Saturday, February 26, 2005

Riverdeck Cafe, Bright

This weekend, we took Pippin (our Pomeranian puppy) on his first big road trip, to a place called Wandiligong, about three hours North of Melbourne. We might just as well have landed in "The Shire". It was green hills and hobbit houses as far as the eye could see. On Saturay morning, we headed down to nearby Bright for breakfast (actually, it was more like second breakfast) at the Riverdeck Cafe, 119 Gavan Street, +61 3 5755 2199. Frodo would have loved it.

I must admit, first impressions had me worried. Plastic chairs and plastic toast (the perfectly white, perfectly square stuff) tend to signal that plastic eggs are on the way. So I was pleasantly surprised when my brekky arrived (hand delivered by the chef). A decent pile of firm, moist scrambles, topped with tasty bacon and a side of mushies. Very good indeed. But for the oily hash brown and the soggy toast, this would have been up there with the best.

Although the menu was limited, and the 11.30 cut-off annoying, the riverside setting was very pleasant. At just over $15 for my eggs and a coffee (pretty good), this wasn't a cheap brekky, but it wasn't bad value either.

11/20 "plastic toast, great eggs"

Friday, February 25, 2005

Leroy Espresso, St Kilda

Apparently beige lino is cool. I just had brekky at Leroy Espresso, 191 Acland Street, St Kilda, Tel +61 3 9525 5166, and it was wall-to-wall beige lino. With matching beige walls and brown trim it all looked a treat. Very snazzy.

For the egg enthusiast, all bases are covered. Settle in for the "Leroy Chow Down" of eggs, balsamic mushrooms, bacon, tomato, spinach and chipolatas, or try the brekky bruschetta topped with scrambled eggs, pesto and smoked salmon. Alternatively, if you're late for an important meeting off Grey Street, grab a brekky sandwhich (eggs, bacon, hollandaise and rocket on pide) and run.

For whatever reason, I was in the mood for benedict, and, despite an overdose of hollandaise, the eggs were well poached (by which I mean "just right") and the muffins well toasted (by which I mean not soft or soggy, as too often seems to be the case).

If eggs don't do it for you, the Leroy menu has some interesting alternatives... corn and zuchinni fritters with mint yoghurt on rocket, "corn bread brekky" with avocado, bacon and beans, porridge with cinnamon poached fruit, and pancakes, to name just a few.

The service was good (no St Kilda attitude), as was the coffee (Merlo), and the price (bang on 15 bucks for my eggs and 2 coffees).

You may have to fight (or wait) for it on a busy weekend, but if you can score a table, this is a great place to chill out, chow down and soak up the sights of Acland Street.

13/20 "so St Kilda"

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Syracuse, Melbourne

I used to think "breakfast out" was a weekend treat. Not any more. Thanks to Syracuse, Bank Place, Melbourne, Tel +61 3 9670 1777, the mid-week business breakfast is firmly back on the agenda.

It's not the biggest brekky you'll ever find, nor the best, but it's very good, and the venue never fails to impress. With high ceilings, dim lights and mis-matched antiques, Syracuse has an air of refined euro-chic, albeit on the wrong side of the globe.

My associate (it was, after all, a business breakfast) had no complaints about his fried eggs, served sunny side up with a "very tasty" side of portobello mushrooms. I was equally happy with the scrambles, which, although quite soft, were rich and creamy. They teamed up well with some grilled bacon, a side of spinach, and a couple of slices of golden sourdough toast.

Short and sweet, the Syracuse menu is a flip-flopper's friend. Choose between porridge, blueberry pancakes, "chorizo and bean cassoulet", toast, eggs and a few other bits n pieces. Wash it down with some Grinders coffee (excellent), or maybe a glass of fresh OJ (also excellent). The range is narrow (no benedict), but the quality is good.

Possibly the biggest surprise was the price... just under $30 for a great breakfast (two people), with great service, in a great venue. I'll be back. Soon.

15/20 "short, sweet, chic"

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Cafe Brewhaha, St Kilda

Today, flying solo, I scootered down to St Kilda for breakfast. Dodging through the crowd of fire-twirlers, yuppies, try-hards and hookers, I landed at Cafe Brewhaha, 39 Blessington Street, St Kilda, Tel +61 3 9534 3788. If scrambled eggs you crave, look no further... the scambles were superb.

