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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

St Ali North

In Melbourne's coffee scene, there are two venues that come up a LOT (plus many, many more - this being Melbourne and all): Proud Mary, which I am privileged to live near, and St Ali, which until recently, meant a trip south of the river. It was therefore very exciting to hear that St Ali recently decided to bank on its good name and open a second venue in North Carlton, aptly named St Ali North (815 Nicholson Street).


Bike parking

It's easy to find - Velo Cycles sits on the Park Street bike path, just where it crosses Nicholson Street, and St Ali North is behind the bike shop. I imagine all those serious northside cyclists are a huge untapped market - and the northside locals will bolster the success of St Ali North.

After our large Saturday night drinking sesh at Ferdydurke, my housemate and I dragged my hungover sister and her friend out for a recovery breakfast. We got a park right outside (despite this being the busiest I've ever seen Park Street - there must be a hot new place in the neighbourhood or something) and picked our way through hipster bodies on the grass and vintage bicycles to the entrance. Flagging down a clipboard-wielding manager, we put our names down for a table and relocated to the grass to wait. There are several outdoor umbrellas strategically planted around the place, made with the coolest fabric: a green leafy pattern with thinned sections that create an arty shadow effect. With the umbrellas, sunshine, and state we were all in, it was pretty difficult to get up again. But the promise of COFFEE was a lure too great to resist.

Waiting pew

Outdoor umbrella

Entrance

We were shown to a table in the light, bright, clean and spacious interior, where surprisingly a few tables were unclaimed (perhaps they'd all *just* been cleared for new customers? or maybe St Ali purposely ups the cool ante by making you wait). A funky blue geometric pattern decorates the central counter, which houses two massive coffee machines. The overall interior design looks like it's aiming for ultra modern mixed with kinda antiquey:

Main counter

Exterior post office boxes

I had a beautiful single origin coffee. All the coffees ordered by our table featured different latte art patterns. Quality AND attractive. Tick!



The food was excellent and definitely hit the hangover spot. There was a slight glitch with one dish we received (an tiny errant lettuce bug), but nothing major, and it was dealt with quickly and smoothly, by way of an apology and the dish being taken off our bill.

Poached eggs with avocado and salmon

Mexican eggs

Scrambled eggs, avo and bacon

Weird beetroot juice thing with awesome swizzle stick

I also really like it when cafes serve demerara sugar. It looks like glitter (my favourite)!

Demerara sugar

We sat around for a while after we finished our meals, unsure about the bill situation. Turns out you rock up to the counter and pay when you're ready.

This is a classy joint that will undoubtedly match the popularity and success of its south-side sibling. I will definitely be back.

Laneway opposite St Ali North



St Ali North on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Ferdydurke

The rumour was that the crew from Section 8 were opening another bar, basically looking down over Section 8 from the building next door. Known for its 'Melbourneness' and quirkiness, Section 8 serves drinks out of the side of a caravan to patrons who lounge on shipping containers plonked in a disused city laneway lot. So I had imagined Ferdydurke (Levels 1 & 2, 239 Lonsdale Street) to have a similarly grungy style.

Tattersalls Lane from Ferdydurke

Not so. Entering from Tattersalls Lane via a couple of staircases chock-a-block with strong, bright wall art, you emerge (a little puffed) into a clean and surprisingly light, brick and wood-based bar, reminiscent of Scandinavian design and art studio galleries. Manned by cool and moody-looking staff, the bar appears well-stocked and runs the length of most of the main room. A few tables grace the Lonsdale Street side, and a raised mixing desk area overlooks the main room and entryway, and also backs onto a hidden nook on the Section 8 side, accessed via a private-looking (but open to patrons) side room with benches and low lamps. And for those who have requested a review of the lighting: it's quite warm and dim, therefore quite flattering!

The view through the DJ area gave a warm silhouette that I liked:

Mixing 'stage'

I've been here a couple of times and have always had trouble hearing conversation. The music is good and not overly loud (at least, not until later) but there always seems to be lots of white noise at this bar - but whether that's a good or bad thing probably depends on your preferences!

Ceiling of side room

We were at Ferdydurke on a Saturday night and it got pretty crowded while we were there. The bouncers tried hard to look intimidating, but there was no queue and we walked through without a hitch. There was a surprising amount of men here (take note, single ladies!) - mostly milling around, trying to look cool. Some actually were cool. It's not a massive bar, so it was a bit of a mission to get to get drinks or reach the loos, but that's not so terrible if it means you have to brush past a honey or two. ;)

Side room with benches

Downstairs is a smoking 'deck' that directly overlooks Section 8. Beware if you don't like heights or get vertigo; it's basically a holey cage off the side of the building - but sturdy! The toilets are on the same level and are an odd concoction of little rooms, his 'n' hers, a bar table and a cushioned waiting bench. Party in the loos, anyone?!

