The Little Ox

The Little Ox is basically a crash course in how to run a successful cafe. It’s Saturday morning and it’s been a big week. I’m starving and Yuri drags me to Brighton to check out this cafe. I’m thinking, “Seriously? You want me to go all the way to Brighton for breakfast when there’s perfectly good cafes right near our house?” and he’s going, “Just trust me.”

So we get here and of course there are masses of people standing in the sun, waiting for a table. I am basically ready to turn around and go right back, get into the airconditioned car and drive off in search of eggs. Yuri calmly asks the nearest waiter, “Do you have a table for two?” She says, “Sure do. Give me five minutes.” She hands us menus and we wait while she works out where to put us.

Lesson Number One: No matter how busy you are, make new customers feel welcome.

Ahh, I love it when it works. Our table only takes a minute, and we sit down in the shade, near a massive brown labrador who’s panting in the heat. He looks hopeful and friendly. I think, I really want a dog of my very own. Yuri says, “Aw, I really want a dog.” Which is why I love him.

Anyway the waiter brings coffee, and we take a look at the great menu. The staff seem young and local but very competent. Coffee is good and makes me feel slightly more human – but only slightly. The menu is freaking sensational. Yuri orders a kind of pea and mint bruschetta with a poached egg and a side of bacon. I go for the “breakfast mezze plate” – poached egg, labne, dukkah, hummus, quinoa, chilli, with a mass of flat bread. But there’s a bunch of nice-looking “safe” options too – your standard bacon and eggs, granola, etc – alongside the more avant garde options.

Lesson Number Two: Be original and creative with your food. But not too original and creative – the Brighton nannas aren’t necessarily ready to have their worlds shook up just yet.

Anyway Brighton sure is nice, all leafy and sunny. There doesn’t seem to be another cafe for miles. The place is full of locals and regulars who tie up their bikes next to the chocolate lab. Gaw he’s so friendly! I really want a dog.

Lesson Number Three: Location, location. Choose a place in a nice residential area to ensure a loyal crowd of punters – businesspeople grabbing takeaways on the way to work, SINK/DINKs out for Sunday brunch, stay at home mums bringing their kids here during the week.

Breakfast takes a while to arrive but I don’t really mind, although I am getting a bit hangry. At around the forty minute mark I start wondering where it is. They are busy though so I think, no biggie, and go back to discussing the Labor leadership spill with Yuri. At around the one-hour mark Yuri goes, “I’m hungrrryyyyy” which means it really has been a long time.

I get up and grab our waitress. “Hi, we ordered about an hour ago and our food hasn’t arrived.”

She looks worried. “I’m so sorry, I’ll just find out for you.”

Five seconds later she returns. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t put the order in. It’s entirely my mistake. We can do it for you in five minutes if that’s OK.”

Lesson Number Four: Own your mistakes. Customers are usually pretty reasonable people; we understand that mistakes happen. She was very apologetic and they were very busy – you can see how these things slip through the cracks. Sure, it’s not ideal, but five minutes later we have fresh plates of food and two complimentary coffees.

All is forgiven. Choc lab stands up and looks expectant. And by expectant I mean adorable. Awww. Can we keep him? We really need to move somewhere with a yard. We discuss the ethics of feeding someone else’s dog. (Yuri says it’s a no go, so I put down the bacon rind and apologise to Puppy.)

My food is delicious. And I guess the cardinal rule of opening a cafe is:

Lesson Number Five: Just nail the food. And the coffee. If your product is great, it will sell itself.

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My Legendary Girlfriend

Named for a Pulp song (we can only be thankful that they didn’t go for This Is Hardcore), this new place is across the road from the Domain and pretty quiet on a Saturday morning. I go in to read the paper and have some breakfast while Yuri is at work, and I’m greeted by a shambolic cluster of staff – I don’t know where to look. One of the waitresses takes my order while I stand in front of the coffee machine. The conversation goes like this:

Her: Hi.

Me: Hi, I’m just after some breakfast.

Her: Yes, what would you like?

Me: A long black and some toast … do you have multigrain toast?

Her: Yes.

Me: Thanks, multigrain with avocado please.

Her: OK. Have here?

Me: Yes. Beat, as she is not sure what to do   I’ll just sit down.

Her: OK.

I go to sit down. She stops me

Her: Wait, I’d better write this down. What was it again?

Me: A long black, and multigrain toast with avocado.

