Rathdowne Street's neighbourhood bar doing inventive food and delicate desserts.
UPDATE Friday, July 23: Lockdown 5.0 has got Henry Sugar moonlighting as a streetside yakitori bar. They're firing up the hibachi grill from 1–8pm Tuesday through Sunday to bring you a tasty lineup of skewers, along with freshly-shucked oysters, toasties on house-made bread and a rotation of sweet treats. Takeaway drinks include a selection of signature cocktails and cosy serves of mulled wine. For more details on Victoria's current restrictions, see the Department of Health and Human Services website.
Stories only happen to those who can tell them. So it's lucky that Kiwi chef Michael Baker (ex-Hell of the North and El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, the world's former best and currently second best restaurant) and ex-Cookie bartender Daniel Mason — joint owners of new neighbourhood wine and cocktail bar Henry Sugar — are master storytellers. Get Michael or Dan talking about the wines and you'll hear how part of a vineyard is in the shadow of a pine tree creating a microclimate and a particularly flavoursome wine; ask how long it took to master the oversized chocolate foam-filled sugar cherry that sits like a shiny Christmas ball on a bed of black forest mousse and you'll get a ripper explanation.
They'll tell you that it took quite some time, which is quite indicative of the menu at Henry Sugar. There is an effortless grace to many of the dishes that hide the enormous amounts of creativity and work that goes into them. Baker manages to create dishes that are both rustic and sophisticated at the same time.
This attention to detail starts with the aperitif; the house spritz is made with Rondò Aperitivo Bio (a rhubarb-based alternative to Aperol) and garnished with an olive-sized kalamata ice cream ball that's been dipped in white chocolate. This is way better experienced than described.
Once you've got your mind around that, share a tofu tartare — which comes with a salty sesame puff ($9) — or wonder at the silkiness of the Puy lentil parfait glazed with Pedro Ximinez and served with house brioche ($11) before moving on to smoky grilled octopus with sobrasada and fennel ($16). Another must-order is the braised lamb with carrot and hazelnut — it is the definition of melt-in-your-mouth ($27) and pairs well with the dehydrated roast pumpkin, glorious in its crispy-skinned candied goodness.
Michael is passionate about desserts and this is obvious when you see them and — more importantly — taste them. The coconut custard with coconut granita, mirin and citrus sorbet is impressive, but it's the aforementioned delicate black forest dessert ($14) that's most memorable.
The minimal wine list complements the menu, as does the cocktail menu, which makes use of a range of interesting flavours, such as locally-made moonshine, caraway and pineapple. Lighter alcoholic options also focus prominently, with a range of vermouths, sherries, mistelle and sake. The team also make their own sodas using seasonal fruit, which are left to carbonate naturally via fermentation.
But while there are many stories behind the food, don't go looking for a story behind the name of the restaurant. Keen readers will notice a reference to Roald Dahl's The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar — and the fact that the menu's logo is in braille seems to reference its character who can see with his eyes covered. But for Michael, it just "sounded like a cool name". Regardless, once you've dined at Henry Sugar, you'll have plenty of stories to tell.