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 first-floor sake bar in Carlton.
Leonie’s owner, Kantaro Okada, is behind some of Melbourne’s favourite Japanese eateries: Hareruya Pantry, 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, which might include 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.
Also find an array of seasonal small dishes, which might include scallop carpaccio, cured mackerel salad and takowasa (octopus, wasabi, shio kombu), as well as excellent karaage.
Sake-wise, the list favours female brewers. It’s Okada’s attempt to reform the male-dominated sake industry (historically, women couldn’t go into the sake factory at all, he says). 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, they found that the artist took much of his inspiration from his mother, Léonie Gilmour. Gilmour raised her son to be free-spirited, which gave him confidence when he pursued design, according to Okada. The restaurant’s namesake is a quiet nod to her influence.
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