"Japanese Gratana" - brown rice in miso-flavoured béchamel sauce, with egg, ham and beans in a baking dish. Topped with salad and pickled ginger.
From Tana Café, Hawthorn.
A little off the beaten path in Hawthorn is the less-known strip of eateries on Church Street (near to the corner of Barkers Road), which is where the quirky-looking Japanese-fushion eatery Tana Café is located.
The place is small and slightly mis-matched in decorations, but that only adds to its charm. Run by Yoshikazu Tanaka (of ex Yu-U fame) and his wife Sachi, this place exudes genuine hospitality and a very ‘hip’ (yet surprisingly non-pretenious) vibe.
The menu - much like the café - is small and slightly mis-matched, flouncing between a simple Western brunch fare and some inventive Japanese flavours. All of it, however, sounds delicious. One of the more interesting dishes is the Japanese Gratana, which turned out to be a creamy-cheesey baked rice dish with ham, eggs, and beans. The richness was broken up by the miso flavour and the fresh salad with pickled ginger. The serving size at Tana is more Japanese than Australian - likely to be a good thing for the waistline.
Never having been a fan of fusion cuisine - which can go wrong so very easily, I was impressed with the ease of which Tana Café manages to balance Japanese flavours with modern Australian cuisine… adding, rather than detracting, from the dishes. A top recommendation goes to their matcha latté (Japanese green tea latté) which was smooth, flavoursome, and came in the cutest cup-and-coaster set.
It is easy to see why so many of the locals fall in love with the Tanakas’ eatery. With its delicious food, reasonable prices, and quirky charms, Tana Café is a great find.
"Rhino" - baked jack of potato, with butter, sweet corn, sour cream and chives, tuna, and a side of chilli jam.
At Spilt Milk, Carnegie.
For most, there may be nothing brunch-y about baked jacket potatoes with tuna, corn, sour cream and chives. But for me, this is a childhood favourite from the weekend lunches with my mom in Hong Kong. The “Rihno” from Spilt Milk is simple yet satisfying. The potato itself is soft, creamy and steaming fresh. This is contrasted by the cold dollop of sour cream, and punctuated with chunks of tuna and juicy kernels of sweet corn. For the extra ‘oomph’, there is a side of tangy chilli-jam.
The food was charming in that it was simple, genuine, and unpretentious, which sums up Spilt Milk. It is a charming little boutique café close to the corner of Koornang (where the main strip of shops and eateries are) and Neerim Roads. A modest unassuming store front opens up to a cosy little interior, where there are, on display, a variety of baked goods and the daily selection of salads and sandwiches.
The menu is small and selected, but there is enough variety to please most brunch goers. What impresses most, however, is the pricing. With most meals under $15, Spilt Milk is truly a wonderful bargain. Under the popular growing café culture, it is increasingly difficult to fine a warm local café that excels in both quality and price. Spilt Milk, however, excels in both these categories, as well as having some wonderful cheery staff. It is truly a gem of a find.
Haddock fritters, with egg and capers gribiche, celeriac herb salad, and salmon roe.
From Ora, in Kew.
Yes, there are indeed fritters everywhere at brunch these days - corn fritters, zucchini fritters, eggplant / cauliflower / ricotta… you name it. And yet, Ora’s haddock fritters were unusually delicious.
The haddock fritters were deep-fried fluffy haddock balls, atop a bed of creamy egg gribiche, which was laced with capers to break up its richness. A mildly dressed celeriac herb affair lightened the whole thing, and the sprinkling of salmon roe were little balls of delight.
What sets Ora apart - and the reason that it has firmly established itself not only as a local favourite but also as one of Melbourne’s respected café institutions - is that its ever changing menu not only sources the freshest seasonal produce, but it is also carefully designed. The dishes are novel, innovative, and enjoyable (as tried and tested by its patrons as specials prior to making its main menu).
Nestled in a quiet suburban corner of Kew, parking is not an issue despite the constant teeming flow of customers. The coffee never fails to impress, and for something different, the iced teas made on site are refreshing and delicious. It is a fail-safe brunch option in the suburban East, and it will never get boring as its menu is constantly evolving with unusual ingredients.
Corn fritters with house smoked salmon, avocado, and snow pea tendrils.
At Two Birds One Stone, South Yarra.
Snugly tucked away on Claremont Street just off the busy bustle of Toorak Road, Two Birds One Stone is well populated for a weekday. From office workers to leisure brunchers, Two Birds One Stone caters with an extensive and familiar menu.
From the crew that brought Melbourne APTE, Three Bags Full, and Liar Liar (plus the soon-to-be-opened Top Paddock), this café pedigree certainly sets some expectations.
The corn fritters (and there are some sort of fritters everywhere these days), at $17, was surprisingly more corn than floury fritter, which was a much welcomed difference from most places. The outsides were pan-fried to a delicious golden crunchiness, and accompanied by slithers of house-smoked salmon (sadly nothing special whatsoever about this), a generous serving of avocado cubes, and some slightly-dressed fresh snow pea tendrils.
