James review

James is a classy but approachable night-time option in South Melbourne.
James is a classy but approachable night-time option in South Melbourne. Photo: Bonnie Savage

323 Clarendon St South Melbourne, VIC 3205

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Opening hours Lunch Wed-Sat; dinner Tue-Sat
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed, Degustation
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9690 9285

Five minutes after I get off the phone from a fact-checking chat with chef Sangsoo Kim, he calls me back. "Actually, I think it is Korean-Australian food," he says. "Or Australian-Korean."

In our previous discussion, Kim asked me what cuisine I thought he was serving at James, an unassuming but impressive restaurant that took a post-lockdown turn from cafe and bar to proper dining room. "I think it's a very Melbourne style of food," I told him. "That's what I want it to be," he replied. "I am Korean, but the food is Melbourne."

Maybe it doesn't matter how we categorise it. The food at James is underpinned by Korean preparations, such as kimchi, but it's just as inspired by Australian native foods and elements Kim gleaned from previous work in pubs. These influences are brought to bear on a playful menu that rolls from two-bite snacks to shareable vegetable plates and a few larger meat dishes.

Go-to dish: Charred cucumber with smoked yoghurt, muscat grapes and shichimi.
Go-to dish: Charred cucumber with smoked yoghurt, muscat grapes and shichimi. Photo: Bonnie Savage

Kim doesn't like cucumbers, but he thought that if he could make a cucumber dish so tasty even he liked it, everyone else would, too. Halved cucumbers ($14) are charred, dolloped with smoked yoghurt and tiled with sliced grapes.

The chef is no fan of olives either, but he seduced himself with a black-olive crumb sprinkled on top, along with shichimi chilli pepper. The dish is sweet and smoky, juicy and crunchy, a beautiful balance of contrasts. Kim won himself over and I'm an easy sell, too.

If the cucumber project hints at a kind of joyful obstinacy, the Murray cod ($33) seals it. An exhaustive process of trialling seafood meant there was no fish on the menu for six months – until Kim was finally satisfied with this freshwater native, prized for its juicy white flesh.

Aged Murray cod cooked over charcoal, glazed with brown butter and served with gochujang and a salsa featuring muntries.
Aged Murray cod cooked over charcoal, glazed with brown butter and served with gochujang and a salsa featuring muntries. Photo: Bonnie Savage

Before cooking, the cod is brined and dried during a five-day ageing period. Does that sound weird? Sushi chefs routinely age some fish and Sydney seafood guru Josh Niland matures oily tuna and mackerel for weeks to intensify flavours. At James, petite fillets are cooked over charcoal, then glazed with brown butter. The cooking is exemplary – the skin dark-blistered and crisp, the juicy meat flaking cleanly.

The cod accompaniments speak to Kim's bowerbird style. Muntries, a spicy native berry, are tumbled in a herb salsa that recalls Argentinian chimichurri. Gochujang – a fermented chilli paste, made here – is spooned alongside, completing an assembly that sparkles with texture and tang.

Kim moved to Australia from Korea nine years ago, worked as a kitchen hand and loved the job so much he studied to be a chef. He knows Korean food as an eater, but hasn't trained in it. There's freedom in that, almost lyricism, as dishes reach towards memory from the unbound culinary landscape of Melbourne.

Prawn crackers with smoked tomato powder.
Prawn crackers with smoked tomato powder. Photo: Bonnie Savage

Kim became interested in native foods by walking around and wondering what was edible. With a "can I eat this?" app as companion, he started experimenting.

As well as the culinary threads, the menu is deeply influenced by key kitchen philosophies. A no-waste ethic means off-cuts of one dish often turn up as powder or preserve on another: smoked tomatoes are served with mussels, but their dry edges are turned into a sprinkle for the prawn cracker ($16).

Duck soup ($23) is one of five swank lunch bowls offering a sandwich alternative to local workers. The bird's leftover skin, meanwhile, becomes crunchy garnish for the chocolate tart ($18). Is it odd? Yep. Does it work? Also yes: sweet and salt love to play.

Chocolate tart garnished with crispy duck skin.
Chocolate tart garnished with crispy duck skin. Photo: Bonnie Savage

The magic of fermentation achieves deep, layered flavours without evident complexity. The process also reduces expensive labour; it's a bargain to eat here. There's a sense of fun, too: glazed hanger steak ($31) nestles under a blanket of soy-preserved betel leaves while barbecued calamari ($25) is concealed by sheets of pickled kohlrabi.

Owner Kirbie Tate has a long cafe history. She launched James in 2019 as an offshoot of Wynyard, the coffee spot that was at the rear. Needing a change ("I was done with breakfast," she tells me), and also because Kim's lockdown at-home boxes had heaps of fans, she reframed James, giving South Melbourne a classy but approachable night-time option.

It isn't all the way there: service is polished but there's still a cafe feel to the room, a sparseness that can seem stark. If the James experience can amplify the enthusiastic questing of chef Kim's food – do we call it Melbourne K-Pop? – then we'll have a restaurant tilting at brilliance.

Vibe: Approachable fine dining with a Korean skew

Go-to dish: Charred cucumber with smoked yoghurt, muscat grapes and shichimi.

Drinks: Cocktails with native ingredients and a bijou wine list

Cost: About $100 for two, excluding drinks

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine; Besha Rodell is on leave

https://jamessouthmelbourne.com.au/