Curiously, the ultra-friendly staff recommended just about everything but the parmesan and onion scrambled eggs with bacon (my choice), so you'd expect the other egg dishes to be at least as good. I did eyeball a plate of "eggs sardou"... poached eggs, spinach and grilled artichoke, on toasted malt ciabata, drizzled with hollandaise. It sounded interesting, but the eggs looked a tad under-poached. When my scrambles arrived, the only disappointment was the side of corn fritters... too much batter, not enough corn. Otherwise, as I said, superb.

Despite a few silly names (poached eggs with olives and fetta are no more "Greek" than an emu omelette is "Aussie"), the rest of the menu had some appealing options, like banana porridge with vanilla syrup, or "famous smokey baked beans" with candied bacon on rye. And Cheap Eats reckons the "breakfast parfait" is close to perfect... layers of Bircher muesli, yoghurt, poached and fresh fruit in a big old sundae glass. Sure sounds good.

As a venue, Brewhaha has a genuine warmth. Take your pick... kitchen chatter and sand-blasted, red-brick walls inside, or rickety tables, sunshine, and St Kilda freak-show outside.

At less than $20 for great eggs and two good coffees (Cisco's I think), this was one of my best value breakfasts of recent times. Well worth a visit.

14/20 "best scrambled"

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Green Grocer, North Fitzroy

Say what you like about the organic, biodynamic, birkenstock-wearing crowd... they make a kick-arse breakfast. At least, that's what you'll get at The Green Grocer, 217 St Georges Road, North Fitzroy, Tel +61 3 9489 1747. As Paris Hilton would say, "it's hot". But just in case her dubious trade mark ever gets up, please note that I am not in any way suggesting that she did say that, nor that she would, if she ever came here, which is pretty unlikely.

Enough about Paris, back to North Fitzroy... time for a rave review.

I'll start with my big breakfast. Take a herb and fetta pancake, load it up with spinach, mushrooms, bacon, pesto, avocado, hash browns and boston baked beans. Top it off with a perfectly poached egg, and dig in. Trust me, you'll be grinning for the rest of the day.

But why stop there? The Green Grocer menu bats right down the order. How about mushrooms in red wine butter on grilled polenta? Or granola sweetened with pear juice and vanilla bean, served with grated apple yoghurt? Even the toast is sexed up. As much as I enjoyed my pancake, the sesame-encrusted sourdough was hard to resist.

If you're looking for a certified organic breakfast, this place is hardcore. Anything less than 70% organic gets a little black mark, just in case dangerous chemicals lurk within. And if you like your sausage aligned with Uranus, then the biodynamic free-range snags will be right up your alley. It tasted like a pork sausage to me, but it was reassuring to know that the pig was tuned in to the forces of the cosmos.

My only gripe with this place is that it gives me sweet FA to whinge about. Bitching and moaning is, after all, much more fun than being nice. So, I won't go on about the slick service, the laid back vibe, or the Jaspers "o blend" organic coffee. All were good.

At somewhere between 10 and 20 bucks, The Green Grocer breakfast is not only great, but great value. Try it. I'll be amazed if you don't come back for more.

17/20 "best big (organic) brekky"

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Cafe Melba, Auckland

Like any good Melbournian, I judge a city by its back streets and alleys. So I was pretty happy to stumble down Auckland's Vulcan Lane, and even happier to discover Cafe Melba. When my good friend Juz told me he was heading to Auckland on business, I asked him to check it out (again).

Having impressed the locals with his choice of venue, Juz played host to a 7.30 power breakfast including poached eggs with a side of field mushrooms, salmon benedict and a rolled omelette. By all accounts, Melba scrubbed up well...

"The eggs were good, yolks still runny and no hint of vinegar. The five grain toast was hot, unbuttered, thick, crisp and grainy - full points there. The omelette looked tasty, as did the salmon - no complaints from my companions."

"The coffee (Bella) was good, without being exceptional."

