The commanding, curvaceous art deco building on the corner of Carlisle and Nelson streets in Balaclava has led many lives. In the early 1900s, it was a branch of the Commonwealth Bank. Then, after the turn of the millennium, it got a mustardy paint job to become a Red Rooster. And most recently it was south-side Italian favourite Ilona Staller, which closed in 2020. But it’s just been reincarnated again.

The heritage-listed spot is now home to Moonhouse, a moody Chinese-inspired bistro by the Commune Group – also behind Hanoi Hannah, Tokyo Tina, Firebird and New Quarter – which opens on Wednesday night.

“It’s a beautiful old art deco building with a lot of history, and we thought we could bring something really special to it,” the group’s creative director Simon Blacher tells Broadsheet. “We went back to the bones and layered Moonhouse into it.”

The interior was completely gutted and then redesigned with the help of architect Ewert Leaf and design agency Space Between. The fit-out reflects the exterior, with curves all over, elegant burgundy booths, art deco chandeliers and red glass partially shielding the kitchen.

It’s helmed by long-time Commune Group chef Shirley Summakwan alongside group executive chef Anthony Choi. And the pair is serving classics in new ways. “A lot of Melburnians have grown up eating Chinese food, and those flavours are nostalgic and comforting,” Blacher says. “We’re just giving people a spin on what they already know.”

The snacky, sesame-crusted prawn toast comes with a prawn bisque dipping sauce. And because “Melbourne loves a sandwich”, the Hainanese chicken club is a riff on the beloved rice dish; tender chicken pieces, crispy skin and cucumber are smooshed between two crustless rounds of white bread (Blacher says it took nearly 30 iterations to perfect). Plus, Moonhouse’s oysters Kilpatrick uses lap cheong, or Chinese sausage, in place of bacon.

Traditional dishes like XO pippies, dan dan noodles and black bean sirloin sit alongside perfect-for-sharing options like the Duck Ceremony, a half roast duck with plum salt, hoisin and pancakes. And for dessert, find five-spice doughnuts with black-pepper ice-cream, and fruit and jelly (zingy citrus jellies set in hollowed-out citrus skin) by pastry chef Enza Soto.

The well-thought-out wine list is entirely Australian – save the champagne – curated by drinks expert Claudelle Savannah (Public Wine Shop). For cocktails, the brief was simple but slightly elevated: your Negroni comes alongside a scoop of savoury orange sorbet and your Martini comes with a trio of skewered pickled grapes.

The building’s evolution has continued upstairs too, with a second bar and grand private dining room (with lazy Susans) for special events.

Moonhouse is opening to the public this week, but Broadsheet Access members were the first to experience it over a preview dinner. Want to be the first to try the next big restaurant opening? Find out how with Broadsheet Access.

Moonhouse opens on Wednesday June 1.

Moonhouse
282 Carlisle Street, Balaclava
(03) 9088 8022

Hours:
Wed to Fri 5pm–late
Sat & Sun 12pm–4pm, 5pm–late

moonhouse.com.au