Adam was keen on wining brownie points from his misses and his workmates in a charitable mood last night so he decided to shout his girlies dinner at Seamstress. His girlies being Phina, Wendy and me. And Seamstress being that restaurant-slash-bar on Lonsdale Street. While we’ve been there for drinks more than a few times over the last year or so, we had never eaten there so I spent all of yesterday gearing up for what would potentially be a yummy dinner.
Squeezed in between a bunch of sub-standard hotels and eateries, Seamstress is a place that’s pretty easy to miss. An undies factory/garments shop as well as a brothel back in the days, it’s no wonder then that it looks rickety on the outside, trying to look discreet. Inside, however, it’s anything BUT shabby. Its rickety wooden stairs lead can lead you all the way up to the intimate boutique cocktail bar at the very top, or down the very bottom and into the more casual bar, The Sweatshop. Both very cool drinking venues. What we came for tonight, however, was not for sculling cocktails but eating Asian-inspired food. Think Longrain, Cookie, Pearl and Gingerboy.
Our booking was for 8pm so when we rocked up 15 minutes early, we were anticipating to wait at the bar but they were able to sit us straightaway. In the hideously* dark dining area, we were given menus to ponder over and water to sip. The menu, while not extensive, was well executed with a variety of dishes ranging from crispy barramundi to roast duck, with vegetarian options such as roasted eggplant. What I particularly liked about the menu was the way in which they categorised the items, the appetizers and entrees being labelled “Small” and “Medium” while the mains (to share) were “Large” and “Extra Large” in reference to clothing sizes. Clearly, the prices increased as the sizes went up. Additionally, dishes were called “Accessories” which I thought was cute, though I can’t exactly see Blair Waldorf wearing a headband of wok-tossed greens. We ordered about two smalls (from the specials board), two mediums and one large. We wanted to order the Yarra Valley rainbow trout but we were informed that they didn’t have any fish. The waitress suggested ordering something else from the menu but there wasn’t really anything that caught my fancy (I wanted fish, dammit !) so I politely told her that we’ll leave it at that and if we were still hungry, we’ll order again.
*It wasn’t really hideous, the lighting was actually quite nice and definitely very appropriate for such intimate settings… it’s just that the lack of proper lighting made my photos suffer.
Prior to our food arriving, we received a complimentary “pineapple rum tea” in little china cups. They were steaming hot… and smelt strange. I was sniffing at it, trying to figure out what it smelt like before finally realising that it smelt like five-spice powder. Then Phina commented on how it smelt a lot like Chinese roast pork, which sent us all giggling as we reluctantly sipped on our teas. While I can taste the pineapple and the burnt rum, the five-spice powder overpowered everything else which, I believed, ruined the whole tea. What made it worse, though, was the thin layer of oil (yes, OIL) floating over the tea, which made our mouths all slimy.
Our entrees didn’t all that quickly but when they did, we immediately dug in. There were raw oysters advertised on the specials board and we ordered half a dozen of natural Pipe Bay oysters with ponzu jelly ($3.50 each). Still salty from the sea, the flavours merged well with the sweet cubes of jelly and a squirt of lime. It’s a shame that Phina doesn’t like seafood so she couldn’t enjoy the little shuckers (excuse the horrible pun) but on the other hand, there’s more to share between Adam, Wendy and I!
Tailor-made dumplings ($12 for a basket of six). Seamstress’ dumplings are made fresh every day in-house, with a new one on the menu each day to keep things interesting. I was hoping for some prawn dumplings tonight but they decided to offer pork and ginger ones which I had to deal with. Perfectly executed, the skins were soft yet firm enough to hold the ball of lightly flavoured pork mince inside. While I felt that the dumplings could do with a bit more taste, I thought they were otherwise good for non-yum cha dumplings and certainly miles ahead of the crap they served at Sho Noodle Bar!
There was a bit of a wait for our mains and rice (free with the mains) – something like 35 minutes – which really wasn’t good, especially for a place that was only 60% full (keep in mind that this is Thursday night). We kept busy with animated conversations about Asian babies (don’t ask) before coming up with all sorts of theories as to why our mains were taking so long (“We’re the only Asians in the place, they’re probably making our dishes perfect because they know that we’ll be fussy with the food”, said Adam). When they finally came (all at once), we breathed a sigh of relief… before feeling a little bit perplexed at how each dish looked roughly the same size. Yep, our large beef ($38) was the same size as our $20 duck. Hmmph.