Bluntly, there is nothing inventive about this dish. And yet, such a commonplace dish was made well - much better than most. In fact this probably sums up Two Birds One Stone - its menu may be nothing inventive, but every dish is done well. The coffee is good, and the usual array of baked goodies line the display cabinet. Simplistic-chic décor makes for some nice comfortable brunching, and whilst parking is a hassle, that is always the case in the South Yarra / Toorak area. Not bad all in all, although one should expect nothing less from such an experienced crew.
"My Mexican Cousin" - fried sweet-corn fritters, with kasundi, halloumi, greens, tomato, and poached egg.
At ST ALi North, Carlton North.
Off-shoot of the famous ST ALi (now ST ALi South). Located in a little parkland strip next to some bike trails, thus conveniently drawing a throng of fashionable bike-riding coffee-sipping foodie-enthusiasts. Yes, it is all very hipster.
Ignoring the bike racks and an additional takeaway window, the menu has remained very much the same, and the staff brew an equally delicious coffee from those ST ALi beans. But sadly, unlike its Southern counterpart, ST ALi North is still in café infancy and struggling to find its feet to keep up with the pace that comes with the name. Waiters are confused, run off their feet, and often fail to notice customers in need to service.
Perhaps it was simply my hunger-striken bias after waiting 30+ minutes for a glass of water and some menus… but I found the food, whilst “nice”, was not quite there. It was as if there was something missing and the dish simply didn’t come together. And despite meeting the famed Salvatore Malatesta, who personally waited on our table and warmly rectified the lack of service… I cannot say that my experience at ST ALi North was one that will prompt my return any time soon.
Yet, it will be interesting to see whether ST ALi North establishes itself as one of those solid Melbournian café institutions, or whether it becomes a sinking ship in Salvatore Malatesta’s coffee and culinary fleet.
Pomegranate and summer berries frozen yogurt, topped with crumbles.
From Igloo Zoo on Glenferrie Road, Malvern.
It’s not “frozen” yogurt, they say. It is “super-chilled” yogurt, they say.
Well, frozen or not, it was all a little too much on the sour side of things. The berry flavour especially was… just too much. Unnatural and strongly reminded me of those artificial Asian fruit candies. Yuck. On the flip side, the pomegranate (unusual flavour!) was delicious - subtle and refreshing. Thumbs up.
At $5.50 for a regular cup (with privilege to multiple flavours) and an extra $1 per topping, there is none of that “pay-by-weight” stress. Servings of the yogurt are in generous swirls and bonus points for not skimming on the toppings.
Omega Love, at St ALi.
This is, quite possibly, the most famous cafe in Melbourne.
St ALi has long set itself apart from the hoard through a rich and creative menu, and of course, by its coffee. Perfection right from the beans selection to the brewing process, St ALi’s coffee is truly worth the fuss.
Now onto the food. Those in want of a nice filing brunch will not be disappointed. The menu is littered with palatable dishes served very generously. None of that hipster clean-eating business where you leave feeling unsatisfied (and very hungry). St ALi focuses on hearty comfort food designed with passion and made with care. A simple dish of smoked salmon, potatoes, rocket and a poached egg was prepared and presented to perfection, fresh ingredients complimented with sides of pesto and cream dressing. Whist it may not be the most inventive dish with the tried and tested concoction of salmon, rocket, potatoes, poached egg… what St ALi plates up is not tired. Rather, it draws the best flavours from the simplest formulas.
And what is wonderful about St ALi is exactly that - be it the coffee, the breakfast/lunch or the baked goodies, what they serve up is of genuine top quality, which justifies for the mildly exorbitant price.
Fish taco and chorizo qaesadilla at Fonda Mexican.
There aren’t very many (good) Mexican places in Melbourne. Mostly the choices are either cheap and tacky, or expensive and unfulfilling. Fonda fills the void with a reasonably priced menu and some freshly prepared Mexican goodness.
The fish tacos ($6 each) are market fresh, served on a soft tortilla laced with chipotle aioli and garnished with plenty of cabbage and pickled carrots and onions. Light, zesty, and very tasty.
But the winner has to be the chorizo qaesadilla ($12)… a tortilla freshly pressed until crispy, oozing with melted cheese and queso fresco, jalapeno, and salsa roja… and of course, generous slices of chorizo sausages. Pure gluttonous deliciousness.
Fonda also serves up a delicious range of cocktails, wines, and of course - the staple - tequila. But for those not keen on alcohol, a must-try would be the horchata - an addictive icy concoction of rice, water, cinnamon, vanilla, and evaporated milk.
Ham hock, grilled baby cos lettuce, potato rosti, peas, pork scratchings, and poached eggs. At Collective Espresso.
Another one of these “hip” cafe institutions popping up in the suburban East, Collective Espresso is right next to Camberwell Station. They serve up a strong coffee, an array of cold fruity drinks, and a breakfast menu more creative than the rest.
The ham hock was chosen for its well balanced composition - protein, greens, carbs. Alright, no, really. It was something a little different from what is offered at most of these hipster coffee-centric places. The ham was not too salty, the rosti was creamy with identifiable shreds of real potato, and the dish was well-portioned. The eggs were poached a little too runny but that is subjective. The pork scratchings were certainly an interesting compliment. At something like $16, it was a bargain.
