After dark, bypass the winding queue for Hareruya Pantry’s wildly popular Japanese-inspired gelato, and look for a big black door with “sake…?” scribbled on it in dainty white handwriting. That’s the entrance to Leonie Upstairs, an intimate new first-floor sake bar in Carlton.
It’s the latest from Kantaro Okada, who’s behind some of Melbourne’s favourite Japanese eateries: the recently opened Hareruya, and cafes Le Bajo and 279. Much like at Hareruya, the menu at Leonie is equal parts simple and considered. The focus is on topnotch, sometimes hard-to-find sakes and expertly crafted temaki sushi, or cone-shaped hand rolls.
Expect around a dozen sushi options, including the umami roll (creamy uni, or sea urchin, with sea grapes), the negitoro (mashed tuna, spring onion and shiso) and one rotating daily special. Snag a seat at the bar – right at the top of the discreet staircase – and get a front-row seat to all the kitchen action. Or go for the home-style DIY temaki set, which lets you mix and match your favourite seafood, vegetables and condiments.
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Also find an array of seasonal small dishes like scallop carpaccio, cured mackerel salad and takowasa (octopus, wasabi, shio kombu), as well as excellent karaage.
Sake-wise, the list favours a new guard of female brewers. “In sake land, it’s very male-dominant,” Okada says. “Years and years ago, women couldn’t go into the sake factory as a traditional rule.” That’s no longer the case, and Okada is eager to showcase the prowess of female sake brewers, with more than 50 sakes on offer and regularly changing flights.
The minimalistic but warm interior was inspired by the work of American-Japanese artist and architect Isamu Noguchi. He created the Akari lamp (like those suspended from Leonie’s ceiling) and the timeless glass-topped Noguchi coffee table. But as Okada and his team studied Noguchi further, “We found out that his inspiration was his mother [Léonie Gilmour] and how she raised him,” Okada explains. (Hence the name.) “She made him feel very free-spirited, which gave him confidence when he pursued design.”
1/15–17 Lincoln Square, Carlton
Tue & Wed closed
Thu to Sun 5.30pm–10.30pm