The recent history of drinking and dining in Melbourne wouldn't be anywhere near as interesting without Simon Denton and Con Christopoulos. Each has played an integral part in the city's dining scene since the 1990s, when Denton was revamping the idea of service at the likes of the Adelphi, Est Est Est and Luxe, while Christopoulos began colonising the CBD's laneways and rooftops with distinctively styled Europhile café-bar hybrids. Both men, alongside various business partners, have continued to influence the way Melbourne eats and drinks - Denton with Verge and Izakaya Den, Christopoulos with a head-spinning number of businesses ranging from The European, City Wine Shop and Siglo to Journal Canteen, Gills Diner and Syracuse. It's not surprising, then, that new ventures from them have a sort of "new work from old masters" ring that can't help but attract attention.
That Denton's elegant Japanese bar Hihou and Christopoulos's chic, airy wine bar and bottle shop Neapoli have opened within months of each other adds valuable segue opportunities to the story, but there are other similarities between these quite different businesses. The most striking is that they're CBD ventures with a flexible approach to dining and drinking. But the more interesting commonality is that both are deliberately personal expressions of the sort of places that Denton and Christopoulos love. It may be pushing it to talk of them distilling the essences of their owners' careers, but both Neapoli and Hihou certainly offer clues to what rings the bells of two of the country's most influential restaurateurs.
Denton's fondness for Japan started with the menu at his Flinders Lane restaurant Verge and became less a matter of inspiration and more a bracingly literal reading when he partnered up with Takashi Omi and Miyuki Nakahara at Izakaya Den. Now, having closed Verge late last year, Denton and his Izakaya partners have turned the double-storey space into two separate eateries - downstairs, the lunchtime Japanese canteen Nama Nama, and upstairs in the former main dining room, Hihou, a glass-walled, concrete-ceilinged love letter to the small, sophisticated bars of Tokyo.
Denton's sharply focused style of service and finely tuned attention to detail are everywhere at Hihou. There's the manner of the greeting (you press a buzzer at the unmarked door and wait to be welcomed in), the coat-checking, chair-pulling and menu-flourishing that await at the top of the stairs. It's all done in a way that's as effortless as the sophistication of the low-lit, subtly glimmering space. Stepping into Izakaya Den might be a trip, but the Hihou entrance well and truly transports you.
It's a serene gem of a room that wears its finely crafted Japanese influences easily: polished stone tabletops, a heavily grained timber bar chock-full of bowls of fruit and bottles of infusing gin and shochu. The carefully lit play of light and shadow turns the bar shelving sculptural, and there's a shoe-free shag-carpeted area (slippers provided) that's all lounging and candlelight.
Despite its restaurant-style trappings, Hihou is very much a bar first, albeit a grown-up one. This smooth-talking version dispenses Japanese-inspired cocktails (the Negroni-like Negro-Kan includes plum gin and mandarin shochu with the Campari), impressive selections of shochu, umeshu plum wine and Japanese beer, an excellent list of sake and a broad-ranging wine list that's obviously a survivor from Verge days.
An Enomatic wine system facilitates the pouring of top-end wine and sake by the glass - as logical here as the good-looking and perfectly comfortable bar stools.
Even with such a well-groomed drinks list, lovely glassware and hand-cut ice, the food at Hihou, courtesy of ex-Izakaya Den chef Kaori Wada, is just as good an excuse to come here. The compact menu of small dishes is not designed for substantial dining, but it tempts you to eat your way from one end (chilli miso edamame) to the other (chocolate shochu brûlée). Several items are contenders for the latest-cult-snack sash.
Topping that list, the lobster, cucumber and caviar temaki roll arrives unrolled with the ingredients - poached lobster meat tossed with mayo, Avruga, rice and cucumber - sitting on one end of the strip of nori. There's more to this than tapping into the interactive bar-snack craze, as nori quickly absorbs moisture and so loses its subtle crackly sticky crunch. Rolling it at the table skips the sogginess and adds a great textural element to a deeply enjoyable flavour combination.