Great suburban choice with an interesting and well-priced menu. Breakfast until 3pm. Thumbs up.
Frozen yogurt of honey soybean, coconut, and chai. Topped with sprinkles of crumbles. At Yo-Chi Self-Serve Frozen Yogurt.
The recent hype has spawned many of these self-serve-choose-toppings-pay-by-weight frozen yogurt places. Places that often lure you into spending enough for a full meal elsewhere. Happy to report that Yo-Chi is not one such store, despite the initial skepticism.
Aside from the regular original, berry, mango, there is also the more interesting honey soybean, coconut, and chai. Delicious and non-artificial tasting. The toppings selection has plenty of variety and at $2.50 for 100grams on the scale, Yo-Chi is quite reasonably priced.
The best part? You can try the flavours before you decide. No wonder it was bursting with business on a Sunday afternoon. Will definitely be returning during the summer months!
Smoked Buxton trout on herbed potato rosti, with baby spinach, a poached egg and dill dressing, at Percy’s Aeroplane.
Small café just off the centre of Kew with homely decor and a cosy courtyard to suit those spring / summer brunches.
The smoked Buxton trout (at $18.90) was shredded and tossed through with the baby spinach, and set on top the potato rosti, which was accompanied by a poached egg and a dollop of dill dressing. The dish was tasty, if too heavily seasoned - but luckily the saltiness of the trout-and-spinach mix was rescued by the cream dressing. The egg was poached to perfection - none of that undercooked cold runny yolk business - and the potato rosti had a wonderful crunchy crust.
Whilst it does not reinvent the breakfast wheel, Percy’s is a nice neighbourhood addition to the growing café culture in the Hawthorn / Kew area. The menu is one-paged, but has the variety to suit any brunch-goer. All-day breakfast is served until 2pm, and the coffee sure packs enough of a punch to please any Melbournian.
Pasta special at Carlton Espresso (D.O.P.).
The pasta is always al dente at this little modern-yet-authentic Lygon institution. Be it lunch, dinner, or just a little snack - D.O.P. has never yet disappointed me.
The pasta special of the day was a cream-based penne fare with zuccini, pancetta, and a generous sprinkle of grated parmesan. Beautifully presented and delicious tasting - as always. Be it the simple menu inspired by regional favourites or the specials of the day, the food is consistently top-notch, the coffee is always excellent and the sandwiches (foccacias or piade) are a lunch-time favourite.
Oh, and the waiters will sweep you off your feet with their Italian charm.
My #1 spot on Lygon Street.
Sticky-date pudding at Yering Station Winery.
The flavoursome sticky-date pudding is drizzled over by something that was possibly a rum-spiked syrup reduction. The little sticky-date mass is then accompanied by a giant macaron - also sticky-date flavoured. Finally, the richness is off-set by a scoop of elderflower ice-cream.
The pudding was warm, rich, and delicious. The macaron was creamy and crunchy - and not too sweet. The elderflower ice-cream was cold, refreshing and zingy. An excellent dessert at the rather fancy Yering Station restaurant for the not-too-horrifying price of $16. Wonderful staff. Highly recommend!
Braised pork belly gua bao at Wonderbao.
Steaming hot buns always go down a treat. Wonderbao knows this well and serves up a delicious range of steaming-hot Chinese baos in a little eatery off A’Beckett St near RMIT in the CBD.
At $3.80, the braised pork belly gua bao is the most expensive thing on the menu. Not to disappoint, it comes out bursting with fillings. Two pieces of melt-in-your-mouth pork belly (not recommended for those who don’t like fatty meats) is encased in a fluffy white bun in a sort of open sandwich. Plenty of pickled veggies, coriander and crushed peanuts too. Yum.
A range of other baos are available at around $2 - from the sweet nai wong bao and taro bao to the traditional char siu bao and the massive pork or chicken dai bao… vegetarian baos also available. But be careful of ordering too much as the buns are surprisingly filing and all the $$ will add up! Whilst the baos could have been fluffier, they tasted pretty authentic and were rather delicious.
Finally, cannot recommend the warm soya milk ($2.80) enough. It was not overly sweetened, and was the perfect compliment to this bao feast. A not-so-hidden gem on the edge of the city, will definitely be returning again to Wonderbao. Pity it is not opened on the weekend!
Blue swimmer crab sandwich at Royal Hotel.
The special entrée of the day, this was more mini-burger than sandwich and came at $6 a pop (minimum order of 2). It was heavily mayonnaise-ed crab meat on cos lettuce, punctuated with something that was like alfalfa, all sandwiched in a little mini-burger shaped dinner-roll.
It was tasty if not impressive. Would be better if served on brioche, as this bread was rather coarse and tasteless. Probably a mild disappointment for a whooping $6 since for $2 extra you could chow-down on something more substantial and yummy… like a Huxtaburger.
Warm attentive service was a redeeming quality. I suppose not too bad a feed for a gastro-pub in an unassuming neighbourhood.