Section 8 from Ferdydurke

Ferdydurke is a neat little bar, hopefully destined for a long life due to its cool vibe, great location and proximity to Section 8, Chinatown and Touche Hombre.



Ferdydurke on Urbanspoon

Shark Fin Inn

Yum cha! Who doesn't love it?

I'm always surprised by the amount of people I come across who have never tried yum cha. Usually once they have, they're converted. It doesn't even have to be great yum cha. There's just something innately cool about being brought food on trolleys to choose from, then stuffing yourself silly, all for not-very-much-money. AND, you can drink if you want to! Bonus.

I've mentioned before that I was brought up on 'going out for Chinese' as a restaurant treat in Sydney. So, you could say I've been enjoying yum cha my whole life. In Sydney, we used to go to the Marigold in Chinatown (where the hostess would, without fail, pinch my chubby cheeks with pure delight), Mathew's Peacock Gardens in Crows Nest (reliable and traditional), or the Sea Treasure, also in Crows Nest (great for seafood, but came under fire at one point for inhumane treatment of its live seafood). All were great, and when I moved to Melbourne in 2009, I was keen to find a yum cha place that matched (or exceeded) my previous experiences.

Well. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Melbourne just does not do Asian food as well as Sydney. Don't get me wrong - I love Melbourne and its food, and yes, I know: there's an amazing food culture, and awesome places like Flower Drum, and Dandelion, plus many more, and all manner of great local restaurants. But, as well as having similarly revered venues, you are more likely to walk into a shitty corner takeaway store in Sydney and have the most amazing green curry, rice paper rolls, larb, Peking duck, sashimi or udon of your life, than you would in Melbourne. It's also likely that the Sydney store you walked into focuses on one type of cuisine, rather than serve pan-Asian cuisine to 'please' everybody - but which would more likely result in mediocre versions of each type of cuisine they're trying to incorporate.

So you can understand what a standard I'd set for myself when I began looking for good yum cha in Melbourne.

I did my research. David's in Prahran scored lots of mentions, as did Oriental Tea House in the city, Red Door in Windsor, and Golden Dragon Palace in Templestowe. Basically, they were all too far away, or on the wrong side of the river for me (I know, pissy excuse... but I don't have a car, orright!). So I ended up trying the closer-to-home East Imperial in Carlton, which was fantastic but rather pricey, and Dragon Boat Palace on Lonsdale Street in the city, which has become my staple Melbourne yum cha venue thus far. It's huge, central, and it used to have an 'all you can eat' yum cha price (around $22 per head) - but I don't believe they do that anymore.

When my sister was in town last weekend, I wanted to take her to a different yum cha place than Dragon Boat, which we'd been to together before. So, next on the tryout list was the Shark Fin Inn (50 Lt Bourke Street) in the city, described as a classic - even slightly retro - yum cha restaurant. Being at the top end of Little Bourke, it was easy to find, and our table was booked for upstairs. It's plain and a bit dark, but there are a few red and gold decorations, and I liked how the restaurant name was engraved on the chopsticks (in both English and Chinese):





The staff were friendly and patient in explaining the dishes. Being a table of five girls, including one fructose-intolerant eater, we veered more towards the steamed foods and less fried or onion-y. It was all of a consistently good standard.

Eggplant something

Prawn & chive dumplings

Pork & peanut dumplings

Chinese broccoli

Pork buns

Shumai (pork & prawn) dumplings

Prawn & scallop thingies

Prawn toast

We managed to save room for dessert (my favourite part of yum cha because I love coconut jelly beyond what words can describe):

Egg custard tarts

Mango pudding

Coconut jelly !!!!!!!

When I posted this next picture to check us in on Facebook, a friend saw the restaurant we were at and chastised me for giving my custom to a venue that supports shark finning, even indirectly: 

Our spread

Of course, he has a valid point. 'Shark Fin Inn' is a pretty shocking restaurant name considering it directly references a delicacy only obtained through an horrific practice. I don't know much about the whole thing (find out more here) and I didn't see shark fin listed on the menu, but I assume it is or has been served there, since it's the only food included in the venue's name. Despite a pleasant meal at Shark Fin Inn, for that reason I intend to explore other yum cha venues in future. Even if it means less coconut jelly in my life. 



