It’s been almost two years since I went to Sokyo. In November 2012 I attended an event at the venue where Al Pacino was the guest of honour. That was a cocktail party so I wasn’t able to sit down and dine and experience the brilliance that is Chase Kojima, head chef of Sokyo.
Chase Kojima’s CV is so impressive and lengthy you would think you were about to meet someone on the wrong side of 50 but Chase is only around 30 years of age. Born in San Francisco to Japanese parents, Chase began working in his father’s traditional Japanese restaurant when he was just 11 years old.
Blending Japanese cuisine with Western influences, Chase headed up the famous Noho group of restaurants working in Vegas, Dubai, London, Los Angeles and the Bahamas. With Star Casino reopening as ‘The Star’ in September 2011 with all new restaurants, Sokyo opened with Chase as its head chef.
Sokyo seats 116 and is busy every night of the week and on Saturday nights the restaurant will serve between 300-350 guests. The restaurant is visually stunning with dominant Japanese influences of clean, minimalist lines and black, red and neutral tones.
We started our evening by sitting up at the bar on comfortable black wooden bar stools. The floors are wooden with a dark stain, the bar counter is black and a mirrored wall runs the length of the room. There are upholstered modern sofas in neutral tones positioned in different sections of the room with vases of fresh flowers set at varying heights. There’s a warming red glow coming from well-positioned candles and music plays but it’s not obtrusive. My eyes were drawn to the anime-styled art that’s on the ceiling above the bar and on some of the walls.
The cocktail menu is written as cartoons and the font is quite small so with the darkened surroundings, you might need to bring your glasses! I ordered a blackberry and basil bellini that was made by Phil, a mixologist. The drink contained pureed blackberries mixed with red wine, Tanqueray gin, lemon juice, a dash of sugar syrup then topped with sparkling wine. It was served in a chilled old-fashioned Champagne glass that was very James Bond.
Carl had a Suntory Time that is based on a drink Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation enjoyed. It’s a stirred-down drink made with Yamazaki whiskey, Sweet Vermouth and Luxardo, a maraschino liquor. Watching Phil make this cocktail was fascinating as he stirred it, tasted it and squeezed lemon rind to extract the oil to drop into the glass.
These were very sophisticated cocktails and quite different to what you see on cruise ships. Mine was dangerous in that it didn’t really taste like it had alcohol in it and I loved how it was refreshing rather than sweet. Carl, who loves the taste of whiskey, said his was sensational.
While at the bar we enjoyed some spiced endamame beans that were highly addictive.
We moved on to the restaurant where you can sit under the windows on banquettes or at round tables in the centre of the restaurant, or you can take a seat at the bar where you can see into the kitchen and watch the chefs prepare the dishes. We chose to sit up at the bar and I would recommend this if there are only two of you. (Any more than that isn’t terribly social as you can only speak to those on either side of you). One thing I noticed though is that there is no where to put your bag and everyone had their bag lying on the floor. I do love it when there are hooks under the counter for your bag.
Watching what was happening in the kitchen was fascinating. Despite a rather confined and narrow working space, the kitchen runs smoothly and quietly. Amongst the chefs, Chase is difficult to spot as he is a humble man bestowing no prima donna behaviour. I watched Chase give instruction to one of his chefs and it was done calmly and quietly and in a nurturing manner; not with anger and hostility and screaming into someone’s face while the veins in your neck look like they’re about to burst which is a scene synonymous with a British celebrity chef. I saw dinner guests who were sitting at the bar ask Chase questions and he was happy to interrupt what he was doing and talk to his customers.
Chase introduced himself and we started chatting. He told us a story of how the day before he had done very well at the fish markets. Whenever a fisherman catches something remarkable, they tweet the news. In the middle of the night Chase read a tweet saying a fisherman had caught a 133.4kg (295lbs) blue fin tuna. He was at the fish markets at 6am the next morning and along with five chefs from other restaurants they bought it for $4,700. They divided it into six and each took back to their restaurant their share. Chase was very happy though because he said he ended up with the best part of the fish. Chase asked us if we wanted to order from the menu or have him bring us a selection of dishes and we were very happy for him to decide what we would be eating.
General Manager, Jean-Baptiste introduced himself and asked if we would like to order a drink or could he bring us a selection of drinks to match the meal. Again, we were happy for him to make the selection.
He came back a few minutes later with a bottle of Amanato 35 sake. All sake is given a number and the lower the number the better the quality. One of the determining factors of the quality of sake is how much the brown rice has been polished to remove the starch as only the protein is wanted for the sake. Thirty-five is an excellent number. This Amanato sake had the appearance of water and was light in flavour like a Pinot Grigio.
