Increasingly, ‘just off Chapel Street’ seems to be the place to head for a decent feed. Yes, the strip itself is home to some good stuff – there’s brilliant brunch and coffee at Dukes, while Massive Wieners do a decent dawg and Mr Burger serves up a damn tasty cheeseburger. Susie Wong has so far been so good. And we have heard that a change of chef in the kitchen at Morris Jones has reinvigorated things at this huge venue.
But venture a few feet off – away from the fast food chains and all-night dive bars – and you find gems including B’Stilla, David’s and La Svolta. Sitting above the Oriental Teahouse, Zhou Zhou is technically still on Chapel Street, but it has its own entrance on Cliff Street, marked by a buzzing pink neon sign.
How to describe this lounge bar? Perhaps opium den meets East Village loft apartment sums it up best. Shanghai propaganda posters have been given a kind of pop art treatment and the pixelated effect is really stunning. Cane plantation wicker chairs add a colonial feel, and are dotted around low tea tables. The warm glow of tea lights in jams jars contrast with the stark black lamps that protrude from the walls on mechanical-looking hinges. Pretty teapots contain chopsticks. It’s just the right mix of kitsch and cool. It’s modern China with a Japanese twist thanks to the minimalist but stylish décor (grey walls, bare floorboards with a few rugs) and the amazing array of craft beers – Coedo, Kitachino, Yo-Ho – you could spend days here and not even scratch the surface. Plus the staff are really great at matching beers to the bar snack-style menu.
We feasted on pork and chive dumplings served golden brown on a hot plate (six pieces for $8.80) – which were half potsticker and half gyoza, and highly addictive. Salt and pepper calamari with wonton crisps and a great sweet and sour dipping sauce ($13.80) were tender with a nice crunch batter.
Barbecue pork buns (two pieces for $5.80) were fluffy with an intensely rich and stick-to-your-teeth BBQ pork mix in the middle. And at that price, not much more than you would play at your local yum cha restaurant but a whole lot fresher.
Crispy wontons containing minced prawns, pork, bamboo and spring onions served with mayonnaise for dipping (three pieces for $7.80).
Pan-fried spring onion pancake ($5.80) – you know what? Forget about everything else, just keep these little circles of loveliness coming – you’ll be chugging through the beer list in no time.
As for wine – there is a good selection of rieslings and aromatic whites that go great with the spice, as well as a generous number of grape varieties (each with a few words describing the flavour profile) available by the glass.
But kick things off with sake and Asian-inspired cocktails – the Saketini is a subtle blend of orange and vodka with junmai sake served straight up while the Khe Sanh Shizzle – ginger, chilli and Tromba tequila – is served with one large, clear ice cube that slowly melts to help counter the increasing chilli levels that infuse with the alcohol.
On the night we visited, the two rooms (joined up a high-ceilinged landing) had a relaxing mid-week vibe going on. Couples were kicking back and grazing on gyoza, the music is cool but not imposing. However, front of house staff assured us that, come Friday and Saturday, various happy hour deals and a DJ get the place pumping.
Head there any night, and expect to wind up staying – it’s a very welcoming addition to the on, and off, Chapel Street community.