On the surface, Saké Restaurant & Bar is an ode to contemporary Japanese dining. It has the quintessential dark mahogany timber highlights and dim lighting that make it the perfect place to enjoy fresh sushi and sashimi whilst overlooking the breathtaking Yarra River and CBD. While Saké fits the classic description of a Japanese restaurant, it goes one step further than the rest: its specialty is in Japanese cocktails, whiskies and beverages that you would be hard-pressed to find in any other one place in Australia.
Located in Melbourne’s cultural precinct beneath the stunning Hamer Hall, Saké offers drinks and experiences to suit every personality, mood and moment. The creative crusader behind the restaurant’s colourful cocktails is bar manager John Ross Jones – a masterful bartender whose years of experience generates a confident and capable vibe. His arsenal happens to be one of the best-stocked bars in the country, loaded to the absolute hilt with Japanese delights. The bottom line is to create specialty drinks designed to enhance the dining experience, though with such prolific vision plunged into each glorious libation, who says you’ll even need food?
Among the bar’s extensive list of cocktails is its signature range, which includes the ever-popular Hattori Hanzo. It’s namesake pays homage to the historic samurai and ninja, as well as the master swordsmith in Kill Bill. This seriously chilled concoction packs quite a punch with muddled cucumber and jalapeno shaken with gin, elderflower, freshly squeezed limejuice and yuzu. Served in a goblet over ice with spicy flakes of jalapeno lining the sides, this is one drink that will leave you wide-eyed and bushy-tailed in no time.
If Japanese whisky is your vice, then you simply can’t go past the Mr Brightside. Served short over an ice rock, this heart-warming creation is sure to hit the spot with its intoxicating plume of cherry wood smoke. Says Jones, “I love Japanese whisky but I don’t like doing too much to it because you obviously want to keep those great flavours. I had a smoke gun and a bit of an epiphany, so it’s a twist on the Godfather”. Although this whisky cocktail usually features the much-lauded Yamazaki single malt, the country has recently run dry of the veritable drop. As such, Jones has substituted Hibiki 12 Year Old and it’s just as, if not more satisfying. Star anise and cinnamon blend well in this cocktail with a mixture of Hibiki and Ardberg Islay whisky for a smoky, smooth finish. Meanwhile, Disaronno Amaretto imparts a subtle sweetness to top it all off.
If rum is your game, try the Stormy in Ginza, created by Jones in tribute to the district of Tokyo most famous for its cocktails. “I went there last year and it was really stormy, so it’s a twist on a Dark and Stormy. Also, Ginza sounds like ginger,” says Jones as he chuckles. He goes on to explain that the cocktail contains a base of house made ginger beer, created using an abundance of fresh herbs and spices. “Everything goes in there. We always make sure that it’s really nice and spicy. I put star anise in there, I even put in some Thai basil this week.” The ginger beer is mixed with Choya Kokuto, a wine derived from soaking plums in sake for a year and a half, then adding rum and brown sugar at the end. This deliciously rich plum-infused blend is then combined with Gosling’s Black Seal Rum and Mount Gay Extra Old along with house made thyme cordial for an herbaceous, spicy kick. Served with a piece of candied ginger, this cocktail is perfect as an after-dinner digestive.
Then there’s the Fukkatsu, meaning “resurrection” in Japanese. Jones goes on to describe his inspiration behind the name for this cocktail, stating, “It’s my favourite Stone Roses song. I was working on an espresso martini at the time, so the name just seemed to work.” Served straight up, the Fukkatsu is a Japanese twist on the classic espresso, seeing Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, Kahlua and Frangelico shaken with fresh espresso for a nutty, toasty flavour. The secret ingredient is Asahi Black, a beer that gives the martini a bit of body and an incredibly creamy head. Sweetened with vanilla and paired with salted caramel and chocolate biscuits on the side, this is a cocktail that will knock your socks off.
Of course, if none of these concoctions are quite right, then you can always put your faith in Jones or one of the other experienced bartenders to imagine up a bespoke creation just for you. We did just that, ending up with a Japanese gin and tonic that seriously put a new spin on refreshing. The base is Four Pillars Navy Strength, mixed with Amabuki Junmai Ginjo Nama (strawberry sake), tonic water, Vietnamese mint, coriander and kaffir lime. “I went to the Four Pillars distillery last week and met the guy who started it,” Jones said. “I told him I wanted to make a Japanese gin and tonic. He said the best thing to do is put coriander and wasabi in it. I’m still trying to work out how to put wasabi into a gin and tonic… maybe an ice cube or some kind of syrup.”
Meanwhile, demonstrating the bar staff’s versatility, bar supervisor Sky presented to us a gorgeous passionfruit medley that embodied the very taste of summer. The cocktail contained Tanqueray gin muddled with freshly squeezed orange and lime. Choya Kokuto and a spoonful of Cointreau were then stirred in with fresh mint and vanilla for a seriously smooth aftertaste.
In addition to cocktails, Saké offers a shochu, wine and beer list, as well as a selection of over 13 Japanese whiskies. Many of the whiskies are beyond expensive and rare, but there’s a solid selection of under-the-radar whiskies that won’t break the bank. If you’re after something to nosh on, then there’s a delicious menu of food to boot too.
Striving to be one of the best bars in Melbourne, Saké offers a cosmopolitan atmosphere mixing professional with urban trendsetters and can be counted on for a classy night out. Situated on Southbank, the cocktail mecca is nestled in the heart of Melbourne’s cultural precinct and is just a stone’s throw away from some of the city’s best nightlife. After a balmy evening stroll along the Yarra, there’s nothing better to indulge in than a restorative Japanese cocktail and there’s no better place to have one than at Saké.
Saké Restaurant & Bar
Address: Arts Centre, St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Contact: (03) 8687 0775
Opening Hours: Mon-Sun, 12pm-late
Photos by Serena Ho for the AU Review