If you can locate the almost unmarked door on Russell Street, you’ll be able to disappear below street level to a Tokyo-inspired wonderland. Den, the latest wave in a tide of izakayas sweeping the city, provides a mix of Japanese tasting dishes and drinks, from sake to imported beers.
This long, narrow, cement and wood underground space is devoted in equal parts to eating and drinking, and is the result of plenty of research into izakaya culture by Miyuki Nakahara, Takashi Omi and Verge’s Simon Denton – bringing to Melbourne a touch of Tokyo and late-night snacking. Projections flit across the walls in a Blade Runner-ish display of daily specials, huge bowls of seasonal produce adorn the nearly 30-metre bar and large, open grills and burners light up the back wall. Without windows to view the Melbourne streetscape above, it’s easy to forget where you are.
Order a selection of small dishes to go with your drinks, add to the collection as you go and be transfixed by the open kitchen show behind the bar. Chefs dance around one another, producing dishes that range from bitter melon with tofu mayonnaise or miso soup with sand crab to a medley of mushrooms, or marinated octopus hot off the grill.
It’s a feast for the eye as well as the palate, from the moment you walk past the sake barrels and canvas-shoe display on the way in until the moment you leave, sated and happy. So unroll the menu to find out what’s on offer, or just spy on the grill to see what looks good. Kampai.