I sit down, pretty glad that I’ve worked in hospitality before and can therefore guide the cherub in the transaction. God only knows how she’ll cope with actual real customers. It’s South Yarra so people can be snooty. (Who am I kidding, people can be snooty anywhere).

As I read the paper, I realise I haven’t been set with cutlery or given water. No big deal, I think. I locate the water station and help myself. My coffee is delivered pretty quickly, and it’s a great coffee. It’s served in a funky earthenware cup. I think, there’s hope for this place yet.

Taking a look around, it’s a pretty cool space. All whitewashed walls and a couple of communal tables. People seem happy with the food, although there aren’t any menus and the writing on the one blackboard (located at the other end of the room from most of the customers) is small and hard to read. I overhear one of the girls telling a disgruntled customer, “We’re getting menus printed tomorrow”. Everything has an aura of slight chaos, as though it’s about to erupt at any moment. The barista is obviously pretty good, but he’s run out of saucers and this is holding up the coffees. Apparently they only opened a couple of days ago, which might explain the nervousness of the staff, but doesn’t explain the lack of saucers.

My waitress appears again, apparently they don’t have multigrain. She says that the sourdough is lovely. I’m happy with this, and she looks relieved, like she’s had to tell several customers this already today. I ask if I could have some Vegemite to go with my toast.

There are a lot of staff for a space this size, but they’re all pretty busy, mostly teenagers, with the wild-eyed look of kids who’ve been thrown in the deep end. The girls are friendly and polite but seem terrified by customers, which is a little off-putting.

My food eventually arrives and it’s good, although it’s missing the Vegemite and it’s hard to fuck up toast with avocado. But I’m left with the overwhelming feeling that I’m an inconvenience – not from the staff, who seem mainly scared of me, but from the man at the till, who has the air of a manager. He is monosyllabic at first and then downright rude when I go to pay. He speaks tersely to the barista and then ignores me completely, coming around the side to take my cash. He can’t find my docket and I have to tell him twice what I ate. He gives off an exasperated and angry air – there’s not a smile to be seen. When I tip (I always tip), he looks astonished, like he doesn’t know what to do with the change. When I ask for directions to the bathroom he gestures disinterestedly in the direction of the back, then wanders off to do something else. I follow his signal and find myself in the kitchen, near a door marked “staff only”. Hmmm, this can’t be it. I come out again and decide to venture outside. When I find the bathroom, there is no bin for the hand towel OR lock on the door. I don’t have to tell you how ridiculous this is…

This all makes me really mad. I have worked and eaten in lots of cafes and the one cardinal rule of hospitality, so obvious you shouldn’t have to state it is this: The place needs to be customer-friendly. Customers should walk in and feel happy and welcomed. They should not feel that they are an inconvenience. They should not feel bullied by the manager. It should not be difficult for the customer to hand over their money. Seriously!

I certainly won’t be back and in Melbourne, with its diverse range of places for breakfast, I don’t expect this place will last long. It’s a shame because the coffee was great and the place has such potential. If only they’d spent as much time on training the staff as they have on the decor. Perhaps it should be renamed Mistakes, Mistakes, Mistakes.

My Legendary Girlfriend, 157 Domain Road, South Yarra VIC 3141. But don’t bother.

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The Woods of Windsor

The Littlecat is here, and we all know what that means. Food, wine, sisterly catchups and lots of laughter. I sure am happy when the Littlecat comes to stay.

We spend the day shopping on Chapel St, and wander home to change. It’s stupidly hot like I love it. We collect Yuri, who gracefully declined the shopping trip, and the three of us head on out to The Woods of Windsor. It’s not far but I have blisters from all the shopping and the heat beats us down. By the time we arrive, all we want is the dark wood-panelled airconditioned sanctuary. Oh, and a cocktail.

The Woods looks like a cross between Sydney’s The Rum Diaries and an old man’s hunting lodge, with taxidermied animals and rockabilly staff. Littlecat and I get some Southsides on the go and Yuri orders a beer. We ponder the menu. I ponder whether we should consider moving outside. It’s getting pretty noisy inside, with the sound bouncing off all those polished surfaces, and the muggy twilight outside is appealing. Eventually I convince the others and we become one of those annoying tables that moves around a lot.

Outside, on the pavement, it becomes immediately clear that this was the right decision. Here, Chapel St is bathed in a warm and tranquil dusk, and the colourful people walking up and down give us plenty to watch. It’s a cliche to say that Chapel St is full of interesting characters, but true nonetheless. Yuri gets into the menu. I leave it to him as the Littlecat tells me about her trip to Spain with the parentals. He orders a selection of good-sounding dishes from our competent waitress.

