To talk about James, a casual new wine bar on Clarendon Street in South Melbourne, first requires a quick logistical overview.

The stylish space is one half of Wynyard, an all-day cafe that’s accessed from the laneway it shares with European Wine Store and homewares store Made in Japan. During the day you can walk through Wynyard, but by night, you’ll need to enter from Clarendon Street.

James dutifully serves as an extension of the cafe during the day (what are siblings for, anyway?), serving Single O coffee, stoneground sourdough toast, and eggs any-way to the Lycra-clad and locals alike. But by 7pm, Wynyard is tucked into bed and James comes to life as a European-looking, Japanese-leaning wine bar. Suddenly Lycra doesn’t seem quite as appropriate.

“We wanted [James] to feel like a lounge room where you’re meeting and greeting friends and family,” says owner Kirbie Tate.

The 40-seat space was renovated by South Melbourne architecture firm The Office for Collective Design, resulting in a room of clean lines and earthy tones. Strategically placed spotlights and light wooden tables and chairs breathe new life into the old digs. The big interior standout is a blue-brick wall that Tate and her team spent a whole day sandblasting to expose.

Wine here takes centre stage. Every few months, Tate brings in a different guest sommelier to “lovingly put together” a list. Corey Morris of Bellota Wine Bar is in charge of the current selection of uncomplicated wines – mostly by small or up-and-coming producers, with a few more established names thrown in.

There are eight Coravin options, where the wine is specially extracted without removing the cork, giving sommeliers license to offer more exclusive and expensive drops by the glass. Price-wise, a $160 bottle of 2015 Matrot Meursault is $45 a glass, and a 2016 Domaine de Bellene Vosne Romanee, a red burgundy that costs $175 a bottle, is $55 a glass. You’re still better off buying a bottle, but the Coravin provides flex.

The Japanese-leaning menu is the domain of executive chef Adrian Li (also Zia Rina’s Cucina and formerly Hanoi Hannah, Tokyo Tina and the now-closed Saigon Sally).

Dishes are unfussy and playful. There’s fried-chicken bao with kale and cabbage, kingfish sashimi artfully assembled with sliced pickled daikon, and slow-roasted teriyaki beef ribs. You can also order a two-person set meal, which might include tempura eggplant in miso custard with pickled ginger and dashi oil, perfect with a 2017 Sinapius Tasmanian Clem Blanc, which has just enough bite to stand up to the eggplant.

The dessert menu comprises a sweet, single option: a yuzu doughnut.

323 Clarendon Street, South Melbourne

Wed to Mon 7pm–9.30pm

This article first appeared on Broadsheet on July 16, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.