Melbourne is Australia's breakfast mecca and now a swag of operators is taking the first meal of the day to the next level. Begone bacon and eggs. Michael Harden reports on the new wave.
Cuttlefish. Wallaby. Kimchi. Rose petals. Salted shrimp. Yuzu. Kelp salt. And even the occasional poached egg. Welcome to breakfast in Melbourne circa 2016 - a thing of wonder and excitement. "There's seriously nothing in the world like breakfast in Melbourne," says Nathan Toleman, co-owner of two of Melbourne's most popular and forward-thinking breakfast joints, Top Paddock and The Kettle Black.
"In other places you might go out for a really good coffee or go out for a really good breakfast but find it hard to get both in the same spot," he says. Add the fact that there's so many cafés serving restaurant-quality food at breakfast in places with great service and really innovative design, and I think you've got something that's unique."
Melbourne has been serious about breakfast for some time. About three decades, in fact, because when you're asking how and where the obsession started, it seems all roads lead to Marios.
Thirty years ago, the Brunswick Street institution changed the way Melburnians viewed cafés not just by pioneering the idea of the all-day breakfast, but also by putting linen on the tables and waistcoats and ties on its waiters. It was also meticulous about its coffee in an era when burnt milk was too easy to come by. As co-owner Mario Maccarone says, "We elevated the idea of what a café could be by distinguishing ourselves from the Laminex table, greasy-sponge wipe-down kind of place. We wanted to be both classy and casual. We looked a bit like a restaurant, but you could still come in and get Vegemite on toast."
But how did we get from Vegemite on toast to wallaby and kelp salt? Sarin Rojanametin from Nora in Carlton says that Melbourne's café culture is in what he calls its fourth phase.
"I think it started with the Italian cafés, then moved into the 'hollandaise phase', followed by a phase that was all about specialty coffee," says Rojanametin.
"In the last few years we've moved into this fourth phase where we are challenging the idea of what a café can be, using modern cooking techniques and different cultural influences, moving away from the idea that every breakfast must be about poached eggs and toast."
He says his almost egg-free breakfast menu and lack of espresso (filter only, served black) has been challenging to some customers. "There have been a lot of walk-outs." So it seems even in fourth-phase Melbourne, certain expectations need to be met.
Karen Batson, chef across Cookie, Boney, The Toff in Town and Magic Mountain Saloon, wasn't sure how people would react to her Thai-influenced breakfast menu at Magic Mountain, but says diners have been overwhelmingly supportive, even if "some people were a little freaked out by the amount of chilli involved".
"We push the concept of breakfast a little," she says. "We serve omelettes but they're Thai-style, and we do baked eggs, but we use a passata that's full of star anise and ginger. I just thought Melbourne was ready for something beyond bacon and eggs."
And the envelope-pushing goes beyond the menu. Design plays an important role in blurring the line between café and restaurant. "People like to be in beautiful spaces that make them feel comfortable," says Toleman. He has made design a feature in all his cafés, from his first, Liar, Liar, to his latest, Higher Ground, due open in the CBD in May this year.
"In these kinds of businesses you rely on people coming back multiple times, so, to get them to come back, the space needs to feel special," he says. "Our spaces don't particularly say 'restaurant' or 'café'; they come across as everyday kind of spaces."
So why is Melbourne so passionate about its cafés? It may be as simple as cafés being cheaper to set up and having more family-friendly hours than restaurants, so chefs with fine-dining backgrounds make a lifestyle choice and then bring their fancy toolboxes with them. It may simply be that breakfast is cheaper for dining out than dinner.
Whatever the reason, Melbourne is doing things with breakfast that are innovative and unique. Here are a few dishes that are turning heads right now.
Churning of the Sea of Milk, Nora
From the poetic titles and good looks of the breakfast dishes - Churning of the Sea of Milk teams lightly smoked jasmine-cured fish with coconut ricotta, succulents, nashi pear, flying-fish roe, daikon and lovage arranged like a gorgeous wreath on the plate - to the toy-like décor of the tiny Carlton shopfront, Nora does breakfast as art. Owners Sarin Rojanametin and Jean Thamthanakorn want to "create something unexpected", and they do, the "not professionally trained cooks" drawing on their Thai heritage to create breakfast that's certainly not business as usual. The only eggs in play are in the dish Dear Mitchell - they're slow-cooked in a water bath to a custardy tofu-like texture. It works well with crunchy dried shrimps tossed in a shrimp paste and vinegar-based dressing, and sprinkled with shallots and greens from the backyard garden. Coffee is filter only (a carefully made, regularly changing brew) and the range of quite lovely house-blend teas includes ingredients such as red poppy petals, ginger and lavender. It is, as Rojanametin says, "a one-of-a-kind experience".
