Thirteen years ago, Mulberry Group CEO Nathan Toleman was looking for his first cafe. A friend tipped him off about a basement for lease on Flinders Lane.

“It was actually across the road there, and the basement was for lease,” says Toleman, pointing over the road from his new bar, Dessous. “I was a first-timer, absolutely no idea what I was doing, and at the thought of opening a venue in the city in that kind of climate, I was like, ‘I can’t do that’. She actually said to me we should call it Dessous, which means ‘underneath’ or ‘basement’ in French. And it just stuck in my head ever since.”

Years later, Toleman’s realisation of Dessous brings him back to Flinders Lane, though this time with a little more experience in his bag after opening cafe big-hitters such as Liminal, Common Ground Project, Higher Ground and Kettle Black. But, like its very new upstairs neighbour, Hazel, Dessous is a step in a new direction for The Mulberry Group.

And while Hazel and Dessous are siblings, they couldn’t be more distinct. Hazel is pretty and airy, split over two floors and serving seafood cooked over hot coals; Dessous is darker, more daring and a little bit debaucherous.

“To me, they’re almost like night and day in terms of the look and feel – the style of music, the style of service,” Toleman says. “The wine list is completely different, the menu is completely different.”

Once you’re settled in the subterranean space – all greys and marble and low lights – there’s a sense of concealment. You can see out, but unless they really crouched down, those on the street can’t see in. So it’s easy to get caught, cocktail in hand, watching anonymous feet flash past the basement windows of the historic Richard Allen & Son building. Toleman and designer Hana Hakim of Stella Collective visited vintage hotels in Stockholm and Copenhagen to nail to the hotel-bar look.

The menu by Dan Sawansak (Movida, Higher Ground) is snacky, but substantial enough to nudge casual drinkers into staying for dinner. These are the sort of dishes that beg for the acidity of a good wine or the power of a strong cocktail.

Get started with small plates. The savoury Unicorn Donut is stuffed with sea-urchin roe and corn custard; there are soft potato pillows with salty bottarga, swimming in butter; a pork-belly sando with tonkatsu sauce; and a dish of pickled globe artichokes, XO and stracciatella that riffs on a Szechuan chilli and tofu dish Sawansak remembers eating at Neil Perry’s Spice Temple years ago.

Larger plates, such as lamb backstrap braised with saltbush, mean Dessous isn’t just for drinks and snacks – it’ll satisfy a decent appetite, if you’ve got one.

Head bartender Gabe Brown (Sydney’s Palmer and Co, London’s Hawksmoor Spitalfields) aims to surprise by building on classics through subtle changes, gently twisting familiar drinks to create flavours that aren’t immediately recognisable. Add curaçao and allspice to an Old Fashioned and you get the hefty, lively Sherpa. No Hands plays on a Negroni, adding chocolate bitters to Punt e Mes (an Italian vermouth) and Campari.

The wine program – put together by venue manager Sarah Reilly (ex-Point Leo Estate) and sommelier James Hill (ex-City Wine Shop) – focuses on sustainability, biodynamic practices and exposing unfamiliar regions and varietals. Expect drops such as an organic sangiovese from Goulburn River-based label Minimum; a light, sustainably farmed red (served chilled) from Tahbilk’s head winemaker and son; a pinot grigio from Slovenia; and interesting blends including Jamsheed’s La Blanc Plonk, a combination of riesling and gewurztraminer.

Dessous
Basement/164 Flinders Lane, Melbourne 3000
(03) 9070 4939

Hours:
Mon to Sat 5pm–late

dessous.com.au