Ten years ago, Junda Khoo would frequent 125 York Street. Back then, it was The Cuban Place and Khoo, like so many students, came for relatively cheap drinks, a loose vibe, maybe a cigarette on the balcony, and probably too many late nights. Now he spends every night at York Street, not drinking at the bar, but cooking. He’s taken over the big space to open Ho Jiak Town Hall.
It’s Khoo and business partner William Xie’s third restaurant, following a tiny Malaysian-street-food-based eatery in Strathfield mall and another, bigger project honouring his grandma’s cooking in Haymarket. The new one, a two-storey bar-restaurant, is the first to showcase Khoo’s cooking. “It’s still Malaysian. You know Malaysian is very regional. Even in Kuala Lumpur a bowl of laksa has 100 variations. For me, it’s not about if it’s modern or traditional – it’s just my take and that’s to take flavours from all the regions of Malaysia.”
Many of the dishes Khoo seems most excited about are the kind you’d want to order at the bar. They’re unfussy and packed with umami and punch – dishes such as the soupless fried laksa, fried chicken with herb-infused batter so succulent it drips as you dip it in salt-egg-yolk aioli, and sotong goreng berempah, a spice-heavy, battered deep-fried squid. “It's my take on salt-and-pepper squid, but Malaysian style, so we’ve got all the spices and the curry leaves fried together,” says Khoo.
That’s one possible experience you could have here; another option is to thin your wallet with a few big-ticket items such as fresh barra from the tank, seven-plus Wagyu skewers with satay, or even a whole lobster. “If you want a big blow out, call ahead, I will order the caviar,” says Khoo. In the future you might be able to chase your meal with a whisky and cigar, which will be rolled out to the restaurant’s veranda on a cart. You might even find Khoo out there too.
But the most popular item coming out of Khoo’s kitchen since it opened a couple of days ago is the har mee bomb. “It's literally prawn noodle soup in a dumpling. Inside you will literally find yellow noodles, vermicelli, pork fat – everything in one bite.”
Those who just want the smoky char kway teow (flat rice noodles) or nasi lemak (fragrant coconut rice with sides), there’s still a menu of Ho Jiak favourites to choose from.
The biggest departure from Khoo and Xie’s previous restaurants is the booze offering, compiled in collaboration with the team at Haymarket’s Bancho Bar, in particular Yoshi Onishi. “Cocktails run with a tiki-inspired theme, which complements the abundance of fresh, vibrant flavours offered in the food. With so much variety of tropical fruits and exotic flavours, the cocktails are playful and flavoursome, with a Southeast Asian twist,” says Onishi.
The wine list was built with the help of Phil McElroy (ex-Mona and Firedoor) from Bancho’s sister venue Nikkei and will likely settle at 100-plus bottles (there are 60 now; it’s growing during the soft-launch stage). McElroy describes the list as balanced and composed, with punchy flavours and acidity, and topped off with some high-quality additions for big evenings. The whisky range is small at the moment but will likely include some big hitters from Japan. If you want a cheaper bevy option, Tiger Beer is your friend.
Ho Jiak Town Hall will have its official grand opening on April 2, and by then you’ll be able to experience those drinks in front of a live band or in a private underground dining room. The room won’t change much – the team has settled on a jungle of faux plants, neon lights and exposed brickwork. “It’s a heritage building so we can’t do too much; we just gave it a good polish and changed the lighting. What wasn’t heritage, that’s where we put in the murals,” says Khoo.
Ho Jiak Town Hall
125 York Street, Sydney