The DIY work continues when buckwheat crêpes arrive soft with curled edges to wrap around slivers of salted and boiled pork, pickled mushrooms, pickled wombok and a creamy, spicy mustard miso sauce. The Hihou dog, a purpose-baked D. Chirico sesame roll stuffed with a Gotzinger sausage, pickled onion and cabbage, comes with three sauces that are best mixed and matched - wasabi mayo, tonkatsu and a feisty chilli.
Those not into working for their snacks might prefer the excellent tuna cigar where a mix of tuna and ginger and another of tuna and wasabi are piped into a baked miso paper roll, a masterclass in elegant, textural, punchily flavoured bar snackery. Or the scallop and shiitake shumai that sees scallop, squid and corn mixed with a little potato starch and eggwhite, then spooned onto a whole shiitake before the lot is wrapped in a wonton skin and steamed.
The same fine balance of unabashed drinking food and restrained and elegant presentation is present in the hot nori and anchovy "bagna cauda", a Japanese take on the fondue-like Piedmontese dish: steamed prawns and raw radish, cauliflower and the like are dipped into a hot oil mixture flavoured with garlic, anchovy and seaweed. Something of a fusion number, it draws together ideas from many places in a thoroughly successful whole. Much like Hihou itself.
There are a lot of ideas at work on the menu at Neapoli, too. Too many, some might argue. Neapoli is named after the town in eastern Crete where Con Christopoulos's dad originally hails from, signalling that there's a fair bit of the personal in his latest venture with Josh Brisbane, his business partner in The European, Melbourne Supper Club et al. The menu, conceived with chef Sam Kenway, further underlines the personal - it's all about the food Christopoulos loved when he was growing up, combined with the kind of health-conscious eating he's been drawn to recently. File it under Health and Nostalgia, perhaps (or Healthy Nostalgia). Either way, it seems a little addled on first reading, with a raw-food salad bar joining a menu that has sashimi and spanakopita sitting alongside duck curry, chilli con carne and sautéed chicken livers. There's fish and chips, too, a house-made gelato and pan-fried sardines.
It could so easily become a car crash.
Perhaps what throws the apparent dissonance of the continent-skipping menu into even greater relief is that the room itself is such a gorgeously realised space. It's spread over two floors, with a full-height, black-metal-framed wall of glass flanking both. The cosy wood-panelled mezzanine (with a '30s-esque oval boardroom table and red-leather-upholstered chairs) overlooks the white terrazzo-floored main area and its sensuously shaped timber bar with super-comfortable fixed bar stools and fabulous '70s-inspired light fitting hovering over it all.
One of the best attributes of the space is the sound. Despite the hard surfaces and impressive ceiling heights, there's a wonderful cosiness and warmth to Neapoli that's been created through the acoustic treatment of the walls and ceiling. Conversation is a breeze, even when the place is busy and the music is up, and the clubhouse vibe it creates is as much a part of the success of the room as any of the other design features.
Initial misgivings aside, the menu offers its share of wins, and much of that comes down to the experience and instincts of the owners. The cooking is simple, the number of ingredients low and the influences separate. A ceviche combines line-caught snapper and kingfish, Hervey Bay scallops and yellowfin tuna, thinly sliced and marinated to order in lemon and lime juice and olive oil and served with diced avocado, pickled jalapeño and crunchy little house-made sweet potato crisps. Stifado is made according to Christopoulos's mother's recipe, the red-wine-marinated rabbit braised with cinnamon, cloves, tomato, baby onions and wine, and served with an excellent lemony warm potato salad.
Then there's the "beef fillet mezze", a piece of grain-fed Scotch, beautifully cooked and simply served with wedges of lemon. The impressive chilli con carne is nicely heated with green, red and birdseye chillies and served with house-made cornbread, while slices of grilled black pudding are teamed with apple and charred capsicum.
Gelato, made in-house, is worth a visit on its own. The combination of yoghurt gelato with Fabbri cherries and their sweet-sour, sticky amarena syrup is toe-curlingly good, while an espresso soufflé matched with fior di latte gelato holds up its end of the argument.
It's not surprising, given the vast experience of both Denton and Christopoulos, that their new ventures have arrived feeling fully formed. But what makes Hihou and Neapoli so appealing is that there's no feeling of rehashing or reheating. The themes are familiar, but these are fresh, interesting venues from two restaurateurs who keep on delivering the good stuff to Melbourne diners.