Level 1, 1 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (map)
Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30am-2:30pm, evenings Monday to Saturday 5pm-1am
It's been nearly a year since Simon Denton, Takashi Omi and Miyuki Nakahara opened their elegant, Japanese-influenced bar Hihou above their more casual canteen Nama Nama. For all of that time, Hihou (an approximate pronunciation is "he-haw" - it means treasure in Japanese) has been a strictly evenings-only affair, serving a compact menu of bar snacks to accompany your Negro-Kan (Negroni with an umeshu twist).
Recently Hihou decided to take full advantage of its daytime view overlooking Treasury Gardens, and started opening for lunch on Mondays to Fridays. While the menu features freshly shucked Coffin Bay oysters, charcoal barbequed prawns and sashimi, the main focus is the two course set lunch - which at $35 a head represents terrific value, given the attention to detail and quality of the produce on offer.
Simon invited me as a guest to sample the lunch menu the week it opened, but I went back again last week with my lunch date as paying customers, because we couldn't stop raving about the experience and how perfectly balanced the meal had been.
The set lunch begins with a little appetiser, such as grapes with shiro-ae (a white tofu dressing) and buckwheat, or pickled wombok with kaffir lime and dainty ribbons of wonton crisps.
The hassun first course is a selection of cold starters that represent the season. Expect to see sashimi (the John Dory we had on our first visit was exceptionally good) and vegetables, perhaps with seafood-y accents like scallops or miniature house-dried prawns.
For the main course you choose from one of three sets, each made with premium produce. The kodawari set, which I ordered on my first visit, included delicate sous vide Tasmanian red bream and soy beans in a mild gin-an sauce, with miso soup and rice.
The shichirin set, ordered on my second visit, included charcoal grilled (and beautifully tender) Cape Grim Beef rump with green tea salt, grilled daikon, yakiniku dipping sauce, sumashi clear soup and brown rice.
The set lunch finishes with tea or coffee. I *strongly* recommend shelling out a little more for dessert from the lacquered three-tiered treat box that will be laid out before you. The treat box is filled with all kinds of goodies, from traditional Japanese sweets to Western petits fours with a Japanese spin (such as tartlets filled with yuzu instead of lemon). The treats are $3-$5 each, or a plate of five for $18.
I couldn't resist ordering the sweet potato wrapped in miso paper, and the chestnut and buckwheat steamed manju. Both were exquisite.
And how kawaiiiii is this pumpkin-shaped shiro-an (white bean paste) wagashi?!
It's great to see one of my favourite city bars becoming one of my favourite city lunch spots, and there's talk that in the near future Hihou may also open in the afternoons, offering a Japanese version of high tea. Here's hoping.
A note for the uninitiated: entry to Hihou is via the (unmarked) first door on Flinders Lane. Press the buzzer and you will be ushered in.
A note for herbivores: while the three main course options on the current menu contain either meat or seafood, the kitchen will happily provide a vegetarian option.