he directions seem simple enough: the bar is upstairs, on the corner of Spring Street and Flinders Lane. Enter on Flinders Lane. But the entrance is disguised and it takes a couple of minutes to realise that, yes, this hulking black door is the only way in, and it only can only be opened by pressing the buzzer to the left.
Welcome to Hihou, a brand new Japanese-influenced bar above lunch spot Nama Nama.
The latest venture from Simon Denton, Hihou (meaning secret treasure) manages to achieve drama and subtlety in equal parts. Japanese waiters in all white greet guests at the door once the bell has been rung, ushering them upstairs and into the cinematic surrounds of Hihou. While Nama Nama is bright, blond and welcoming, Hihou is dark, mysterious and alluring. Once ensconced in its surrounds, it feels as though you’re no longer in Melbourne. In fact, you could be an extra in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
Denton is clearly enamoured by Japan; both Izakaya Den and Nama Nama are testament to that. This love informs Hihou, too. It’s apparent in the menu – which focuses on shochu, sake, Japanese whiskey and beers – the Japanese snacks and the functional, minimalist layout.
The bar’s centrepiece is a long group table surrounded by stools. The tabletop – a stunning slab of black marble, its surface patterned and edges roughly hewn – is set with a selection of empty glass jugs and jars in a variety of shapes and lit with tea lights wrapped in coloured paper. It makes for the perfect vantage to take in the room. From one angle, you can look out onto Treasury Gardens by moonlight; from another, you can take in the extensive selection of Japanese bottles of booze that are displayed in floating bottle racks behind the bar, which is also lined with burnt timber stools. From yet another angle you can observe the rest of the room – low stone tables lit with a candle each stretch away to a second space, where guests are encouraged to de-shoe and recline on the giant black ottoman.
A winter night can be warmed by hot shochu (a Japanese liquor similar to vodka), sake, plum wine, one of the six cocktails in the menu, or one of the seasonal fruit ‘surprise’ cocktails. But don’t expect well-worn combinations here. Sweet, sour and bitter flavours are mixed into elegant drinks that are finished with beautiful touches, like two tiny dried rosebuds, or a perfect sphere of ice, and are served on dainty patterned fabric coasters. Denton himself, or one of the staff, will answer any questions you might have about the menu and recommend drinks if required.
The food menu perfectly complements the drinks list, with more-ish snacks like the cream cheese and seaweed-filled spring rolls, chilli miso edamame, fried potato with tamari caramel, king fish ceviche or trout sashimi, as well as cheese plates for nibbling. The best part? The kitchen is open until midnight, so those late-night cravings can be satisfied.
Hihou is more upmarket than Izakaya Den and the atmosphere is vastly different to that of Nama Nama, but the level of service, attention to detail and well-thought out menu have Denton’s distinct touch. It’s our pick for a swanky hot date.
First floor, 1 Flinders Lane
(03) 9654 5465
Mon to Sat 5pm–1am (kitchen closes at midnight)