Not to worry though, our peppered black Angus beef (cut up into four pieces, $38) was actually textbook perfect. Cooked at medium-rare, it rested on a bed of steamed Shanghai bok choy and accompanied by a little dish containing some sort of mayonnaise which was a little tasteless. While the beef was good, it lacked a little something that I couldn’t put a finger to. What I liked best about this dish, though, was not the beef but the taro dumpling which was Seamstress’ take on those taro dumplings you would find at yum cha. I have no idea why the taro dumpling was there, it certainly didn’t marry well with the beef and sorta stuck out like a literary snob amongst a group of Twilight fangirls. Never mind though, the dumpling was FANTASTIC. The size of half a tennis ball, it consisted of a shredded taro filling and was golden fried to perfection. Funnily enough, I’m not a fan of those taro dumplings but I loved loved LOVED Seamstress’ taro dumpling. I swear, if they made them like this at yum cha, I would order three plates of them for myself.
Like the beef, our twice cooked duck breast ($28) was impressive to a degree but still remained lacking. About 10 slices of roasted duck breast (some still with the fat on) rested on a salad some sort of spinach, bean shoots and shiso, which, I don’t know, didn’t really go well with the duck and the hoison sauce dip. I felt that the duck was perhaps a bit too cold for my liking (probably due to the fact that it had been sitting in the kitchen for some time, while the chefs were frantically getting the other stuff ready so that they could deliver all the dishes at once) and it just left me out cold. On the other hand, I’m glad that they managed to get the duck meat-fat-skin ratio right, which is always an important thing!
Our last main was a steamed eggplant dish ($22). I’m not a fan of eggplant (unless, as I’ve told people countless times, they are in baba ghanoush form) but I was already impressed with how pretty it looked (shame that the lighting makes it look so bad in the photo though). Two perfect round orbs sat in a bowl, drenched with a spicy black bean sauce and Thai basil sauce. Cutting open the balls (which are eggplants with the flesh carved out), we discovered a filling consisting of silken tofu, wood ear mushroom and eggplant flesh. Anyway, I suppose this dish was alright and certainly the sauce would’ve gone well with the eggplant and the filling inside but again, there was something missing. The eggplant seemed resistant to the salty sauce, and so the two dominant flavours were left sorta segregated. The best way to explain this is to think of two female singers who sound good on their own, and sound great together but only a male singer to add some deep vocals in between would make them a fantastic team.
We also ordered a side of beans which were wok-tossed in a sesame and oyster sauce ($8), which, in hindsight, was a dumb idea because we already had a vegetable dish and because the beans weren’t all that great. While they tasted okay with the lightly salted sesame sauce that they were cooked in, they tasted quite strange when dipped into the plum sauce that was provided. We definitely could have done without.
We were still hungry after all that and thought about ordering another dish but we didn’t want to wait another 30 minutes for it to arrive and we didn’t think the dessert menu looked too exciting so we just asked for the bill – $129 for four. Not bad, but it was simply a case of “can eat at Gingerboy and be happy with the food quality and portions at the same price.” While I like the place with its funky settings, its cute old skool Singer sewing machines and sheets of woven material hanging from the ceiling, I felt that the food erred towards the “overpriced and trying hard to please gweilos who are too wussy to eat in a dingy Chinatown eatery” side. Now, I’m not one of those Asians who turn their nose at the thought of a white guy cooking Asian food. Good food is good food, no matter who cooks it. Indeed, Gingerboy is a bit like that in that (gweilo Asian cuisine charged at inflated prices) but the difference between Gingerboy and Seamstress is that the food at Gingerboy, at least, tastes fantastic even to Asians and is coherent rather than awkward. At least Lindsay, Ezard, Boetz et al know what they’re doing. In short, each meal at Seamstress akin to meeting an aspiring designer… so full of promise and potential on paper, but put her with a sheet of expensive silk, a ball of merino wool and lace trimmings and instead of coming up with a masterpiece, she comes up with a misshaped sack of a dress that could only be properly mended in the hands of an exceptional tailor. It is definitely a promising place and there were a few good elements but at the end of the day, some of the beads just fell off the hem. Going by our experience, I am reluctant to recommend this place for food for now but do go for drinks, it’s what they’re good at .
Post-dinner drinks @ the Seamstress Cocktail Bar
With Paul Anka in the background and a sea of cheongsams hanging above us, we decided to finish up by having a few drinks upstairs. I was still very hungry so we shared a bowl of sweet potato wedges that came with sweet chilli sauce and miso mayonnaise ($8). It was just okay.
Pink Cashmir (tequila, fresh raspberries, lemon and mint, $17). Chars!