Chunky Chau evokes forgotten heady glamour of South-East Asia

Chunky Chau evokes forgotten heady glamour of South-East Asia
Even the sushi I glimpse has had the fusion principle applied. (Photo: Supplied)

At Chunky Chau, the food is richly spiced and the tea is naughty.

The atmosphere at Chunky Chau is deliciously naughty, sometimes in a thrilling Instagrammish way, sometimes about sinking into hugely luxurious Chinese-yellow sofas, to scents of wafting spices. If I went around one of the many shaded, velvety corners and came across a languid late-19th century opium den, I’d not be very surprised, except by what I know about the owners. 

Most Jozi eaters-out know them too because Carmen Graham and Josef Schmid are also the owners of Truffles, the gorgeous glass-and-greenery place in Sandton’s urban Mushroom Park. That’s like the sunny face of the city, while Chunky Chau could be its nightshine side.

Clamped between two crimson chopsticks from which I’m nibbling is a fat pickled cabbage and shiitake spring roll. It’s been dunked in a smooth peanutty sauce. Yes, it’s also vegan but I’m finding this roll madly tasty anyway. It’s one example of how elements of these Asian dishes at Chunky Chau are purposely, even whimsically, fused, one country’s often with another. 

It’s not what I imagined when I first saw the name Chunky Chau on my laptop screen. I admit I was somehow thinking of another Chunky, a now-nostalgic character, who was really a Chunkie, that I loved and still do, and who starred in comic books or, rather, photo-series booklets that were attached to the centre of women’s magazines in the days when we got back to South Africa. I was forbidden to read any comics and such but pretty often I managed to get to the pull-outs in the magazines before my mother pulled them out and threw them away.

He was Chunkie Charlie, a well-fed guy in a phenomenally-stocked coat, who used to go around solving diamond theft crimes, chasing tsotsis and the like, plenty of decades back.

Mary Thobei wrote this irresistible, catchy tribute to that Chunkie character, performed then by a group called The S’Modern Dolls: Chunky Charlie.

Chunky Chau is just as much a character, of course, this very different one in the shape of a luck-bringing but even better-fed buddha. His soundtrack within the restaurant changes all the time, modern eastern and, as the evening darkens, it takes on equally catchy Buddha Bar type tones.

Chunky Chau in the guise of a luck-bringing, even better-fed Buddha. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

The floor management people have funny “stage names” that they pick for their “performance” at the restaurant. The entertaining and lovely woman who sees to what’s on my table calls herself Chau Tee here. 

My venturing around a velvety corner revealed the surprise of a bright oyster, sushi and caviar-still-to-come bar. Its windows open onto the Firs shopping centre, which is really behind but somehow seems much further removed from the deep mysteriousness of the restaurant. So I appreciated the bar from afar. In any case I knew I’d rather know about the food dishes originated and created in Chunky Chau’s real kitchen.

In another spot I found a small space with velvet stage curtains on each side and mirrored walls on the other two walls, specially for more maddening selfies than usual.

My view over what looks like a trader from old Malacca’s study. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Back in my comfortable chair, looking out at what is like a trader from old Malacca’s study, complete with elderly tomes and phone, I concentrated on the folding-out, wooden Chunky Chau menu. It reads: “And After Extensive Travel & Existential Eating… Around Asia, We Have Brought The Mostest & The Bestest & The Deepest Flavours Back Home To You.” 

I’d asked Carmen, on seeing the restaurant described as “Pan-Asian fine dining”, if it was anything like Tang on Sandton Square. She laughed, “It’s more casual than that and we have our tongues in our cheeks. The food and presentation are very fine, though!” 

A dramatic cold tea cocktail called a Black and Blue Unicorn Cha. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Chau Tee brought me a dramatic cold tea cocktail made naughty by the addition of two shots of very good tequila, smoothed out by blueberry tonic and, found swimming in it, icy blueberry pearls. It’s called a Black and Blue Unicorn Cha.

When a friend joined me, he took to a heaped iced Dragon Fruit Mojito, not one of the tea cocktails. Pink for boys and blue for girls. I was also amused to see that the equivalent of the BM on the drinks menu is called Bloody Carmen and that it features a mix of “hot Soweto sauce and citron” replacing the tomato juice and celery. A “Stirred Chautini” comes with a juicy lychee and a dash of sake among the usuals.

A friend took to a heaped iced Dragon Fruit Mojito, not one of the tea cocktails. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Many of the tea cocktails come in icy-cold oriental metal tea pots, out of which to pour the drinks and then pour seconds.

Since I then had someone with whom to share food, it was decided we’d have a Chunky Chau version of a bento box, not much like the usual Japanese container of various items for lunch. This one looked more like those old printers’ trays, with nine spaces, each containing a different gorgeous little bowl of very-fusion Asian goodies. It’s an ideal introduction to the menu really, especially the starter types of small stuff, some of which can even be ordered as big stuff or mains, having already proved their deliciousness, like the Teriyaki long-slow braised beef short ribs.

