Review: Chocha Foodstore's Menu Change Is Simple Yet Sophisticated
"Should a restaurant have a signature dish?" poses one food writer to the rest of our crew. On the one hand, it becomes a sort of calling card, and can shoot a restaurant from obscurity to fame. On the other hand, a signature dish may stifle a brand's attempts to reinvent itself.
Better known by its initialism, the CFC (Chocha Fried Chicken), a beloved staple at Chocha Foodstore, has been shelved to make room for new inventions. It's this bit of information that causes us to chew on the question of whether or not to retain crowd-favourites. The vote skews 50-50.
"I think it's more important to have signature style than a signature dish," says Chef Mui Kai Quan sagely, prompting solemn nods all around. So what exactly is Chocha Foodstore's trademark style?
A Johorean who has gone places, including Singapore's Esquina, London's Ledbury, and Oslo's Maarmo, Chef Mui Kai Quan was last seen at Sprout, a contemporary European eatery in Johor Bahru. What makes Mui's partnership with Chocha feasible is their collective love of locally-sourced, sustainable ingredients. Never mind French foie gras, black truffles and Russian caviar; the team is more smitten with smoked tenggiri mackerel pâté, banana blossoms, and cured jenahak. Some 16 independent farmers, fishermen and foragers supply the low-key eatery with their wares.
One of Chocha's standout dishes, a sharing platter simply dubbed 'local vegetables', speaks volumes for the restaurant's approach towards food. Beyond making crudités sexy, the platter of astringent flowers, spicy radishes, spears of sweet baby corn and more draws attention to the wild beauty of our local landscape.
Sweet, sticky and showered with sesame seeds, the chicken feet with soy caramel, a commendable example of nose-to-tail eating, might be considered the CFC's successor. Chicken wings and thighs may fly off supermarket shelves but it takes courage to serve less loved appendages to a contemporary crowd.
"You can't imagine the work it takes to debone them," groans Chan Kit Yin, a partner of Chocha Foodstore's sister restaurant. But Chocha's co-founder Penny is adamant that doing so encourages customers to finally try chicken feet.
Though unintentional, Chocha Foodstore's new creations roughly fall into two categories, thereby catering to both 'safe' and 'adventurous' eaters. For an all-rounded meal, it's probably best to mix and match the likes of sweet pomelo segments with sliced bitter gourd (adventurous), mushrooms with salted egg and curry leaves (safe), breaded ikan mabong with budu mayo (safe), goat shoulder char siu (adventurous), and marinated duck with mulberries (safe)—you get the gist.
"Owing to their far-flung travels, my partners have wide palates. They've encouraged me to take chances with our modern Malaysian menu. It’s not often that a chef has such freedom of expression," remarks Chef Mui appreciatively.
Shin Chang, architect and co-founder of Chocha Foodstore, adds: "It's true, we've tried to keep things interesting, but not everything needs to be complicated. Sometimes I crave something simple, straightforward, familiar."
At the end of the day, the best things in life are so uncomplicated.
- PhotographyKhairul Imran