It nudges up against a kung-fu school and backs onto the Chinese Museum. In a narrow, deep Lonsdale Street address, Seamstress occupies a footprint in a zone that is traditionally more Cantonese than Caucasian. But with its seriously funky recycled warehouse/New York loft aesthetic and modern Asian food, this new Melbourne restaurant and bar bridges the gap between two cultures and generations.
An ancient four-level clothing factory, given new life with judicious recycling and careful design touches, is the setting for Seamstress. Its look, behind a typical Melbourne-discreet façade (that is, very easy to miss), would work any place where the notion of urban renewal makes sense. Waves of kimono-like printed silk flowing over the dining room like a soft shimmering canopy are the only clue to the restaurant's Asian ties. Otherwise this oasis of cool might be anywhere, anything. It's only when you see the menu, and the food, that a sense of being in Chinatown takes place, the sense of a new generation having a crack at the zone.
Seamstress belongs to New Zealand-raised Jason Chan and business partner Anthony Herzog. The former built a reputation with Batch Espresso café in Melbourne's Balaclava; the latter (who has also spent time in New Zealand) has worked in restaurants here, including a stint as sommelier at Pearl, and in Europe. The head chef at Seamstress, Jerry Mai, a Vietnamese-Australian, is well-known locally for her food at Red Rice, Lime Leaves, Longrain and her own (now defunct) modern-Vietnamese restaurant Chi, while executive chef Raymond Larkins, another Kiwi, has a diverse background at home and here.
The one-time garment joint carries its heritage throughout the business, particularly with the multicoloured collection of yarns and fabrics everywhere, while the sewing machines add a quirky touch to the décor. A basement-level bar opened just last month, while the second floor houses the cocktail bar where colourful cheongsams hang from the ceiling. Award-winning bartender Shae Silvestro presides over the drinks, and the bar snacks are a notch above average, originating from the same kitchen as the restaurant.
Up a flight of timber stairs to the first level is the dining room, an intriguing area that again mixes old with new. Distressed, painted-a-million-times brick walls abut cameo sections of rich, florid wall-paper; 130-year-old unfinished floorboards support new Tasmanian oak tables and chairs; Chinese silk garments hang from coathangers; lights shining through draping silk parachute are augmented by the natural stuff filtered through antique commercial wire-reinforced window panes.
With grape guru Herzog in the picture, it's no surprise that the wine is an important part of the package here. The list, modest in size, is full of class, though the quixotic manner in which they're bracketed ('colourful whites' for reds, 'dyed reds' for rosés) may leave you feeling a little confused. It's a small thing.
Just as the personnel behind the place reflects a variety of cultural backgrounds, Mai's dining room menu (under the supervision of Larkins) is an Asian melting pot. Cantonese, Vietnamese and Thai threads are all detectable. We like the way, too, that savoury dishes are spread among three categories: small, medium and large. It makes a lot of sense, although it would be tempting to graze through a series of the smaller dishes over the course of an evening, letting Herzog steer you through some appropriate wines by the glass or a few half-bottles perhaps, such as the lovely 2001 Crawford River Riesling.
Definitely try their interpretation of sang choi bau: a fragrant, sweet combination of quail, shiitake mushrooms and white sesame seeds in individual canoes of witlof that provide a touch of bitterness to the diced meat and mushroom. And order whatever the 'dumplings from the tailor' may be, a rotating sui mai du jour that could be slippery steamed parcels of prawn meat and young ginger, sent out with a red vinegar-and-shallot dipping sauce in a beautiful Chinese saucer.
Follow the dumplings with a superb starter of rare duck breast sandwiched into a pocket of crisp deep-fried chicken skin with pickled green chilli and a wad of enoki mushrooms. You will want this, too, for its novelty, its clever combination of components and the fragrant masterstock in which it sits.
The 'crisp, coated calamari', novelly presented as a kind of Chinese fish (without chips) on a square of Chinese newspaper with five-spice salt, is a knock off of Martin Boetz's cuttlefish at Longrain. Not a bad dish to knock off, though; slippery cephalopod inside a chewy yet crisp pale batter made using glutinous rice flour.
Mai's inevitable Asian-inflected carpaccio is of venison from South Australia's Onkaparinga Valley: meaty slices of just-seared fillet dressed with Sichuan pepper, pickled snow peas and a hedge of mixed baby sprouts including Swiss chard. Presented in a modern manner on bold, rectangular platters, it's a dish that could use a bit of refinement.
At the other end of the size scale, I've no such reservations about the 'large' dishes I've tried. Reviving the Chinese tradition of baking in a salt crust, the golden, perfectly formed semi-boned poussin is stuffed with sautéed leek and Chinese red dates, which add an interesting, pulse-like texture to the mix. The bird is served with more of the red dates and an excellent chicken stock-based juice revved up with Chinese Shaoxing wine. It adheres to Chinese reverence for texture: the meat is brilliant, slippery and succulent.
A whole fish - the flesh removed from the frame, dusted, deep-fried and served alongside the fried carcass - is another touch of Longrain and a fun, simple way to eat a finned specimen. A lime-dressed green mango salad and vinegar-based chilli dipping sauce give the dish a decidedly Thai accent, and the citric tang of the fruit is a great foil to the fried pieces of fish. I've had it with both farmed barramundi and local snapper; the barra was the pick for this treatment.
Another textural treat is a generous portion of ox cheek, the sticky nature of the muscle perfectly preserved in the cooking. Braised in a deep dark mysterious broth, it's peppered heavily with star anise, cassia bark and Chinese black vinegar, and comes with a pot of rice garnished with powdered dried shrimp. Adding to the unpredictable flavour notes of the dish, the meat is garnished with a fine julienne of young ginger and fried shallot; Asian flavours perfectly suited to a modern Australian shiraz or grenache blend.
On the whole, the cooking is both careful and inventive, as refreshing as the premises itself. Desserts, however, are not the restaurant's strong suit. Of those tasted, only a lemongrass panna cotta with a sweet red bean sauce and a sesame wafer came close to succeeding, and even that was hardly a tour de force. The texture was on the heavy side (not overly gelatinous, the usual problem), while the lemongrass flavour had infused the cream subtly at best. Desserts from a sampler platter - a selection of tropical fruit jellies, banana 'parchment' parcels with wild rice and coconut cream - suggested, shall we say, an opportunity still ripe for exploitation. Hey, that's the glass half-full approach, isn't it?
The modest performance of the tail-end batsmen, however, does little to dull my enthusiasm for Seamstress. The staff is willing and, in the case of the host, particularly professional, the wine choices cater to enthusiasts, and the food errs on the sensible side of Asian fusion, with a youthful, modern attitude and dining sensibility. It all suggests a couple of young restaurateurs with a desire to do things properly first time round. If Seamstress' arrival signals the beginning of Chinatown's revival, then bring it on.