Izakaya Den's Simon Denton shows us what sophisticated drinking looks like
Push the buzzer, wait patiently, and when you’re collected from the door, try, try to enter Hihou with a level of decorum that’s fitting. Granted, that likely isn’t possible. This new Japanese-style cocktail and wine bar has more grace and charm in its toilets than most of us could ever hope to possess.
It's the work of Japan-and-wine-obsessed Simon Denton: the man behind that hidden haunt of sashimi, sake and good times, Izakaya Den, and it occupies the upper floor of what used to be his split-level restaurant, Verge. Now, he’s re-imagined the whole space. At Spring Street level, Nama Nama is pumping out casual deliciousness in the form of bento lunchboxes, while Hihou upstairs takes the nightshift, serving sharp drinks in a beautiful room to a strictly limited crowd.
Don’t expect the babble of Izakaya, or to find those foil-topped panda sake cups you can get there. Hihou’s drinks come in stemless Riedel glassware with large orbs of ice, and while Denton works the Den floor in his sleeves, here, he’s in a suit. You get the picture.
Every part of this drinking ritual is measured, and precise. Once seated, you’ll be given the oshibori treatment (hot towels!) before water, menus and utensils hit the table in efficient unison. It’s all so nice – right down to the menus with their soft fabric covers – and so polite, we almost don’t want to get trolleyed on Negro-kans. Almost, but we defy anyone to hit the plum-infused gin, Umeshu (plum wine), and Campari twist on a Negroni (one of eight classic cocktails they’ve turned Japanese), and stop at one. And then there’s shōchū, that barley- or rice-based spirit (kind of like strong, savoury sake), plus Japanese whisky to contend with, not to mention Denton’s carefully curated cellar of wine. In fact, if the man himself is in the house, wine is a good choice – Denton knows grapes better than you know yourself.
You’ll want to book. The split-level room only holds around 30 drinkers, and everyone’s in for the long haul, creating makeshift meals from brik pastry cigars filled with a spicy tuna tartare and one hell of a hot dog, served in a sweet, stumpy little sesame-seed flecked bun with pickled onion, and bottles of wasabi mayo and sauce on the side.
Twosomes can look out at the Treasury Garden possums from window-side seats, but groups should trade shoes for slippers and sit cross-legged on the cushioned seating platforms up the back. Japophiles and sake nerds, get an education at the sturdy wooden bar. There are no dud options in this room. Concrete walls and ceiling mounted wooden wine racks are dappled with light from soft spots and candles, and table service keeps things ticking over smoothly.
Hihou does formal without being fusty. Dress up, go early and stay as long as you're able to behave yourself.