Unfortunately this is where it begins to unravel. Yuri orders a bottle of wine to go with our food from a different waiter, and there’s a long delay as they try to locate a refrigerated one. When they finally return to tell us that the wine is not available, our food has already arrived and we’ve finished our pre-drinks, so he quickly orders another option. By the time the bottle finally shows up, we’re finishing up the food and are suddenly faced with consuming an entire bottle of red with no food. Fortunately we are not the type to be put off by a challenge, and we order an excellent cheese plate which includes a potent gorgonzola and a very runny brie.

But back to the food. It all comes out at once and the quality is excellent. Heirloom tomato salad and crispy pork belly with corn are delicious, but the standout is the little pigs trotter croquettes… actually it’s all truly delicious and although it would be better with a well-timed bottle of wine (harrumph) it’s a lovely collection of fresh and rather innovative dishes for this balmy evening.

After the cheese, of course, there’s whisky and cigars. The menu has over fifty varieties of single malt and as a whisky connoisseur I can tell you that they’re great. The Littlecat experiences her first whisky and my credentials as shoulder-devil-leading-you-down-the-path-that-rocks are established.

Sadly all good things end but before the Littlecat goes back home we’ve got one more day. As we sip our whisky and look up at the stars I am glad that this little place is here. In fact I would like to become a regular here, if my wallet (and my sorry hungover head) will allow it. I am sure that the mishap with the wine was the kind of teething problem which will be sorted quicksharp. And the best thing about it? Afterwards, we can stumble home.

The Woods of Windsor, 108 Chapel Street, Prahran 3181.

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The Gipps St Canteen

I work in Collingwood, which basically means my takeaway lunch options are limited to Vietnamese rolls from N Lee Bakery or takeaway sushi. When I’m feeling flush I sometimes head to Proud Mary where I tackle the cacophony of noise and activity, wait in line for hours and get told pretentiously that my espresso is Tanzanian. All of which are good things, sometimes. But mostly I just want a straightforward lunch, something wholesome and tasty, to get me through the afternoon. If it’s accompanied by a decent coffee, all the better.

Enter Gipps St Canteen, a cute little place with green windowframes and haphazard outdoor seating. It occupies the space left by one of those roadhouse sandwich bars which sells cigarettes under the counter (this business has now moved across the road to a cavernous canteen-style place, so they must’ve been doing something right.) The boys at Gipps St haven’t done much with the space, just put in a coffee machine, lined the shelves with cans of Italian tomatoes, and given it a fresh lick of paint, but everything shines like new. I think it’s the sunny demeanor of Zac, the barista, and his mate in the kitchen whose name I haven’t quite gleaned yet. That, and the smell of coffee and sizzling bacon.

The food is outrageously good, defiantly simple and reasonably priced. A large salad (select from four made fresh everyday – maybe a pasta and ricotta shot through with tasty olives, a flavoursome potato and mint mix, or chicken, couscous and beetroot) sets you back about $7.50. The boys also sell more hearty Italian and Greek fare, from take-home lasagne to dolmades or a small calzone with mozzarella and mushrooms. A felafel wrap is more tasty than a vegetarian meal has any right to be.

Zac thrashes the machine and it’s easily the best coffee this side of Wellington St – even giving Proud Mary’s haughty Tanzanian a run for its money. It won’t be long before this place is an institution. I went there yesterday and they’d run out of salad at 2pm. The guys who used to own it must be sadly gazing across the street and wondering why they didn’t think of this.

Gipps St Canteen, 95 Gipps Street, Collingwood 3066.

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Club Tivoli

Where is the best Weisswurst in Melbourne? Just round the corner from my house, of course. Club Tivoli – The German Club (or Deutscher Verein) – is a German RSL with a shooting room and a kick-ass menu, filled with large men playing cards or chatting away, chowing down on meals that are bigger than your head.

As far as I’m concerned, the German Club is part of my personal Melbourne chronology. This is where we went to dinner for Tyler before he moved to the apartment upstairs. This is where we decided we would move to Italy. This is where we first discovered Haxe. And on Tuesday, this is where came to we raise a glass to Tyler’s step-dad who has just passed away. 

