1 Flinders Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000
Maybe it's the tight menu of just three major options, or the ritual of gently cooking your own dinner one swish at a time, but Poppu Uppu, the temporary shabu shabu restaurant that Simon Denton has replaced Kappo with for winter, may be the most soothing dining experience in Melbourne.
For the uninitiated, shabu shabu is Japan's evolution of the Chinese hotpot. It's important to know the difference. Where other table-set soup pots may see you dip ingredients into an intensely flavoured base or dump everything in to make one big soup, this is a far more subtle situation.
The name refers to the swishing motion as you wash individual pieces of meat, fish or vegetables through a bare-bones broth until cooked to your liking. Most flavour comes from a post-swish dunk in sauces and drinking the liquor is futile until the end, when enough flavour has transferred, and udon is added.
Denton, Melbourne's favourite Japanophile, has been the custodian of this site for 17 years. It has been sustainable Verge, bento and noodle specialist Nama Nama, and Kappo, with the elegant Hihou added upstairs six years ago. All great gets. And while this recent change was born of necessity following the illness of Kappo's star chef, the pieces have dropped impressively into place.
The dusky room, with its big central bar and knee-knocking booths, has transformed with ease from fine diner to fun den via the simple addition of a few reams of branded wallpaper.
The nice thing is, they haven't sucked all the little luxuries from the room. Heavy tumblers indented for the perfect grip, sit on coloured cloth coasters. You still get needle-nosed chopsticks, which you would once have chosen from a fabric-lined box for the many-course kaiseki, which amps the act of eating the fried chicken, and dunking your beef by at least 75 per cent.
It's a pretty user-friendly experience. For two (that's a minimum) your only major decision involves choosing between the beef, seafood or mushroom set. That said, there's nice flex: snacks to start, noodles to add, premium beef cuts. Possibly nicest of all is the drinks list, set out in three pages of wine, sake and beer, with a small bracket of each matched to whichever menu you've chosen.
It's as ordered as Japan's public transport system, and thanks to list help from ex-Kappo somm Raffaele Mastrovincenzo, just as delicious. Sakes run from super polished, wild rice renegades to fruity panda cups. There are fun beers from Tokyo's Coedo and Far Yeast or an elegant stemmy pinot noir from Ochota Barrels in South Australia.
The snacking is good if not the end game. Tender nubbins of chicken thighs are done karaage-style – marinated, tapioca-floured and fried for a crunchy, sweetish finish. The salmon cured in a coffee rub is an acquired taste, a little earthy, but not as weird as it sounds. I wouldn't rush another order of tofu-filled, sesame-frilled mushroom caps that taste mostly of fried, but a neat plate of pickles starring curry-tinged cauliflower and garlic shoots electrified with black vinegar are non-negotiable.
There are more niceties when the main event arrives. The ceramic pot is set to heat, and from a bronze jug pours the super subtle kombu dashi, enhanced with just a little sake and, for Melbourne tastes, soy. If you get a seafood platter this will be a richer miso broth.
With any set comes a neat plate of crisp wombok, tufts of enoki, carrots and threads of leek. Our beef order gets us a platter of marbled wagyu bolar blade and topside, extra-flavoursome cuts finely sliced like carpaccio, which cook in three swipes and deliver pure essence of beef.
It's a simple process, but waitstaff in tunics will instruct anyway. Add most veg, but put the leeks in later. Dip the beef (or salmon, mussels and prawns if you take the ocean option), and wash it back and forth until it's just turned pale. Pinch with leeks and pimp as you like in goma, a house-made sesame paste, citric-salty yuzu and soy ponzu, or chef Hiroyuki Hamano's special sauce of ginger, leek, shiso, a little dried mountain plum for salty tartness and olive oil.
There's nothing more to it. Rinse and repeat. Get a fruity Hitachino beer and add your chewy, slippery handmade udon (another returning hero from the days when this was lunch station Nama Nama) to the now soupy broth.
Finish with a scoop of melon sorbet or get another sake. It's meditation meets dinner with delicious drinks. Bathe in the calm while you can.
Poppu Uppu will run until October
Pro Tip: Pimp your hotpot with extra six-score wagyu, or fresh scallops
Go-to Dish: Beef shabu shabu, $49