The idea and concern, according to Josef, is that all the dishes, no matter how “fusion”, are balanced and include sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami flavours. It’s quite a tall order and he also likes the dishes to be as seasonal as feasible and to feature the old Asian arts of curing, fermenting and ageing. He says, since so much of Asian food is prep, there are hundreds of white spoons in the kitchen so that when the finished and usually cooked dishes go out, they taste fantastic. 

From deliciously fresh, moreish sesame-citrusy carrots, in the first section of the box, I’ve worked my tastebuds carefully along the rows, unlike the random approach of my fellow-eater. I went on to braised, coated then fried pork ribs so soft I ate the bone in my piece, and then to my Vietnamese crystal pickled prawn roll.

I’m working my tastebuds carefully along the rows. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I’ve tasted a “face-licking” surprisingly satisfying fried chicken wing, the rich and spicy beef ribs, also a variation on the usual potsticker, which is dunked. This one was a vegetable one, perfect and the dunking sauce, a smooth chakalaka. Asia met Africa there, with a delicious result. 

And now I’m savouring this pickled cabbage and shiitake roll, thinking about the food. It is good. No doubt some true Asians might think it wild and wilful in many ways but it is considered. Those tastes are certainly there though they may not always restrict themselves to the national borders. 

Josef does talk about Chunky Chau’s cuisine being based on an “understanding” of the Asian cuisines and he talks mostly about the Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese influences. “With the occasional dip into South America” he laughs. He’s referring to chorizo that he has included in the Singapore noodles, as well as the odd bit of corn here and there. Now we also know about some tasty dips into southern Africa as well.

Josef very often stops to chat at the tables. It’s a full house tonight and, since the place opened a month ago, it has mostly been full. I find that phenomenal for a 208 seater, even though it doesn’t look or feel like one, broken into so many spaces.

I’m still appreciating the rest of my last row of the bento box, trying the young pods of soybeans, spiced with ginger and eaten as one would edamames. Next to those are beef dipping rolls and I lick my little finger.

On the tables are those pellets that swell up in water to become scented wet ones, as well as sachets of damp napkins provided and then a host of paper napkins too. The two people at this table need the lot, I’m afraid to say.

At one stage I realise I’m surrounded by people with eastern food acquaintance. The friend opposite me says he likes cooking eastern food and has spent quite a bit of time there himself, I believe. He doesn’t quite match up to Josef, who worked in hotel hospitality after he left Scandinavia. Those hotels were in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, Manila, Surabaya and then he ate his way around many more countries and cities.

A view into inner rooms for romantic Asian dining. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Carolina Rasenti also pops in as a guest. She’s the chef now heading up The Greenhouse in Sandton but who, more important in this context, started the well known Great Eastern Food Bar in Melville, with a partner, and later moved it to Illovo. She used, because of her ancestry, to slip in the odd South American ingredient too. 

My eating companion and I agree we’ll do without dessert and have a main course each instead, after the bento box. I say farewell till another time, to an item called Wiggly Coconut Panna Cotta.

I’m quite surprised to see that my friend has thoroughly depleted all the nine bowls in the bento box. He must already feel very full, I think but I go on, warrior style, pitilessly, something like Genghis Khan, with the main course plan.

Curry as a term is always strange. Is there such a general thing? I think the Japanese, funnily enough, make the most ubiquitous one that might as well just be called curry but which they call Katsu. On Chunky Chau’s main menu are three more particular Thai inspired curries, red, a Thai Panang chicken curry, one green, a Thai but pili-pili garlic prawn one, very fusion with a few of those fun dips into other areas. The third one’s name beguiles me. It’s a yellow curry called Silky Yellow Coconut Salmon. So that’s mine.

The other main dish on the table is a Pad Thai, both Gai (chicken) and Gung (prawn) as one whole that proves very much how successful this fusion principle can work out. It’s being pronounced “a great success” as my friend does find room for the pan-fried queen prawns, the chicken breasts, egg, tofu, the onions, beansprouts, all with a ground peanut and tamarind sauce. Nothing predictable here, except the resultant marvel from mixing things up.

My Silky Salmon is every bit as silky as promised, slipping pink into fragrant pale yellow lemongrass rice, alongside deliciously charred bok choy and green beans, which I so enjoy. 

I haven’t even mentioned the 24 peacock feathers that are used around every ceiling pendant lamp, the alluring old-Asian, “Shanghai of 1920” lighting as Josef says, the look of that slightly forbidden glamour that’s so hard to leave for home.

My wish is for Jozi’s Chunky Chau to have a hero song written too, one day, to rival that of Chunkie Charlie, the other hero of nostalgia that I’ll probably never forget either. DM/TGIFood

Chunky Chau | The Firs, Rosebank | 010 590 8777 |

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.


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