You know what time of year it is by what’s happening at the German Club as you walk past. Drunk kids spilling onto the pavement = Oktober. A makeshift row of white tents and the smell of Gluhwein in summer = Dezember. It’s done up like a regular RSL really, with the members’ sign-in book and the anti-Wilkie pamphlets on the way up the stairs, the faded picture of a young Queen in the hall and the casual, bar-based service in the dining room. Some of the staff are German, but some are Australian, some are Indian, and everyone speaks English. It’s the food and beer which lend it the authentic air – and the food is out of this world. The Weisswurst (which used to be billed as a “lighter” meal), is two massive sausages on a massive pile of mashed potato with some massive sauerkraut, which is best served with a massive helping of mustard and a massive side of spaetzle (which is essentially pasta fried in butter). This is not food for people on a diet. This is man-food.

The wine is always extremely average, in that great RSL tradition, and the beer is served in a glass which is, you guessed it, massive. Yuri and I toast Tyler’s stepfather and pause a moment to reflect on the fragility of life, then go back to working out the minute details of our move to Italy. If the Weisswurst wasn’t so huge, we’d  consider sharing an Apfelstrudel. As it is, we haul our full bellies the two blocks home. We’ll be back next week.

Club Tivoli Melbourne, 291 Dandenong Road, Windsor 3181. Ph 9529 5211

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Rouge Cafe

I know it’s been a long time between blogs. This is partly due to the recent “hermitage”, as I am terming my self-imposed isolation and cold turkey from eating out. This is due to stupid finances, which have meant Yuri and I have hardly left our house in the last few weeks. When I did, to meet Cherry for breakfast, it was hard to go past Rouge. Breakfast at Rouge is generally cheaper than my average breakfast as I always go for a beautiful, fresh-baked, buttery crossiant with house-made jam. It’s a Clayton’s breakfast really, the breakfast you have when your wallet says you’re not allowed to have breakfast. (I think I may have just mixed my metaphors).*

Anyway, I was quite late to jump on the old French bandwagon. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, French food was the go-to “posh” grub and was always dripping in butter and salt. Which I love, don’t get me wrong. But because it was so ubiquitous, I was always more excited about “new” initiatives like sushi or Turkish. When given a choice, I would have gone for the non-French option, because it always seemed more exciting.

But now I’m getting back into it. It’s been a gradual thing. First there was my emergence from an adolescence of vegetarianism, which was always going to be counter-productive to the enjoyment of French food. Then there’s the fact that all those new and exciting options like Japanese and Turkish have become ubiquitous themselves. And then of course, there’s the fact that trends are cyclic, what’s old is new again and suddenly I’m excited about crossiants, conichons and coq au vin. Which is a good thing, as I’m off to France in the New Year to spend several weeks in a car with Yuri and my dad as we traverse the freezing battlefields of the First World War. But I digress…

Rouge looks like a little French brasserie and has a menu that’s heavy on in-house baked goods (like the aforementioned crossiant). I hang out here quite a bit as you can always get a table on a Saturday morning and the staff are friendly and unpretentious. The coffee is fine, it’s not anything to write home about but hey, whoever heard of writing home about coffee anyway?! At least they don’t hand it to you with the solemn-faced explanation that it’s “Tanzanian”, as if I care.

The menu is pretty appealing and you get the impression that what they do, they do really well. The baked eggs dish is pretty good and includes spinach, tomato, mushrooms and bacon, with crusty bread on the side. The beans come with a gratin on top and Yuri loves the caramelised banana porridge. Once, I got up so late that I had the lunchtime chicken pie for breakfast – it was awesome despite the hefty pricetag. But really I don’t come here for the food. I come here for the lovely brick courtyard, which is cosy in winter and sunny in summer. I come here because it’s quiet and easy and there’s no attitude. And of course, because I’ve just discovered French food and I want to brush up on my crossiant knowledge before my trip in December.

*It’s worth noting though that it’s only cheap if you go for the crossiant-coffee option – if you order off the menu you’ll be looking at a slightly higher cost than your average breakfast (around $17 for a substantial brekkie).

Cafe Rouge, 14 Beatty Ave, Armadale. Ph:9822 3310

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The Smith

Every day I drive past the Smith, an old and decrepit pub on High St, Prahran. And every day I peer inside to see what they’ve done that’s different. I’ve been waiting for a long time for them to finish building and painting and sanding and inventing. Now it’s done.

The Smith, like the Newmarket, the Royal Saxon and a few other gastropubs which have recently popped up, is audaciously shiny and very uninterested in the pretentious peeling-paint-manky-couches aesthetic which took Melbourne over for a good ten years. Wealth is back, proclaim these new, swanky spaces, with their expensive light fittings, mismatched Japanese crockery and function rooms. As we approach from the street my eyes meet the good-looking man standing outside in the cold, and I assume he’s come outside for a cigarette. But he’s actually the doorman. I know, right? Where was the last place, outside the Grand Hyatt, where you encountered a doorman??

