Quiet elegance: Kappo feels a long way from the frenzied end of Flinders Lane.
Quiet elegance: Kappo feels a long way from the frenzied end of Flinders Lane. Photo: Luis Ascui

1 Flinders Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Permanently Closed

It's the rituals that make it: seats drawn back to scoop you into place; hand towels delivered, plush and thick, and the chance to choose your chopsticks. These are presented, thick and teak-dark, ochre-red and spindly nosed, or fine, light and spiral-ended, in a beautiful fabric lined box. In short, you're not at Nama Nama anymore, the casual Japanese lunch spot that owners Simon Denton, Miyuki Nakahara and Takashi Omi have replaced with Kappo, and they want you to know it.

You feel a long way from the frenzied end of Flinders Lane at their new, premium, omakase-style eatery, where everything happens in precise, whispery movements. It's a room of minimal elegance: a sleek island bar in a noise-sucking, charcoal carpet sea, with rice paper panels aloft and just a few tables for two  scattered about. Here, in the park-facing Spring Street space, dinner can take three hours. It is quiet. It is nice.

Dinner begins long before you walk through the door. An email is sent explaining how Kappo works – it's an omakase situation, which basically means the chefs will make what they want, but you do get to nominate or nix any of that day's 30 or so ingredients, and choose how large you'll go: five, seven or nine courses.

The seafood tartare is a visceral triumph.
The seafood tartare is a visceral triumph. Photo: Luis Ascui

The good news is, no one wants you to sit in terror, trying not to use the wrong utensil, or crush the impossibly delicate sake glasses that arrive with the opening snack – a chilled slip of miso-marinated tofu. There may be the soulful crooning of Jose James mooching out of the speakers, but the Bamboos come jangling out behind him. Kappo is here to remind us that we can have nice things, and good times.

Consider the snacks: lightly steamed baby veg – corn, capsicum, turnips – come with a walnut miso dip that's reminiscent, in the best way possible, of gingery banana bread batter. There are creamy-tender slow-cooked octopus popsicles amped with condiment-of-now togarashi powder (a seven spice mix involving red pepper, sesame, and seaweed), and crunchy little karaage quail drumettes, sansho pepper-fragrant, panko crumb crisp, and so tender they come clean off the bone. That's a party, however you look at it.

If you want to make a great journey revelatory, entrust yourself to sommelier Raffaele Mastrovincenzo. He gives Denton's impressive stable of wines and sakes an equal workout,  picking the umami in an incredibly subtle dish of white asparagus tofu – a cube of gelatinous, vegetal softness richly capped with a chewy fried shitake mushroom, and surrounded by a thickened kombu broth – and pairs to a high grade Kameizumi unpasteurised sake, all crushed-bugs-and-blossoms and rounded enough to do the job. Next it's an '09 Saarburger riesling from Mosel, big on sugar, bright like a granny smith, bringing stinging freshness to a platter of ocean treats.

Here you're given a bowl and paddle to build a DIY tartare, and everything about it – the rich umamiful sea urchin, the surprising salty bursts from sea grapes and salmon roe, and the crisp crunch from black sesame crumbs and zucchini against the silky softness of diced raw squid and prawn – is a total visceral triumph.

Dinner is punctuated by a lot of muteness. Sometimes it's the sheer quality of ingredients, sometimes the meticulous detail involved in head chef Kentaro Usami's preparation of dishes. There's not a lot of talking as the ex-Kenzan chef slices silvery slips of King George whiting, and loops them around fragrant stems of lemon myrtle. Nor when he dispatches tabs of tuna belly, so well fat-marbled it's practically fish butter, for eating, unadulterated, like wagyu of the sea.

Perhaps there'll be actual wagyu: the rump cap, equally butter soft, char-edged, refreshed with pickled daikon and a notch of black garlic wasabi. Or maybe you'll get the fatty, silver ribbon of grilled salmon tail. Both are served with a tureen of fluffy rice, hairy with new ginger.

It's all so fresh, so well paced, so ceremoniously prepared, it's almost a surprise to arrive at dessert: a tart, minty granita made of sour mountain peaches (yamamomo), chased by fried, red bean-stuffed dough balls and a soft, creamy chunk of Japanese tiramisu, with roasted green tea and Yamazaki 12-year-old whisky soaking the fluffy sponge.

Kappo isn't cheap. But although you can do just five courses for $80, rather than the recommended seven ($110), or nine ($140), it's hard to imagine sitting at that bar, dishes in view, frosty sake magnums all about and not feeling sad at it ending so soon. It's been a long time since something this special came along. Embrace it.

The best bit Watching prep like a perv.
The worst bit You'll have to fight to get in soon.
Go-to dish Ocean tartare (part of the fixed menu).

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.  
 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best