"If you're a porridge fan, then Melba is a winner. Last time I visited, they served it with rhubarb (mmm rhubarb), but now they're serving it with stewed plums and brown sugar on the side. It's a generous creamy serving and will keep you satisfied all morning (and potentially all the way into the afternoon if you also order eggs). They served fresh OJ and cranberry juice which was also very good."

On the down side, there was disappointment at the lack of spinach... "a must for mine on any good breakfast menu". I tend to agree, but it's a minor gripe.

"By the time you've had a juice, eggs and a coffee or two, you can expect to pay NZ$15-20."

In a nutshell, Cafe Melba seems to be going strong. Any place that's packed by 8am must be doing something right.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Cafe Fidama, Yarraville

The 2005 Age Good Food Guide reckons you should put Cafe Fidama, 34 Ballarat Street, Yarraville, Tel +61 3 9687 0133, "firmly on the repeat-visit list." I beg to differ. It's not bad. But I won't be trekking over to Yarraville for an encore performance.

I have to admit, I went into Fidama with high expectations. The GF Guide dedicates one whole page (of about 300) to noteworthy breakfasts, and this was one of only eight venues to crack a mention. So, if it sounds like I'm picking nits, bear in mind that I was expecting a top 8 performance. Blame Sally Lewis.

Unfortunately, I have to kick off with some rather harsh comments on the eggs. I ordered scrambled. Not semi-scrambled or slightly-mutilated, but scrambled. I don't want huge chunks of yoke staring up at me. So I wouldn't come here for the scrambles. With poached eggs, you're on safer ground, but don't forget to pack your floaties. Break the seal on the eggs and say goodbye to your toast, as a mini-tsunami crashes across the plate. Maybe we were unlucky with the poached egg water-bombs, but the not-quite-scrambled eggs seemed that way by design (cross-checked with the table next door). Who knows, maybe the locals like 'em like that?

On a brighter note, Fidama served up some good extras, including sauteed mushrooms, well-grilled polenta, a huge pile of bacon and golden hash browns (they looked like the pre-packaged variety, but the chef had thawed and fried them with skill). There were some interesting items like 'salsa eggs', a few different omelettes, and Atkins-friendly steamed asparagas with poached egg and hollandaise. Throw in cheese kransky, bratwurst, chorizo and grilled ham, and the meat-lovers won't be disappointed. Unless, of course, they arrive late. By the time we sat down (about 2 pm), most of the snags had run out the door.

Which brings me to the service. Front of house, the staff were friendly and efficient. Out the back, however, the chef was spitting the dummy. It was like shuttle diplomacy as the waitress made repeat visits between us and the kitchen in a frustrating quest to find out exactly what was still on the menu. Round 1... the big breakfast is off, because the "meaty things" (specifcially, the bratwurst and kransky) ran out. Round 2... can I have it without the sausage? Round 3... I said it was off, just tell them to order from the list of extras, and I'll tell you if we've got it. Round 4... I already said, I want what was in the big breakfast, just drop the sausage. Is there anything other than sausage that's off? Round 5... actually, no, the only thing missing is the sausage... we still have a couple of serves of pesto tomato. Round 6... so my original order from round 2 was fine? Great... thanks. I'll have that.

Fidama is a slick little venue, with banquettes, bentwood chairs, dark timber and a good general feel. The crowd was a mix of over 30s, tourists and locals, most of whom seemed to be enjoying their visit. At about $35 for two, it wasn't bad value.

Don't get me wrong. This is a good breakfast venue. But based on our experience, I can't see it cracking the top 10.

The Grinders coffee, by the way, was excellent. Good T2 tea too.

11/20 "semi-scrambled eggs"

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, Richmond

After a big night on the turps, we wound up at Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, 48-50 Bridge Road, Richmond, Tel +61 3 9421 2808, for a late brekky. The food was very good. The service was exceptional. But it wasn't cheap.

It's the original touches that give the RHCL egg menu an edge. My poached eggs were good, but it was the anchovy butter that made them memorable. And why have fried eggs on toast when you could be getting stuck into "Bahgdad eggs... fried in butter, lemon and garlic, sprinkled with cumin and mint on grilled flatbread". I was also impressed with the way they handled our "special" order of scrambled eggs... "no cream, no milk... just butter please". Out they came, perfectly cooked. No tantrums.