Shark Fin Inn on Urbanspoon

Friday, 25 January 2013

99 Problems (closed), Jim's Greek Tavern

I could make a pun here about how at 99 Problems (31 Johnston Street, Collingwood), the bar ain't one, or something equally bad. But I won't. It's a bit overdone, don't you think?

The odd thing, for a place with such a punchy name, is how understated it is. Not far from the corner of Smith and Johnston Streets, in the 'hood of the illustrious Tote, 99 Problems lies among an unassuming strip of Collingwood. There are lots of unusual places nearby - ranging from African, Czech and Greek food to quirky stores spruiking bicycles, retro eyewear, and mannequins - and although many are full or on their way, there is a quiet buzz about the area, as though a parade of hipsters has just passed through, leaving behind only the ultra-committed and genuinely non-caring cool.



Hiding under an awning labelled with something else, it can be easy to overlook the brown-gold lettering on the window that identifies the bar. But once you know it's opposite Jim's Greek, it's easy to find. Inside, it's basically one long venue with a front and back room, and a tiny bar at the end. On one side, you'll find a doorway which leads to the courtyard: essentially a carport spruced up with moody lighting and a few pots. The bench seating inside is custom-made, and wall murals feature vast mountain scenes - kinda like what you'd find in your great-uncle's rumpus room, but a bit more arty and funky. The overall impression is very simple, but cool. Given the limited space, it makes sense there's not a huge menu, but there is enough choice of beverages to please everyone.



I'm not sure I could spend hours at 99 Problems. I enjoy its detached cool feeling, but I feel like I'm always looking around, expecting something else to happen. Perhaps this pocket of Collingwood is just too quiet for my tastes.

Having said that, 99 Problems is a handy venue when you want to go to Jim's Greek Tavern (32 Johnston Street, Collingwood), and can't get in immediately. Or for drinks after dinner. I don't discriminate.

I'm not much of a Greek authority. I don't like olives; I don't understand why people would smash perfectly good plates; and I grew up eating Chinese cuisine as a treat. So I couldn't tell you how Jim's Greek scores against tradition or its competition. But, in the half-dozen or so times I've been there, I've always enjoyed Jim's food.



Much like its Italian contemporary, Pellegrini's, Jim's has been around for decades and is staffed mainly by middle-aged gentlemen. Fortunately for Jim's, its staff members generally have a much more pleasant demeanour than Pellegrini's. Even if they are rushing, they will take time to respond to your queries, and often smile while doing so!

There is house wine available by the carafe - but a word of the wise: BYO if you possibly can. It's passable, but only just. On the upside, the bread is delicious!



Jim's doesn't seem to have menus. Every time I've been, they have simply clarified verbally what the table would like as a whole. The menu generally goes something like this:

  • Dips, bread, and antipasto-type stuff like grilled capsicum and olives
  • Fried saganaki (yummmmm)
  • Calamari and/or octopus
  • Greek salad
  • Lamb skewers & fillets
  • Chicken 
  • Prawns
  • Desserts - Baklava & Galactoboureko (try and say that ten times fast)






You can usually request or deny certain dishes - or just tell them when you're full and want to stop!

It's pretty no-frills, but tasty and cheap. The venue is quite massive, stretching from the street-front to a huge back room. It can mean a lot of white noise, but that seems to suit the atmosphere and cuisine. It can also be hard to flag down a waiter, but be persistent!

I can see how Jim's Greek might grate on a lot of patrons' nerves, but I have a great time every time I go, and always leave full and happy. Try it if you get a chance.




Jim's Greek Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Belle's Diner (now Belle's Hot Chicken), La Niche

My little sister had just arrived in town from Sydney with two friends, and I wanted to have a girly gasbag over dinner whilst showing them somewhere 'Melbourne' and funky. I picked Belle's Diner (150 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy), which has been open for maybe a year (in the old Dante's site) and been quite a hit so far. It's slipped right in with Melbourne's 'Americana' craze: burgers, ribs, fried chicken, French fries... basically kitsch comfort food. But rather than overdoing the retro, Belle's Diner is very clean and fresh - a modern take on the prototypical diner.



Located right in the guts of the ever-cool Gertrude Street, slowly building into an empire of awesome, it was going to be pretty difficult for Belle's to fail. We arrived at 7pm-ish on a 39-degree day, and it was surprisingly easy to grab a booth. But after five minutes there, we realised why: no (or poor) air con! Ohhhh. Nevertheless, we were seated and had wine and food waiting in the wings, not to mention happy catch-ups, so the unrelenting heat seemed manageable.

