (arguably a Japanese invention) would be something like champon, the click I’ll leave to you.
Confused? Tell me about it. In the end, it doesn’t matter all that much: call it fusion, if you will, the but the derivation and subsequent pastiches of Chinese-Japanese cooking is a rare fusion success story – chūka ryōri eateries in Japan (both ‘Chinese’ restaurants and its fusion cousin) are hugely popular – have you been to Yokohama?
The takeaway is this: chūka ryōri is not newfangled butchery conjured up by a stereotypically appropriative white male chef. It is a legitimate cuisine in its own right with a rich and multifaceted history: East meets East. This is Chuuka.
Chuuka – The Restaurant
Situated at the end of Jones Bay Wharf, Chuuka commands a prime position at what used to be Flying Fish. As such, it’s not really your drop-in kind of venue, unless you own a yacht. If that happens to be you, drop me a line yeah?
If you’ve been to Sokyo, you know there’s a lot going on: loud music, loud people, with equally vibrant – and for the most part delicious – food. People will be people, but I’m glad Chuuka’s acoustics are much more conducive to conversation, and its background music unintrusive – in fact, I literally cannot recall it at all on both visits. Must be all the wood fixtures and high ceilings bringing together the ground and first floors. You’ll need to visit more than a few times to take stock of all the spaces – there’s an outdoor lounge area, a bar, and three dining spaces. A separate ‘raw bar’ takes care of all fresh seafood duties though, in this respect, Chuuka is far more Japanese than Chinese, and so I didn’t sample its ‘caviar service’ or its various sashimi: there are other Japanese restaurants for that.
What I’m here for is Chuuka’s chūka, and it’s here that Kojima and Liong show their flair. In summary: most dishes are delicious, some raise an eyebrow, and all are non-traditional. To a Chinese person, it must seem a bout of gratuitous whitewashing when Chuuka’s mapo tofu is served vegetarian, substituting mushroom duxelles for minced pork, and using miso to impart flavours that the meat and other fermented bean pastes would ordinarily have provided. Similarly – yet conversely – a Japanese diner may look at the char siu-glazed kurobuta pork belly, expecting it to be akin to chashu but actually ending up being neither (though for the record, the dish tasted more Chinese than Japanese to me).
To give a third example, take the cult Chinese favourite of pipis, but there’s no XO or typhoon shelter here: Chuuka’s are bathed in umami-rich nori butter and garnished with crispy seaweed that’s unmistakably Japanese, yet the inclusion of green chilli and pieces of ‘puffed bread’ (side note: not a fan of their hard chewiness) once more confuses one’s sensibilities: Chinese or Japanese? Nah, it’s chūka.
Expectedly good: The tempura yuzu chicken is clearly a riff on orange chicken (itself a Panda Express riff on Chinese food – the inception goes deep), and so tasty that I think I’ve found my new favourite saucy fried chicken. Unexpectedly good: a diminutive plate of wok-fried king brown mushrooms & rice noodles with bloody good wok hei and a well-balanced sweetness from that dark soy. Chuuka clearly knows when to let go of the Japanese restraint: sometimes you just gotta let things burn.
My favourite dish is the tenshindon: a dish lifted from Tianjin that, in Chuuka’s case, consists of a viscous layer of blue swimmer crab & scallops on top of rice fried with a ‘Japanese XO’ (let me guess, some variant of miso?) that also packed a surprising-but-welcome chilli kick – well, for a Japanese restaurant at least. Effing delicious and a dish I’ll always order whenever I’m back.
A no-go for me was the chawanmushi, a silky egg custard that, in this instance, includes steamed foie gras, blue swimmer crab, carrot & ginger sauce and shellfish oil. It sounds really good on paper but the execution wasn’t there: lots of unexpected grittiness and the flavours of what should be strong ingredients were surprisingly mute. The Japanese do chawanmushi best, but this one didn’t hit the mark.
Other dishes I’d pass on are either variant of wagyu: the medium-sized charred wagyu intercostal or the larger (and quite good-value-for-money considering what you get) short rib. It’s not so much a matter of these dishes being bad rather than a case of incorrect ordering – neither dish was a knockout in terms of showing off the meat, and so it simply becomes a matter of opportunity cost: what else could I get on the menu that I’d like much more?
One answer would be the miso-glazed glacier 51 toothfish w/sweet & sour bullhorn chillis. It’s not exactly Sokyo’s saikyo miso cod, but the lineage is there, and that’s a beautiful thing. Expect it to be sweeter than its saikyo cousin but with same, buttery melt-in-your-mouth flesh.
Golly, I’ve talked about a lot of dishes: Chuuka is the kind of restaurant where everything seems tempting – and with good reason for the most part. Moving the party along to the desserts (which are listed on a fun origami menu, by the way) yields a similar story. In this respect, the outputs are much more a combination of Japanese and the West, rather than the Chinese. That said, almond jelly and florally-infused diced fruits immersed in umeshu with a coconut sorbet is about as close as it gets to a Chinese conception of dessert. Assuming you’re okay with almond essence, it’s pretty good – certainly a decent alternative to ‘a platter of fruits’.
For something much, much heavier, one can try Chuuka’s dark chocolate mousse, chartreuse, matcha green tea, genmaicha ice cream which according to dessert gourmands was technically excellent. I say ‘according to’ as I typically prefer a lighter, more refreshing dessert after a heavy meal – which Chuuka is – so this didn’t really do it for me.
The best dessert? Probably the Japanese purple yam ice cream, pearl jasmine tea, sago & blueberries. Surely I don’t need to explain why?
I’m onboard with Kojima and Liong’s vision, given the cooking is up to scratch. But there’s the broader question of perception and how we form preconceptions based on our experiences. For the uninformed, Chuuka may very well be an indulgence of two egoistic chefs serving ‘whitewashed’ Chinese food that’s been given the token Japanese treatment. If you’ve already been to Chuuka, you’ve probably had this thought cross your mind; after all, applying Japanese sensibilities to a cuisine often means making it more subtle – or ‘dumbed down’, to use a more pejorative term.
As a Chinese person, it is almost impossible to fight this perception. As a Japanese person, it’s neither here nor there. As a Western person, well, I only have clues. Terry Durack, in his review of Chuuka concluded: ‘For Australian diners who know how good both Japanese and Chinese cuisines can be as singular entities, combining them seems like a compromise of both.’
Respectfully disagree. I’ve been known to say in the past that food should be judged in its own capacity: ie, the tautology that if the food is delicious, it’s delicious and if it’s not, it’s not – nothing else really matters. To an extent, I still believe that to be the case. However, eating delicious food and appreciating delicious food are distinct concepts. I think Chuuka’s food is delicious, but this belies the broader point made at the start: chūka ryōri is its own cuisine. It speaks for itself.
Durack ended his review with ‘But hey, Chuuka is Chuuka, right?’
That it is.
Date Last Visited: 24/Jan/2020
Address: Suite 62-64, Jones Bay Wharf, 26-32 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont NSW 2009 (end of Jones Bay Wharf)
Price Guide (approx): $70pp plus drinks
This post is based on two independently-paid visits to Chuuka
- Whether Japanese, Chinese or Westernised Chinese, Chuuka owns it.
- Slick and attentive service, unusual for a restaurant of Chuuka’s size.
- Stereotypical ‘sauciness’ and ‘heaviness’ depending on the ordering.
- Very easy to fall into the trap of stereotyping Chuuka’s food as ‘Westernised Chinese’.
- Some minor consistency issues between visits.
- The food will speak for itself, but understanding the history of this cuisine mash-up helps at the margin.
Would I return: yes – already have!
F7 | S4 | A2
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