Wear your best socks if you plan on staying a while at Hihou. Once you’ve located the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance on Flinders Lane, near the corner of Spring Street, you’ll be ushered upstairs to a sultry sake den. You can keep your kit on if you’re dining in the front room, home to padded bar stools and tiny, shrunken tables for two, with leafy views over Treasury Gardens. If you’ve booked a spot in the plushly carpeted top-tier dining space, however, you’ll be asked to slip off your shoes before sliding under one of the low-slung tables.
Hihou has a stellar hospitality pedigree, hailing from Simon Denton and the crew behind Kappo (Time Out’s 2015 Restaurant of the Year) and Izakaya Den, so the risk of toe-exposure is a small price to pay for the remarkable Japanese fare. There’s the must-order Hihou hot dog, a smoky arabiki pork sausage on a sesame-dusted bun, served with sharp pickled onions and bottles of wasabi mayo and tonkatsu (barbecue sauce) to dollop as you please. ‘Cuban’ spicy tuna cigars are another staple: crisp brik pastry cylinders filled with a fine dice of tuna sashimi and seven-flavoured shichimi pepper. Teriyaki-sweet anago (eel) gets bundled into nori rolls with black rice and the refreshing crunch of cucumber. And golden lotus root chips make perfect beer fodder.
You could happily make a meal out of these individual snacks, but if you’ve gone to the effort of untying your shoelaces, you may as well dip into mains territory, too. Pile slices of pork belly or duck breast into sturdy buckwheat crêpes, or try the swordfish sashimi with a splash of citrusy ponzo. To drink, top-shelf Japanese whiskies and sake are the stars, the former poured over hand-chipped ice, the latter served in covetable handcrafted ceramics.
Cocktails are also given reverential treatment, peppered with yuzu citrus, umeshu (plum wine) and shochu (grain spirit), carefully prepared with science-lab beakers, stirrers and fine Riedel glassware. It’s more refined than raucous, and Melbourne is all the better for it.