Matt Young and Jemma Whiteman’s saké bar Ante is a welcome departure from the present reality.
“In a lot of ways, people need an escape right now,” says Young. “This is traditionally a wonderful time of year to go out, but there’s a lot of trepidation about going into small spaces.”
The new venue is modelled after the Japanese concept of jazzu kissa, a jazz cafe or bar where customers come for the records as much as they do the drinks. Young put a lot of effort into creating an atmosphere that transports customers far from the bustle of King Street in Newtown. “You feel quite removed from the world outside,” he says.
“We spent a good part of our budget on sound, creating an environment where you can play music, and talk, but not have to shout at each other.”
Tunes come courtesy of Young’s personal collection of 2500 records and are the ideal accompaniment to junmai (pure rice) saké by the glass, carafe, bottle or flight.
“We usually do flights of three, which is a good starting point for most people, and we try to tailor the flight to the customer. Do they prefer fruity or dry? A cross section? We’ve got over 60 sakes to showcase.”
With ingredients such as kanzuri (fermented chilli paste); katsuobushi (bonito flakes); and mirin, Whiteman’s menu has clear Japanese influences. But the dishes also reference ingredients and inspiration from all over the world, and reflect her time at groundbreaking restaurants such as Café Paci, Lankan Filling Station and Billy Kwong.
“There are a lot of Asian touches in any modern Australian cuisine. We’re not trying to push ourselves as Japanese, it’s just delicious food that goes with saké, focusing on snacks and larger dishes,” Young says.
There’s beef kare pan; polenta with fried comte; tagliatelle with fermented shiitake mushrooms; and crispy rice, red pepper butter and katsuobushi.
The moody bar bears no resemblance to its former life as a hot chocolate cafe. A blackbutt bar top on a honed brick foundation is at the centre of the charcoal space, and Young has taken advantage of the large room, generously spacing out the timber and leather seating.
Rolling hospitality closures and the uncertainty of the past two years plays on Young’s mind. Ante was only open for 13 days when a close contact meant it had to close while staff isolated.
“I opened Black Market Sake during the GFC, but the difference now is I have a team of staff to look after. We’re trying to look at ways to simplify. We can make the menu smaller so it’s easier for fewer [staff] to manage. But if we lose staff members on the floor, we can’t do as many covers.
“It’s a tough time for everyone, but we have to put our heads down and hope for the best. Over the last decade I’ve seen acceptance grow for saké in Australia, and that’s really pushed me to open this bar.”
Thu & Fri 5pm–late
Sat & Sun 12pm–late