What happens when Nahji Chu – former owner of now-defunct Vietnamese chain Miss Chu – opens a yum cha restaurant? You get the essentials (carts and dim sum) but everything else is different.
The first things to go at Cha Li Boi, which opened on May 9, were the Chinese lanterns, bamboo baskets and all other stereotypes from previous tenant, The Oriental Jewel. “Instead of doing a refurb I decided to just gut the place,” says Chu. “What was left behind were these walls; we just took the wallpaper off. The old paintwork is from a restaurant about ten years ago.”
With bare walls, minimal timber furniture and concrete, it looks more like a library or a collaborative working space (it’s got coffee and Wi-Fi to encourage freelancers).
The menu has the classic dishes, albeit dressed up in jokey names (Chu’s trademark). The execution is far from gimmicky though. Chu has recruited Kylie Kwong’s right-hand dumpling aficionado John Leong. The dumpling style is mainly Cantonese but modernised. “I said ‘John, it's yum cha and I don't really want to change it. But I want to clean it all up. I want farm to plate, no MSG, I want more vegan options, I want no corn starch’,” says Chu.
Some innovative versions are the black, chewy Leather Jacket dumplings with fish and curried pumpkin; crayfish and scampi-stuffed orange dumplings; and duck dumplings shaped like ducks. Soup dumplings are served with a straw; other dumplings are filled with wallaby, warrigal greens and other natives; and a line of vegan dumplings are served with a piece of battered sweet potato cut to look like Pac-Man.
The most novelty aspect is Cha Li Boi’s “wedding banquet”, designed to bring people together. Diners can choose to queue in a specially designated area that, once filled with 10 people, becomes a faux wedding party. “When you form a table all this fanfare happens. My staff go ‘woo!’, the gong goes off and you get shown to your table. It's silver service, just like a wedding feast without the cake. At the end everyone gets a polaroid,” Chu says.