Nora, 156 Elgin St, Carlton, (03) 9041 8644
Snapper and Morning Glory Congee, Magic Mountain Saloon
Some might believe eating breakfast in a three-level bar replete with red neon and a soundtrack of mellow house isn't for them. Try Magic Mountain's snapper congee, though, a comforting, zesty delight that comes with a smorgasbord of condiments (pepper, fresh chilli, shredded ginger, salted duck egg, pickled cabbage, dried shrimp, coriander leaves), and you'll get the picture. And Karen Batson's original, big-flavoured breakfast menu doesn't stop at congee. Chicken and kaffir lime Scotch egg served with tamarind sticky pork ribs, omelettes stuffed with sardines, tomato and chilli,and roti bread served with almond butter, grilled banana and condensed milk all follow Batson's "Thai street food put through a Melbourne breakfast filter" philosophy. A winning list of alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails designed for breakfasters (Trendy Slacks is a refreshing blend of chrysanthemum syrup and lemon juice topped with coconut water) completes one of the feistiest breakfast menus in town.
Magic Mountain Saloon, 62 Little Collins St, Melbourne, (03) 9078 0078
Mortadella sandwich with gentleman's relish, Marion
Andrew McConnell's CBD breakfast mecca, Cumulus Inc, has had a similar sandwich on the menu for some time, but his latest venture, Marion, is a wine bar so the sandwich has been made more vino-friendly, the usual bacon dropped in favour of mortadella. It's a great excuse to drink wine with breakfast, particularly given that breakfast at Marion is on the weekend. The wine bar has its own wine list with a generous range by the glass, but also has the added heft of the list at next-door neighbour Cutler & Co's to call on. The sandwich cries out for a glass of something chilled, textural and aromatic. The thinly sliced mortadella (from Italy), heated and crisped at the edges, combines perfectly with the gentleman's relish - essentially a refined HP with a prune and vinegar base that cuts through the fattiness neatly. Add a soft bap that soaks everything up, and an optional fried egg and you get a sophisticated hangover cure. There are more virtuous paths to take - a lime, papaya and mango salad or a perfectly rendered asparagus, ricotta and tarragon omelette - but the sandwich is where it's at.
Marion, 51-53 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, (03) 9419 6262
Fried eggs with chorizo, broad beans, cuttlefish and smoked-garlic aïoli, Small Victories
There's a lot of eggs on the breakfast menu at Small Victories so it can seem as though this light, split-level café with its sparse, reserved style, turntable behind the marble-topped bar and short coffee menu might err on the side of safety when it comes to breakfast. It does, in a way, but owners Ben Farrant and Alric Hansen (who's also the chef) bring restaurant-grade skill to the party. They make everything possible themselves "to guarantee quality"; churning butter, fermenting yoghurt, pickling vegetables and making their own sausages. This includes the chorizo in the fried egg dish accompanied by broad beans, small pieces of salty cuttlefish and smoky aïoli, all topped with fine shreds of fresh mint that add a subtle but clean finish. There's an ethical and artisanal slant at Small Victories, too, so the butter, for instance is organic and eggs ethically raised, and it also runs to the beer, wine and soft drink lists.
Small Victories, 617 Rathdowne St, Carlton Nth, (03) 9347 4064
Eggs Benedict, Top Paddock
While there's nothing innovative in serving eggs B for breakfast, it's how Top Paddock does it that makes this place pop. For starters, it's co-owned by Nathan Toleman (also of The Kettle Black; see below), and the innovative, light-filled fit-out, all varied seating options and clever indoor-outdoor eating areas, by Six Degrees Architects has won awards for the design. Then there's the top-quality coffee (espresso, filter, batch-brewed, single-origin et cetera) dispensed from a gleaming tiled bar in the centre of the space. And then there's the innovative menu from chef Jesse McTavish. His Benedict comes on a lightly toasted baguette, the eggs perfectly poached, a textbook béarnaise in place of hollandaise. But there's also fatty, salty pork jowl, slices of Granny Smith compressed with yuzu to give them a refreshing citrus tang, crunchy maple-bacon crumb and a small piece of fine pork crackling. The setting, the style and - one of Top Paddock's strong points - the service all band together here and elevate the notion of breakfast without getting pretentious about it.
Top Paddock, 658 Church St, Richmond, (03) 9429 4332
Polenta porridge with burnt maple, textures of strawberry and basil, The Kettle Black
Polenta porridge in a pool of burnt maple syrup is prettily scattered with strawberries (dehydrated, freeze-dried, compressed and fresh), basil and multicoloured petals. Scrambled eggs, meanwhile, with just a hint of chilli, cradle house-cured kangaroo and a salty chunk of feta. It's fusion that works, much like The Kettle Black's clean, light-filled Scandi-influenced design by Studio You Me that grafts a Victorian terrace onto the ground floor of a neighbouring modern apartment building by way of white paint, and marble and brass details. There are shaded outdoor spaces, meticulously made coffee (from their own roaster, Square One) daily cold-pressed juice specials, and even a breakfast dégustation at the chef's table upstairs in the terrace house. Add unstintingly friendly and efficient service, despite the almost constant crush, and owner Nathan Toleman and his partners (chef Jesse McTavish among them) provide an admirable snapshot of where breakfast in Melbourne is right now.
The Kettle Black, 50 Albert St, Sth Melbourne, (03) 9088 0721