On the downside, some of the classics were missing. Free-range eggs, but no benedict. Grilled kippers, but no omelette. Black pudding, but no hash browns. Home-made tomato sauce, but no HP. Still, my smoked bacon had much more flavour than your average rasher, and the spinach was delicious. And judging by the popularity of the "famous grilled cheesy toast", it must be good.

The coffee was OK (a bit weak for my liking), the tea was good (or so I'm told), and the rest of the menu had some interesting options. Order the muesli and choose your milk: buffalo, sheep... bio-dynamic cow. Or play it safe with Bircher muesli and strawberries.

Smooth service and comfy chairs capped off a great breakfast, but you pay for the pleasure. $17.50 might get you breakfast with "the lot", but you'll still have to pony up for a latte.

14/20 "slickest service"

Breakfast anytime

"I went to a cafe that advertised breakfast anytime, so I ordered French Toast during the Rennaisance" - Stephen Wright

It's the weekend. You've had a big night. You stumble out of bed. It's breakfast time. You choose your venue, secure a table, and then it happens...

"Sorry, breakfast finished at 11 am ..."

Screw you. Breakfast did not finish at 11 am. You just stopped serving it. And I just stopped eating at your dodgy little small-town dump of a cafe.

My suggested guidelines, for those who care, are as follows...

Breakfast all day is very civilised. You win brownie points.

Breakfast shutdown at 3 pm is OK. You don't lose any points.

Breakfast shutdown at 1 pm is forgivable, just. But if I walk in at 1.15 and you say "sorry", then you will definitely be losing points, and business.

Breakfast shutdown at 11 am is a complete joke. Don't expect to be taken seriously as a hot spot for breakfast. Do expect to lose points.

My first "Sparrow's Fart Award" for unacceptably early breakfast shutdown goes to "Spoonful", which Cheap Eats rated very highly. Unfortunately for them, I rocked in at 1 pm and you can guess what happened. Maybe one day I'll stay up all night and try to get there in time for brekky. For now, treat it as a lunch spot. Who knows how good it is. I went somewhere else.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Rathdowne Street Food Store, Carlton North

In act 2 of a double breakfast weekend, we hit the yuppified streets of Cartlon for brunch at the Rathdowne Street Food Store, 617 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North, Tel +61 3 9347 4064. Once again, the main draw was a long history of rave reviews, so we went in with fairly high expectations. Despite a few weak links, this place probably deserves its status as one of the best.

In terms of eggs, the Food Store scrubs up very well indeed. Their omelette, in particular, was pretty much flawless (we ordered a simple goat's cheese and salmon version, no toast). I can now see why they won the 2003 cheap eats award for breakfast dish of the year, for a spanish omelette with potato and zucchini, roasted capsicum sauce and grilled chorizo (no longer on the menu, as far as I could tell). Show me a better omelette in Melbourne and I'll eat a bucket of muesli. The food store also wins early points for presentation. First impression... "Mmmm, that's a fine lookin' plate of eggs."

It's equally hard to fault the extras, although I managed. The range is good, and in most cases, ditto the quality. My spinach and sausage were fine, but the "home-made" beans were bland and disappointing. The only thing setting them apart from beans a-la-can were a few chunks of carrot and celery, which is hardly a selling point. The sourdough toast (also branded "home made") was nothing to write home about, and the absence of wheat- and gluten-free options is frustrating for the gluten-challenged. The hash-browns (which I spied on the table next door) were shaped like deep-fried sushi rolls and looked extremely good. Other options included fried potato (our US friends would call them "home fries") and fried tofu (our red-neck friends would call it "hippy, veggie, tree-hugger food"). There was a pepper mill on each table (good), plain old tomato sauce on request, but no HP (grrr).

The coffee was excellent... Genovese pumped from a trusty Wega. I liked the fact that my cappucino was served chocolate-free by default, but it was a bit light on froth.

