James restaurant review

A fiercely local bar sneaks into South Melbourne.
A fiercely local bar sneaks into South Melbourne.  Photo: Eddie Jim

323 Clarendon St South Melbourne, VIC 3205

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Opening hours Wed-Mon 7am-10.30pm
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9690 9285

There are neighbourhood restaurants and there's James. If you need proof that definitions are becoming fluid, there are few better examples than this restaurant. Which is not a restaurant. Except when it is.

At 7am this is an extension of Wynyard cafe, which itself is in an open (doored) relationship with crockery haven Made in Japan.

At 4pm the coffee machine cools, but is still doing last-minute hot chocolates for the after school pick-ups, as well as serving South Melbourne's swankiest ad folk their last latte or first martini.

A latecomer to the bao party, but James' chicken version is a keeper.
A latecomer to the bao party, but James' chicken version is a keeper.  Photo: Eddie Jim

This is a truly local bar. So much so, its tasting note on the one out-of-state gin is: "Like everything from Sydney, floral and delicate."

Further proof? Matt Drysdale, the designer of James (along with co-owner Kirbie Tate), operates his studios upstairs, and pops down here for meetings. The current wine list, a compact good time bracketed by hyper-local spirits (mixed with on-trend tonics and their house ginger beer) was guest written by neighbour and Bellota sommelier Cory Morris.

When night does fall, out comes a menu designed for them by ex-Saigon Sally chef Adrian Li, whose bright and pro-veg menu with a Japanese skew is built to match the ceramics they use from the shop out back.

Teriyaki beef shortrib falls off the bone with no resistance.
Teriyaki beef shortrib falls off the bone with no resistance. Photo: Eddie Jim

Yes, it's all very closed loop. But you don't need to buy into those commune vibes to get on board. The product checks out.

You're welcomed with that bit of extra warmth and familiarity you sometimes get from cafe staff, accustomed, perhaps, to winning hearts and minds in the hours before it's decent to suggest a drink.

The room does the day-to-night look well, the lights making the sleek woods and sparkling fixtures golden instead of ghostly.

Slaw with a sly wasabi spike.
Slaw with a sly wasabi spike. Photo: Eddie Jim

Li's menu? Snack around the bites and obligatory burrata, but it also delivers its best for $60 a head, or, if you're vego, a slightly smaller banquet for $30 each. That's a neighbourly deal worth changing postcodes for.

It kicks off with bao. There are five of the stuffed, fluffy white buns here and while the craze for them might be over, this chicken version might be one of the best yet. It's a proportions game, the pillowy bun and mayo in sweet harmony with sparkling pink cabbage, the umami crunch of fried kale, and juicy chicken that's so crisp-crumbed it crackles on bite.

Beyond, dishes have the fresh, simple vibe of homespun cooking (albeit of an enthusiastic cook). Seasoning is light – maybe too light for some, but it can also make eating here less of a physical ordeal.

Soba noodles, nashi and pickled mushrooms.
Soba noodles, nashi and pickled mushrooms. Photo: Eddie Jim

Cereally soba noodles crowned with a thatch of crisp nashi twigs and pickled sesame-slicked mushrooms is a fresh tangle of health. The kingfish sashimi, barely enhanced with a citrusy sauce and a few slips of pickled daikon, is a rare showcase of the fish's true subtle self.

Too bland? Sip your dashi spiked with shichimi togarashi, that sesame-chilli-seaweed season-all. At this point, the flavour trajectory rapidly spikes thanks to crisp tempura eggplant bedded in a luxe lava of garlic and miso custard. It eats like creamy potato gratin got in a fist fight with savoury custard chawanmushi.

Here the table fills with steamed brown rice, creamy coleslaw with a surprise wasabi sting, and a pomegranate-punctuated medley of fried beans and bitter greens, all to service a mighty teriyaki short rib that gives up its hold on the bone without resistance.

That's understandable. It's hard to put up a fight here when your lush Traviarti chardonnay from Beechworth, or a tight Clem Blanc field blend from Sinapius in Tasmania might come with a table lean and life talk – if the mood is right. It often is.

James opened three months ago and barely told a soul – Tate didn't even put it online until two weeks ago. It wasn't necessary. A friendly face at night in this 'hood will never stay in the dark.

Vegetarian Half the menu, and a vegetarian banquet for $30.

Drinks Largely interesting Aussie heroes with some French stars under Coravin.

Cost Most dishes $12-$25 or $60/$30 for a meaty or vego banquet.

Pro Tip: Do a late afternoon ceramic shop at Made in Japan out back.

Go-to Dish: Chicken bao.