Japanese cuisine may not have been anyone’s first guess for the next restaurant to come from the successful partnership of The Apollo’s Jonathan Barthelmess and Sam Christie, but that’s what it is. “[We did it] to challenge ourselves. We didn’t want to just open another Greek Apollo. We wanted to push ourselves to do something new,” says Barthelmess.

That being said, the two have a lot of Asian-cuisine cred between them, and Cho Cho San’s head chef, Nicholas Wong has stints at Ester, Bodega and Billy Kwong under his belt. In fact, their lack of formal training in Japanese cuisine is perhaps what makes the menu at Cho Cho San so exciting; it’s inspired by Japanese food – it does not pay homage to it. Cho Cho San is therefore not restricted by traditional methods or ingredients. “It’s our interpretation of first, what we like to eat, and secondly, of Japanese food and methods,” says Wong. It’s this approach and creativity that has created modern Australian-Asian food; restaurants such as Longrain (which Christie is behind), Bar H and Sake, have been part of creating a cuisine in and of itself.

Barthelmess and Christie were inspired by the drinking culture on their recent trips to Japan. “We wanted to bring that fun, izakaya style, in a Sydney way, to the dining room. That’s why we have the long dining bar, a great cocktail list and food that lends really well to that kind of environment.”

The space, designed by architect and interior designer George Livissianis, is minimal and painted cream, with branding by Sydney studio Folke Army. The only colour is from the shelves behind the bar, stocked to the hilt with spirits, sake and shochu. There aren’t many wines by the glass, but the sake list is long. “I really love [sake],” says Wong. “I find wine too overpowering to drink with food, too many flavours going on, but sake goes with any meal.” Sommelier extraordinaire Charles Leong (of Momofuku Seiobo) is on hand to point diners in the right direction booze-wise.

If Barthelmess was to come in for dinner, there are a few dishes he’d go straight to. One of them is the raw scallops, with corn, nori puree and house-cured smoked bonito. If you thought gently fried was the best way to enjoy scallops, your mind will be changed by these. The rich puree and umami of the bonito let the flavour of the fall-through-your-chopsticks delicate scallops sing.

The soft, steamed bun, filled with cucumber and duck smoked in jasmine tea, and the lightly wood-fired bread bun, filled with a spanner crab chowder, are both must-orders. The side of dry udon noodles is rich and spicy. “It’s like a Japanese bolognese, with chilli-bean paste, ginger and pork. It’s European styling but has a little bit of a Korean influence and Japanese too,” says Wong.

The seafood and meat sections are a little more traditionally Japanese. Large, juicy king prawns are charred and crisped over the hibachi grill and chicken yakitori is served with pickled lime and sprinkled with spicy shichimi. “Then again, we’re not using any particular recipes for glazes. If we want to use a Chinese or Korean ingredient because it tastes good, we will,” says Wong.

The matcha green-tea soft serve, served in a waffle cone plunged into a bowl of uncooked brown rice is simple and delicious. The ginger custard with gingerbread crisps however, is a show stopper. Delicate in texture and flavour, intensely creamy, a sweet ginger glaze on top combines with the custard as you eat.

Cho Cho San is emblematic of a new generation of chefs who are paying respect to tradition at the same time as gently stepping away from it. The focus is on produce and ingredients, so that no dish is overdone, and creating cool spaces that remind us why eating out with friends is Sydney’s favourite activity.

Cho Cho San
73 Macleay Street, Potts Point
(02) 9331 6601

Mon to Thurs 5.30–10.30pm
Fri & Sat 12–11pm
Sun 12–10pm