The rest of the menu gives you plenty to choose from. For the sweet-tooths, there's everything from Coco Pops (just like a chocolate milk-shake, only crunchy... and unencumbered by nutritional value), to pancakes with poached pears and lavender ice cream. Wash it all down with a spider and your daily sugar-fix will be complete. Or, if you prefer your food with fibre, there's "FSY" (fruit salad + yoghurt), "MFY" (muesli, fruit + yoghurt) and some stewed fruit concoctions.

The so-called "razor-sharp" service (according to Cheap Eats) was a bit blunt today. No overt rudeness, but no real effort to appear friendly either. It's one thing to think that you move in circles of higher-than-average coolness, but don't let it show. People notice these things.

The Rathdowne Street Food Store has a pretty good vibe. It feels busy, looks good, and is well decked out with classic, dark, bentwood chairs. The crowd was mixed, but dominated by over-paid, 30-something professionals trying to cling on to their 20-something lifestyle, despite the arrival of sprogs (not that I have anything against sprogs).

Bottom line... this is a very good brekky spot, which, although not cheap, is pretty good value when you factor in the quality of food, service and venue. You're probably looking at just under 20 bucks a head, depending on how many lattes you throw back. And, as mentioned above, it's a clear favorite for best omelette in Melbourne.

15/20 "best omelette"

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Cafe Sweethearts, South Melbourne

Today I did brekky at Cafe Sweethearts, 263 Coventry St, South Melbourne, Tel +61 3 9690 6752. I hadn't been there for a while, but I was lured back by the consistently good reviews it's had over the years, especially when it comes to... you guessed it... eggs. I'm happy to report that it was well worth the visit.

Sweethearts may well have the best range of eggs in Melbourne. We tried the poached and the scrambled, and both were good. Not perfect, but very good. In each case, the chef seemed to err on the side of caution, which meant that the eggs were a tad underdone. But better soft than solid, so this is a minor quibble. I enjoyed my scrambles, but (being super-picky for a moment) I prefer not to see little bits of egg-white dotted through the mix. I like my scrambles well scrambled.

The range of extras was pretty hard to fault. I was impressed with my mushrooms, bacon (grilled to perfection) and roesti, and the spinach and herbed polenta were also pretty good. Sweethearts also got the little things right. HP sauce on request (a personal favorite), and a pepper mill on each table. The whole would-you-like-me-to-grind-some-pepper-for-you-sir? routine is one of my pet hates. How am I supposed to know if the meal needs pepper (and how much pepper) before I've touched the bloody thing. Just leave the pepper grinder on the table please, and I'll use it as I need it.

Perhaps the weakest link of the whole meal was the toast... a thinnish slice of light rye, which got pretty soggy under my pile of eggs. Some thick, crusty sourdough toast would have lifted this brekky from good to great, IMHO. On the positive side, the polenta option was a big plus for those who like their brekky wheat- and gluten-free.

The coffee (Genovese, I think) was excellent. Ditto the tea.

For a place that does such great eggs, you'd expect the non-egg options to be thin on the ground. Not so at Sweethearts. In fact, the pancake range is arguably more impressive than the egg range, with blueberry, banana and pecan, and some tasty savoury options. You can even get kippers.

The staff were quick and polite, and I reckon our meals arrived within 5 minutes of placing the order.

Sweethearts is not a cheap venue for brekky. You'll be lucky to get out there for under $15-$20 a head, but you do get great quality.

The crowd was pretty mixed when we were there, with at least a few tables of young urban families. When it fills up, Sweethearts has a reasonable buzz, but as the crowd thinned, the wall-to-wall beige decor gives the place a slightly sterile feel. There's also a handful of outside tables, nestled under some big old trees, which should appeal to smokers and dog-lovers alike.

All-in-all, this really is an excellent spot for breakfast.

15/20 "biggest range in town"

Some old Melbourne favorites

Here, off the top of my head, is a highly subjective list of my top rated brekky spots in Melbourne. I will make absolutely no effort to justify who makes the list at this stage. It's just a brain dump, to give me something to look back on further down the road. I'll confine myself to a single wise crack for each entry. Here goes...

Marios "arguably melbourne's best"
Degraves "superb alley-way scrambled"
Cafe Sweethearts "egg-a-rama"
Globe "great toast"
Babka "mmmm... beans"
Cafe Racer "mmmm... doughnuts"