Tucked behind a curtain inside a former hummus bar lives Nomidokoro Indigo, Darlinghurst's newest and, surely, tiniest izakaya. It’s the latest project from the Hatena Group, whose quiet empire already boasts Haymarket’s Nakano Darling, and Crows Nest’s Yakiroti Yurippi and Tachinomi YP. Owners Tin Jung Shea, Mitomo Somehara and Chris Wu have overseen an exceptionally tidy fitout that features 11 counterside seats, a four-person standing bar, and a small number of al fresco tables out the front.
Don’t worry about making a bit of a scene while trying to take your seat (it’s not easy) – just muscle in alongside the ten other bodies at the counter and pick up your complimentary hot towel. For a space you could barely squeeze your car into, it’s not at all claustrophobic. The lively staff are attentive but unintrusive, and the house playlist softly chimes a blend of Western and Japanese pop – the place strikes an unlikely balance between bustling and serene.
The dishes are all small plates. The cheaper, snack-sized entrées range from the simple and familiar (salted edamame, sliced tomato salad) to the curious and captivating. Firmly in the latter category: nine cubes of torched cream cheese in a silky miso marinade; a crowd of smoked pickles (iburigakko) that simultaneously fold and crunch between your teeth; and a plump steamed rice ball (onigiri) dressed with nori and an acetic core of pickled plum. Make sure your tongue is well-briefed for that last one – the plum fizzes and sweetens like a sour lolly.
The more substantial dishes push the $20 mark, but are, like the rest of the menu, very reasonably priced. The slow-cooked duck breast is well worth trying. It’s seared and marinated for 24 hours for a delightfully rich and succulent finish, then thinly sliced over a bed of supple onions. Likewise, sake-steamed baby clams are simple and homely, served in their shells under a pool of garlic butter water, with an oversized wooden spoon to scoop them up.
Be sure to ask about the seafood specials – if you’re lucky you’ll catch the John Dory sashimi, which comes as thin slips of fish with a little disc of buttery liver pâté, alongside the more familiar accompaniments of soy sauce and wasabi.
The menu leaves you with some important decisions to make. The deep-fried section, for example, has ten different options, including ham katsu, chicken wings and corn cream croquettes. Go for the school prawn karaage, a perfect sharing plate with about 20 crisp pieces stacked into the serving. The aji fry (deep-fried yellowtail) is a fair helping too, battered in panko and seaweed, and arrives from the kitchen as a beautiful tail-up balancing act.
It won’t take you long to notice that sake is the real star here. The restaurant’s logo is a sake flask and cup, and the name Nomidokoro actually translates as ‘drinking place’. At one end of the counter, an ice bucket is suspended from the ceiling by a rope and metal hook to keep certain sakes chilled. At the other end, an electric hot water bath is silently bubbling for sakes best served warm. Behind the counter, timber shelves house a strip-lit collection of sake bottles. A sake map of Japan hangs opposite, hand-chalked on a strung-up blackboard. The collective design combines a celebration of Japan’s famous drink and the functional apparatus with which to prepare and serve it.
You’ll find the sake menu draped around an 1.8-litre bottle, with 20 options from different Japanese prefectures on offer. Let the endlessly warm and good-humoured staff suggest the perfect pairing with your chosen dish. Two standouts are the hot, aromatic Mansaku No Hana that partners the baby clams, and the cloudy, sweet-tasting Shirakawago Sasanigori that accompanies the scallops and comes served over an ice cube the shape and size of a tennis ball. There’s an ample selection of beers (served in frosted glasses from a digital beer dispenser), cocktails, shochu, highballs, whiskies and soft drinks to pick from, too.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Nomidokoro Indigo tends to be booked up weeks in advance – they do only have 11 seats to fill. However, for Hatena Group’s first foray into the city’s east, they have already succeeded in creating something more important than just good food (and good sake): a joyous and thoroughly memorable dining experience.