When Claude’s closed its doors for the last time earlier this year, Sydney was sad to farewell a long-standing favourite of the fine dining industry, capably handled and helmed most recently by chef Chui Lee Luk. But it wasn’t going to be the end for Lee Luk, marking only a short pause before she turned her hand to a new venture and a distinct change of direction in the shape of Chow Bar & Eating House in the old Bentley digs on Crown Street in Surry Hills.
“We’re having a lot of fun here,” says Lee Luk, sitting at the bar as the day’s set up gets underway in the background. There’s a box of swamp cabbage on the counter and a laughing discussion as to whether the menu should use the sexier name ‘water spinach’ for the evening. “I can’t say how much fun we’re all having here,” beams the busy chef.
The new-look interior – courtesy of Giant Design- nods to the distinctly Chinese feel that Lee Luk has adopted, complete with communal tables inlaid with mahjong tiles or painted with Chinese chessboards. “It’s a different environment from fine dining and we’re all just letting loose. I think it shows in our cuisine and service and we want everyone to have as much fun as we are having.”
It’s a big step away from the French fine fare that Claude’s was well known for, but it’s a welcome change of direction for Lee Luk and one that was in the works for a long time, most noticeably so by the Chinese flavours that appeared on the recent Claude’s menu. At Chow, the menu is influenced by Chinese street food, the whole classic canon of Chinese cuisine, as well as Malaysian flavours from Lee Luk’s own upbringing.
“It’s an evolving concept… I wanted to explore a more casual option, especially with the space offered to us here. So I had to work out what would challenge me, what would be great for the public and what would be interesting for all of us to play around with.” You can see the excitement in her eyes as she draws attention to the cocktails list, pointing out the licence at Chow allows for drinks, bar snacks, or all-out dinner depending on what you’re looking for.
Lee Luk relishes the new creative opportunity despite only a short three-month turnaround between closing Claude’s and opening Chow. And considering the change of direction, did she have any reservations about the shift of gear?
“Yes!” she laughs, “If you want to make a change in anything, of course you come up against your demons. One of the things I am most unsure of in shifting cuisines is if I am good enough to do Chinese cuisine when I am basically self-taught. I know what it tastes like and I’m working out the technical details in a restaurant context with other chefs who are helping. But it’s the autodidact version of Chinese… it’s a very complex cuisine with very complex categorisations.”
Lee Luk believes that her training and background place her in good stead to take on and learn all she can about the Chinese repertoire, and it was just the challenge that she was after. “A friend reminded me that I spoke about doing this around six years ago.” She laughs.
“I guess I have that precise brain and background knowledge… and this is what I’ve been wanting for a long time. Everyone is in a new environment and we are presenting great dishes, but it’s just going to get better.”
Does she have a favourite dish to watch out for?
“I like the pickles that we’re doing because they suite my tastes. They’re pretty intense. We have a cucumber and chilli pickle, daikon pickle with chilli bean paste, and a Malaysian mixed vegetable pickle called achar. To me they’re a great starter because they set the bar for the level of flavours. Their different emphases reflect what the menu is all about.”
And for a glimpse of Lee Luk's childhood? Try the crab.
“It’s actually based on something from my childhood memory. It’s my imaginings of what we used to have as a family and refined a bit.”
Chow Bar & Eating House
320 Crown Street, Surry Hills
(02) 8095 9058
Daily Noon till late