The next bottle we tried was a 10-year old bottle that had only been available in Australia for one week. It was more amber in colour and a lot more robust in flavour. To me sake is less like wine and more like whiskey and so it is something that Carl loves but as for me, I was hoping Jean-Baptiste (John the Baptist) could be like Jesus and turn some water into wine.
An unobtrusive waitress placed some plates in front of us and our first dish was seared tuna with pickled daikon. With all the micro flowers and herbs it was visually stunning and a flavour sensation. The presentation was gorgeous.
Our next course was kingfish ceviche. With the small nest-shaped bowl, it looked like it was served in a bird’s nest. The crispy potato topping was a beautiful contrast to the softness of the kingfish.
Next we had Blackmore wagyu beef with chestnut puree and thinly sliced grapes and garlic chips with tosazu sauce which is similar to ponzu sauce. It was so pretty and the wagyu beef incredibly tender.
Our next course was Moreton Bay Bugs with a sambal mayo. The crispy batter was (according to Carl) ‘to die for’ and the bugs just melted in your mouth. With the dipping sauce, these were sensational.
My favourite dish of the night was probably the least interesting on the menu but I absolutely loved the simplicity of the tempura asparagus. The presentation was refined and elegant and I loved the touch of truffle and the edamame sauce. It was slightly salty, crunchy, lightly battered and the sauce was amazing. I could have eaten a full plate of this dish.
Then I needed to go to the bathroom. And I couldn’t find a sign so asked where it was and actually, there aren’t any restrooms (so New York!) But as the restaurant is positioned within the Darling Hotel, you walk out into the foyer and use the hotel’s facilities. And they’re very good too; incredibly opulent with Molton Brown products including hand cream.
Chase brought out a plate of duck breast with a wasabi jus, beetroot and blueberry sauce, and a sprinkling of sichuan pepper. The duck was very tender and I loved the strong flavours of the beetroot and blueberry sauce. The wasabi jus and pepper gave a soft kick of heat.
The next course was Chilean Sea Bass with cucumber salad. This was very refreshing and we enjoyed it with a French Beaujolais that was not pretentious but fruity and a great table wine. (So drinkable it’s dangerous!)
My other most favourite dish was the venison that was smoked on hay and served with a sauce of gooseberries and cherries. I loved how I could taste the smokiness from the hay, how tender the venison was and the tart sauce was a beautiful contrast to the richness of the venison.
And then there was another favourite dish (I had a few) of teppanyaki beef served on top of a witlof salad with a champagne vinaigrette. The beef was oyster blade which isn’t the most expensive cut and is usually used for slow-cooking but it had been marinated to tenderise it and this is a cut that is very flavourful. I loved the contrast of the saltiness of the beef with the bitterness of the endive salad and then the acidity of the dressing was incredible.
The very last savoury dish was a sashimi platter. It was again, beautifully presented in an elegant dish and we loved how we had actually watched the chef creating this platter right in front of us. There was deep water snapper, mackerel, tai ceviche sushi, salmon belly and a scallop. Carl told Chase (loudly) that it was the best sashimi he had ever had. He really loved it and said it was incredibly fresh and all the seafood melted in his mouth.
And then we had dessert – actually three desserts! The first was goat’s cheese sorbet with shards of strawberry meringue with balsamic-soaked strawberries on a base of toasted milk powder that had a lot of colour and was very pretty. I’d never had goat’s cheese sorbet before but the flavour from the cheese wasn’t overpowering and the sweetness and acidity of the balsamic strawberries with the meringue shards were such winning flavours.
We then had the signature dessert that’s been on the menu since its opening. Goma means ‘sesame’ in Japanese and so this dessert is called ‘Goma Street’. It is caramelised chocolate with a black sesame ice cream. I loved the colour of the ice cream and the peanut butter flavours. This was my favourite dessert.
The last dessert we tried was the citrus souffle. I was so impressed with its height! It was very elegant and beautifully light and with lovely citrus flavours and quite refreshing. It was the perfect way to end the meal.
As you can imagine, after all the stunning food we had enjoyed, we were rather full. It was now quite late into the evening and most of the guests had left. We had a chat to Chase and he said, ‘Thank you for eating so much’, and bowed! I said, (in my school-girl Japanese), ‘Domo arigato goziamasu’ and made sure I bowed lower than he did.
Sokyo is a memorable dining experience where you will sit in visually minimalistic groovy surroundings enjoying food you have never before seen or experienced. Chase Kojima is an exciting, approachable and extraordinary chef whose unassuming manner is truly humbling.
Sokyo: At, The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont NSW 2009
Ph: 02 9567 9161
Hotly Spiced and Team dined as guests of Sokyo.