We’re greeted by a friend of Yuri’s, a manager here, who walks us proudly round the establishment. He shows off the bright, white walls, well-lit exposed kitchen, glamorous upstairs function rooms. It’s all extremely impressive, hitting that difficult middle ground between comfort and style. Also, the lights don’t need to be dimmed, which sure makes Yuri happy.

We sit down at a small table, although there’s seating along the bar and a proper, well-lit dining area as well as the front section of darker, communal tables. We order a pre-dinner drink each. My Southside – a gin, mint and lime concoction – is perfectly balanced and I’m glad I strayed from my usual choice. Yuri goes for some kind of sour whisky mix which he also really enjoys. The evening is off to a great start as we peruse the long, very involved menu. This is another sign of this new guard of bolshie restaurant – the veering away from short menus of seasonal produce and more of an all-encompassing, we-offer-everything attitude. The menu has dishes influenced by Thai or Chinese flavours, a couple of choice Mamasita/Newmarket-inspired modern-Mexican dishes, and the obligatory tapas familiars. It’s a little overwhelming to be given this much choice, but also quite exciting, and as much as I want to hand over the task of ordering to our excellent waiter, Alex, Yuri is very keen to choose everything himself.

So much so, that in the ordering stage, we get a little carried away and Alex has to stop us halfway through the order. “I think that’s probably enough food,” he says calmly. “Why don’t we start with that and if you need more, you can always reassess.”

The food comes out quickly but then, the place is not exactly packed. There’s a buzz and a happy Sunday-night crowd – but you get the impression that this is the calm before the storm. We were one of few tables at Chin Chin’s when it first opened too, and within a week you had to queue for hours for a seat. I have a feeling the Smith will go the same way – once enough people hear about it, everyone will want to be involved. It does have mass appeal – I can imagine taking the parentals here (they take bookings and although many of the dishes are designed to share, there are also more traditional portions for more traditional folk like my parents). The entire space is very orderly, with staff who really know their stuff  – Alex deals with Yuri’s nut allergy coolly and efficiently – and it all seems like a very impressive, well-oiled machine.

With the help of a knowledgeable and unpretentious wine dude, we order a nice dry soave to have with the food. Which arrives quickly – the spanner crab croquetas are lightly battered, hot and creamy on the inside, the flavours delicate. This is brought out with the rabbit rillettes, complete with cornichons (my favourite), caper berries, pickled onions (Yuri’s) and toast. It’s roughly-hewn and I like it. Bunny is something I’m coming round to as a concept – I grew up with my grandparents eating rabbit, and in my family it had a reputation as the meat you have when you can’t afford real meat. Eleven years as a pseudo-vegetarian (at times going the whole hog; at others eating fish or even chicken) during my adolescence didn’t exactly enamour me with the meat. But recently, thanks to this delectable dish, the Pour Kids’ breakfast special, and an upcoming trip to France, I’m starting to embrace the idea. Yuri will be pleased to hear this.

Up next is the tempura soft shell crab, which is so good that Yuri wants to smash his face into it. The batter is lightly handled and it comes with a nice spicy sauce (jalapenos, apparently) that isn’t as overwhelming as the offering at Cumulus. Apart from this the dish is very similar, which means it actually has the edge over the hatted rival. Yes, the Smith is that good. Our flatmate Tyler, who works at Cumulus, will probably be simultaneously pleased to hear there’s somewhere of that standard around the corner from our place, and a little bit worried.

In fact, the soft shell crab is so good that we order another round. It’s actually outrageous. I am happy. Yuri is happy. I drink the wine. Yuri talks about how soft shell crab is, by definition, genetically modified. Everyone is happy.

By the time the main-sized dishes arrive I’m almost full and so it’s hard to enjoy the big bowl of mussels and clams which arrives with the garlicky “smashed chats” (note: these are not mashed, just boiled until soft and squidged a little bit.) These are both delish but it’s the second round of soft shell crab that I’m hanging out for – Soft Shell Crab 2: Judgement Day.

We manage to finish everything but we’ll have to come to sample the dessert – which sounds amazing all written down on the menu like that. I have a feeling that next time, we’ll have to book. This place is going to be huge.

The Smith, 213 High Street, Prahran 3181. Ph 9514 2444. www.thesmithprahran.com.au 

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