If you walked straight past Ante on the first attempt, you probably wouldn't be the only one. Double back and look for an understated, chic façade. The words SAKE & SOUNDS adorn the glass in gold lettering and while that’s the general premise, there’s plenty more to discover behind the door.
Inside, there’s a low, L-shaped blackbutt timber bar to the left and small high-top tables along the wall to the right. Bar stools are not always the most forgiving for long-haul dining or sensitive behinds, but here, they are wide and comfortable. Good news, in other words, for when “just a quick drink and a snack” accidentally becomes many gin and shiso cocktails and multiple servings of kare pan. And that’s a highly likely scenario at Ante. It should be noted that bookings aren’t taken, so we recommend making the most of getting a seat.
While the slogan is ‘Sake & Sounds’ it’ll be the latter you notice first. The rumble of chatter is accompanied by a Jazu kissa inspired soundtrack of vinyl-only beats selected from co-owner Matt Young’s personal collection — 2,500 or so records strong. The custom built shelves at Ante house merely a fraction of this, a mix of jazz, soul, funk and disco. It’s really good music to eat to. The records spin on a 2 Technics 1200 with a handmade Condesa mixer from Adelaide which takes 4-6 months to assemble (nothing but the best, a theme here). The desire was great sound quality, and they’ve achieved it. You don’t have to shout at your date and you can hear the waitstaff clearly. It’s also partly thanks to the soundproofing panels, architecturally designed for the space and covered in envirospray; recycled newspaper that is pulped and sprayed onto the large panels. Messy work, apparently, but totally worth it, plus it looks super cool.
Alongside his low-key DJ skills, Young has an impressive CV — the beverage director at Fratelli Paradiso and 10 William Street for seven years, he was also the head sommelier at both Aria and Rockpool Bar and Grill. Currently he’s the owner/importer/distributor at Black Market Sake. Young is the reason that more and more venues Australia wide offer artisanal junmai sake. Essentially the rice version of natural wine, jumani sake is made with nothing but rice and water. If it isn’t on your radar, it should be. And, if you’ve had the pupil-dilating pleasure of tasting Heiwa Shuzo Tsuru-ume Yuzushu — that lemony sherbet drink that tastes like a liquid Calippo — you almost definitely have Young to thank.
Yes, sake can be intimidating, so why not let Tim Watkins (the former Automata sommelier who is now Young’s right-hand man at BMS) guide you through a tailored flight of three sakes, or request a recommendation? Watkins' knack for pairing perfection is second only to his delightful ability to make feel you like there is no such thing as a stupid question, so ask him anything and get an education.
Black Market Sake came into being to make sake less scary and more accessible and Ante is certainly an extension of that. But it goes further, showcasing the glorious harmony in which sake and food bring out the best in each other and chef Jemma Whiteman’s menu does just that. Not so much traditionally Japanese as it is a gorgeous accumulation of her time at Café Paci, Pinbone and Billy Kwong. If you’re hungry, hoe into a bowl of umami rich, buttery shiitake linguine which sounds like it shouldn’t work — but it really does.
If you’re just a bit peckish, oily sprats with clementine and fried curry leaves – a call back to Whiteman’s days at Lankan Filling Station – are a must.
For the total experience, match the teeny preserved fish with a glass of Chochin Shuzo Shinbunshi 65, a fragrant, savoury sake with sea spray minerality served cool, not cold. In fact, all the sakes are served at different temperatures. The three Vintecs are set to 10, 14 and 16 degrees respectively, and there are a range of glasses to best showcase the myriad sakes, (which Young collected in the time from conception to execution). Yet another example of the attention to detail that makes Ante feel so thoughtful.
In fact, from the weighty water carafes to elegant single flowers in mismatched vases, complementary textures from decor to menu, and the tiny paper crane that arrives with the bill, Ante is all about the details. And Sydney is damn lucky to have it.