Next door to Melbourne’s oldest izakaya is a temple to all things rice wine
Andre Bishop is the owner of Izakaya Chuji – Melbourne’s oldest izakaya, dating back to 1989. Obsessed with sake, Bishop opened up another bar next door – the small and deliberately cramped Nihonshu, using the Chuji kitchen to service all its snacking needs while stocking the shelves with countless bottles of what he loves most.
Nihonshu’s door is a bit worn down, like most of the street –you’ll most likely miss it if you’re rushing through Chinatown. If you do manage to find it, you’ll feel like you’re not in Melbourne anymore. Bishop has captured the essence of a Tokyo izakaya down to the snacks, staff and Japanese rock’n’roll. The place is no larger than a train carriage, with only bar seating and a few satellites for intimate couples, but this isn’t a bad thing, as it keeps the celebratory atmosphere of the place at a maximum at all times.
So what is to celebrate? Nihonshu’s daily happy hour, for starters – bringing you Asahi, Hakutsuru plum wine or a 280mL carafe of house sake for $6, 5-6.30pm, daily. You can upgrade your happy hour to a Drink Snack Attack at $9 for a beer and a choice between gyoza, edamame, chicken wings or lotus-root chips. Not a bad deal at all. Did we mention the free Wi-Fi?
Sake comes with an education in a thickly bound tome outlining which sakes are best served warm, chilled or at room temperature, followed by a tasting note and more often than not, a food match. Weekends see the kitchen close at midnight, so you can have your fried chicken and grilled ox tongue with that 720mL bottle of Ippongi Denshin Tsuchi even when you’ve settled in after a few.
Sakes aren’t the end of the story: there are pages dedicated to that complex spirit, shochu. Shochu also comes with serving suggestions, but require a little more understanding as they can be distilled from rice and other starches such as sweet potato, barley or buckwheat. And like other spirits, what it is built from affects the flavour. It can be a bit perplexing if you’ve never ventured into the world of shochu before, but the bartenders are more than happy to give you a quick lesson and a taste when you’re faced with a world of alcoholic possibility.
Nihonshu profess to give you Melbourne’s best range of sake without the attitude, and we couldn’t agree more. Pull up a seat and work your way around Japan in a glass.