If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll know it specialises in unassuming neighbourhood joints that are small in scale, yet totally outsized in charm. It’s a special effect that Nomidokoro Indigo replicates perfectly in Darlinghurst. This new sake bar by the Nakano Darling team captures that transporting feels-like-Japan sensation in subtle ways – there’s an unshowy sign that simply depicts sake being poured, and the word ‘Indigo’ is quietly printed on the noren (curtain) at the entrance, just above its timber door.
“It’s very understated,” says Chris Wu, who co-owns the bar with Mitomo Somehara and Tin Jung Shea (together, they form the Hatena Group). Think of how the namesake colour is judiciously repeated throughout the bar – in decorative textiles, curtains and staff uniforms. Originally extracted from the indigo plant, the hue is so synonymous with the country that it’s known as “Japan blue”.
While some venues rely on clumsy, literally cartoonish stereotypes about “the land of the rising sun”, Nomidokoro Indigo’s elegant evocation of Japan works because it’s done in a thoughtful way. It helps that the owners have meaningful connections to the place: Wu has visited seven times, while Shea grew up in Chiba and resided in Sapporo as an adult. “I’m from Kyoto and I lived in Nagoya,” adds Somehara.
Because this addition to their ever-expanding empire of Japanese venues (Yakitori Yurippi, Tachinomi YP, Nakano Darling) feels pretty seamless, you might assume Nomidokoro Indigo’s launch has been years in the making, but that’s not exactly the case.
“One of the things our group tends to do is – we sign a lease and then we figure out what we’re going to do with it,” says Shea. They hadn’t even meant to look at this tiny Darlinghurst space and then, in early 2022, it was theirs.
“That’s not to say we don’t plan,” adds Wu. “We plan, but we deviate.”
“That’s Chris’s role. We call him Deviation Chris,” jokes Somehara.
While they have an easygoing, good-humoured attitude, the trio still brings a well-considered approach to what they do – which is clear in every detail at Nomidokoro Indigo, from the sake that’s poured to the smoked daikon pickles, obanzai and chiffon cake that make up the likeable menu. Here’s what to expect.
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Here, sake culture is front and centre.
The glowing sign at the front of Nomidokoro Indigo features the venue’s logo, designed by Airi Nakayama.
“It’s a very traditional Japanese pourer called tokkuri and the cup is called ochoko,” says Somehara. “She made it so we’re pouring the sake out of the tokkuri into the ochoko.”
This logo features on the “bottle-keep” tags – it allows guests to buy a bottle, enjoy part of it and then reserve the rest on the bar’s shelf for next time. It’s a phenomenon that’s “very big in Japan”, he says. “We wanted to introduce that to Australia.”
Each week, there are around 25 sake bottles to choose from and Nomidokoro Indigo prints its list on actual sake bottles – so you rotate the vessel to decide whether you want a pour of Yamato-Shizuku (“it’s really easy to drink to start off with, it’s a little bit fruity, with a green apple hint to it”) or Kaze No Mori (which has an enticing fizz and is best enjoyed in the moment – it loses its buzz by the next day).
The list is by sake sommelier, Chiaki Komura, who aimed for accessibility, rather than pages of encyclopaedic or potentially intimidating choices. “We wanted to have a few sweet ones, dry ones, rich ones, so everyone can have fun and everyone can drink a lot of styles,” says Shea. “She just made the best sake menu out of that.”
Handcrafted, personal touches make all the difference.
“We always like collaborating and giving people a platform for their creative skills,” says Shea.
These hand-crafted touches add to Nomidokoro Indigo’s warm and personal feel.
So, the sake pourers, ochoko and plates are by his friend, an amateur potter.
“We call them torizara, which it means ‘to take’, it’s a ‘take’ plate. You know when you share food, you have food in the middle and then you take it to your own plate? That’s what the torizara is,” he adds.
“Chris’s friend made the hagi lights,” Shea says, “Also, the sake warmer cups, they’re sourced from Japan, through our friend.”
You sense there are longstanding relationships that glue the venue together, from the thoughtful interior design (by old friend, Jo Quach) to the hojicha powder that flavours the chiffon cakes by Karin Tabata (who draws on her patisserie experience from Japan). And the tea in that dessert? You can trace it to a friend’s family farm in Shizuoka.
The bar serves “Grandmother food” you can drink to.
Their executive chef is Hideyuki Kato, someone they’ve known for years.
“When he first came to Australia, his first meal was at our yakitori shop in Australia, because he was friends with one of my staff,” says Shea. “That is, in a nutshell, him. He’s from Japan and he goes to eat Japanese food.”
And he makes a solid case for what should be served with their drinks list.
“Hide said sake is made out of rice and all Japanese food goes well with rice, so all Japanese food is going to go well with sake,” Shea adds.
One of the most snackable parts of the menu is iburigakko. “I really love it. It’s a smoked pickle,” says Shea. “Mitomo’s wife, she introduced me to iburigakko.”
These daikon pickles originate from Akita, which seems apt for their menu. “Because Akita is very famous for its Japanese sake, too,” says Somehara. “So it’ll 100 per cent go well with the sake.”
The menu also includes obanzai, which has been described as “Kyoto’s version of grandma cooking”.
It could be deep-fried pumpkin wedges and soy-marinated eggs one day and something totally different the next. “Our executive chef will come with up an obanzai every day,” says Somehara. “Obanzai is a very traditional nibble. It’s there, it can be eaten hot or cold. It comes out quick, so it accompanies your sake or drinks. And obanzai is usually you make with leftover vegetables or meat.” It’s apt because the very compact Nomidokoro Indigo is all about maximising the little you have.
And it’s the small things – the fact the menu is written partly in Japanese, with an emphasis on Japanese-style service and Japanese staff – that add to the venue’s transporting feel. “It all comes together and it feels like Japan,” says Shea.
Wu jokes that its success means he doesn’t have to return to his former life, working in music.
“He never had a sense for it,” jokes Somehara. “We can tell from his Spotify list.”
Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.