Stooping to get under low hanging noren, we sink into the intimate sub-basement space dubbed Chaco Bar.
Dominated by a long communal table overhung with fabric bunting, the room is dimly lit and buzzing with a convivial hum.
With the neat precision of origami, we’re soon folded into a corner table under a quirky thematic mural, peering at the chalkboard specials through the gaps between other diners’ heads.
The tiny restaurant works on a timetable that oscillates between ramen and yakitori. Being a Friday night, we’re here to eat stuff on sticks, like tender Aged Wagyu Tongue ($14) glistening and charred with anchovy butter, punching umami like nobody’s business.
Owner and chef, Keita Abe, walks a meandering line between modern Japanese dishes that reflect his time at restaurants like Toko and Mamasan, and more homely bowls of curry rice. Miso Eggplant ($17) kicks the Japanese standard up to eleven using a well-caramelised disc of foie gras under a crown of yuzu jam.
Uni Wagyu ($26) takes thinly cut marbled beef carpaccio style with lobes of glistening orange sea urchin alternating with dabs of Tasmanian truffle under an egg yolk and snowy Parmesan Reggiano. My dining companion thinks it’s expensive, so I plan to conduct a clandestine affair with it in private - just me and umami - because this Japanese surf and turf makes me want to lick the plate.
He’s won over by Curry Rice ($16) served here under roasted bone marrow presented in the shin, then scraped to enrich your waiting curry rice.
Painted in sepia tones and candlelight, my memories of this dinner don't reflect a non-stop hit parade. While Grilled Wagyu Tail Falling off the Part ($23) does leave the bone easily, the flavour is boring, rescued only by the mustard smear adorning the side of the plate.
Eating soft, cooked tomatoes in the accompanying salad weirds my palate out, though I relish the slippery texture of the Chawanmushi ($12). The little pot of warm savoury custard pleases with scallop and mountain potato intensified with truffle.
With the daily Sashimi ($29/2 people) selection, we give the sake list a workout. Tatanokawa ($20/120ml), a junmai daiginjo from the Yamagata Prefecture is soft, round and gentle against octopus slices served with ponzu and leek. The chilled junmai Dry God of Turtle ($16/120ml) gives you a gentle, yeasty step up in intensity, which proves perfect against two slices of tuna overlaid with egg yolk and soy.
In the little bowl, you'll find Alfonsino treated with bottarga and seaweed, which responds quite well to Black Bull ($13/120ml) that offers up richness and umami. As we move through smoky ocean trout paired with beetroot, the only sashimi bite I’m not keen on is the oyster that swims awkwardly in my mouth in a burst of wasabi cream. I end the night sipping a room temperature glass of Lulu ‘Bentenmusume’ ($15/120ml) that’s pretty and grassy with subtle hints of Vegemite - a perfect companion drink to this tiny, atmospheric space.
238 Crown Street, Darlinghurst
Ph: (02) 9007 8352