The waitstaff were ultra helpful, explaining dishes, making sharing recommendations, and one gentleman found out for us why ribs were no longer on the menu (sad face) since he'd only been working there for a week (answer: they'd altered the menu only the week before). As a starter, we shared some fried corn fritters, served with a chunky salad of greens, avocado and radish. We devoured them. They were so good I forgot to take a photo.

Whilst retaining most of the classics, such as the Dinerr Burger (the name of which apparently refers to something pop-culture-y which goes right over my head) and the New York Deli Plate, the new menu is generally much lighter, with less heavy meat and more summery dishes - such as the Prawn Cocktail I had. They told me the prawns came in a jar, and they weren't lying... they stuffed heaps in there! All were large and fresh. The sauce was perfect: light, creamy and not too tangy, and big chunks of avocado mixed in were complementary and refreshing. I didn't even have to ask for a finger bowl; one was brought out with the meal. Respeck.

Prawn Cocktail, served in a jar

Finger bowl


My sister and one of her friends split a burger that looked great:

Burger


And the New York Deli Plate was immaculate and just the right amount, as per usual (served with rye bread):

New York Deli Plate


I have a feeling Belle's Diner will be around for a while, especially if it continues to adapt to current food fads and the expectations of its clientele - American food won't be popular forever! (...I predict. Of course, we are not talking golden arches here. And the Americanisation of society is a whole other discussion, best left for a cosy evening over a bottle of wine.)

When we left, the temperature was still hovering in the 30s - so, naturally, more refreshing beverages were required. We went down the road to La Niche (67 Smith Street, Fitzroy) to meet my housemate and her friend. I'd walked past this place a few times and, judging it completely unfairly from the outside, had thought it was a tiny cafe which probably served average coffee and kept funny hours. However, I was happy to be corrected one night by my housemate, who had discovered it that day with a friend and decided we would be going there regularly. Apparently they do breakfast and everything! This was my first visit, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised.

It is tiny. There are a few tables on the street, a miniscule front room which also houses the main bar and till, a small middle room which could be another dining room or perhaps a function-only room (it seems to be one of those terrace houses renovated into a hospitality site), and then you pass the kitchen out the back on your way to the toilets and adorable courtyard. Faded outdoor furniture awaits unassumingly under outdoor umbrellas and strings of coloured lightbulbs, and a green vine cascades over the back wall which, sources tell me, will soon give way to a larger courtyard space.

The Dutch girl serving us was delightful, if fleeting in her visits to the back courtyard. My wine glass was chipped but replaced, and between us we managed to polish off a couple of bottles of light-but-punchy chilled French rose. To our delight, a cheese platter went unclaimed and found its way to our table. Awesome!

Cheese platter


A Frenchman seemed to be heavily involved in the place and enjoyed a bit of banter with us towards the end of the evening, disarmingly charming compared to society's usual projections of Gallic personableness. He happily shared his passion for La Niche - which, no doubt, helps inflame a fondness for the place in its regulars.

I look forward to seeing what La Niche has to offer at other times of day and year.



Update: 26 July 2013

A recent brunchtime stop-in at La Niche allowed me the opportunity to sample its daytime behaviour. After having been bedridden with a virus for the better part of a week, it was my first trip out of the house in days, and I was determined to make it worth my while: i.e. coffee. Fortunately, La Niche was offering a breakfast deal: a BOWL of coffee with a croissant. YES PLEASE!

Not just any breakfast combo - MAGIC!  (with cute European numerals & decimals)

See how big and bowl-y mine was compared to the others?!

Simple yet delicious ham & cheese croissant


My friend had scrambled eggs, which allowed me a nice shot of the quirky wall art:

A shadow of my former self


I also enjoyed the chance to observe the slightly emo, Nouveau stylings of the cafe's front room:

LOVE this doorframe.  (Is that weird?)


Not forgetting, of course, that this is a FRENCH cafe and as such, EUROPEAN DRINKS MUST BE STOCKED. I drank the shit out of Orangina when I was in Europe. (It's like European Fanta, only better, and they have Fanta too, but it's more yellow than orange, which is weird.)



Daytime Niche: so far, so good. Needs further investigation.  ;)



Update: 4 January 2014

Another dinner at Belle's Diner afforded me the chance to take a few more pics.

Menus are hidden within old book covers

Exactly what I want to read about.

Burger!

A special: Pulled pork waffle with apple and walnuts

Chippies, nicely spiced

Old-school ginger beer



Belle's Hot Chicken Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Niche Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato