Town & Country, Balwyn

For the past five years, I’ve had a regular housesitting gig over the Australia Day long weekend, where I decamp from my apartment in the city and take up residence in a somewhat larger dwelling in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It’s my very own version of ‘Escape to the Country’ if you will, where I can get away from the familiar and discover what it is like to live in another part of my city.

So it felt kind of apt to kick-off the long weekend with a leisurely brunch at Town & Country in Balwyn. Sitting in the open front courtyard with the morning light filtering through the canopy overhead, I could have certainly been anywhere else in the world instead of having breakfast alongside a busy metropolitan road.

With a welcome cool breeze on my face, and my coffee order on the way, I got down to the difficult task of deciding what to order for breakfast. The current seasonal menu is heavily geared towards savoury options, but any dish that includes ‘Dr Marty’s crumpets’ usually seals the deal for me.

Albeit a slightly edgier take on Eggs Florentine, two substantial stacks laden with chargrilled asparagus, baby spinach, thick slices of smoked salmon, poached eggs topped with a careful consideration of hollandaise sauce, complimented with a large sprig of fresh and deliciously pungent dill, was a visually spectacular ensemble.

Smoked salmon with Dr Marty's crumpets, grilled asparagus, baby spinach, poached eggs and tarragon hollandaise - Town & Country, Balwyn
Smoked salmon with Dr Marty’s crumpets, grilled asparagus, baby spinach, poached eggs and tarragon hollandaise – Town & Country, Balwyn

And the taste didn’t disappoint either. The asparagus was a notable addition – it was so soft and tasty from the length of time on the grill that it only took a fork to pull it apart.

However the real hero of the dish would be the thick, doughy crumpets that absorbed all the moisture from the spinach, poached eggs and thick sauce and yet still held their shape and bread-like taste. My faith in Dr Marty’s creations continues to be justified.

Town & Country, Balwyn
Town & Country, Balwyn

The coffee is also full-bodied and delicious. Service is friendly and very attentive although it would be fair to say that the staff are quite busy, so patience is required.

Apart from the cafe, Town & Country also includes a nursery and homewares store, fully stocked with designer soft furnishings and unique decorator items, so make sure you exit through the gift shop. And why not? It’s a public holiday afterall.

Town & Country Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mr Hendricks Café, Balwyn

As much as I love the art of decluttering and adhering to organising and minimalist principles, I must admit that my iPad is in complete disarray; absolutely chock full of saved bookmarks from newspaper articles and random, unfiled notes on cafés across a multitude of apps, highlighting places that I should potentially go and visit for breakfast. Somewhere in all that mess, I happened to come across something that recalled to mind that there was a café called Mr Hendricks Café located in Balwyn on my must-go list. With the added bonus of staying in Kew this week and discovering that the café is also directly located on the #109 tram route, it would seem like a wasted opportunity to be in such close proximity and not make an effort to go there for breakfast.

Finding the location was easy enough and I seemed to arrive in the nick of time to be able to secure a table, because within fifteen minutes the place was busy and a small queue had started to form. It’s so exciting to see a unique breakfast menu with a number of original signature dishes, not often seen or replicated elsewhere. I’m always a sucker for French Toast at the best of times, particularly when it’s of the brioche variety, but I had already consoled myself with a couple of images from Instagram and moved on. The Francophile in me particularly warmed to the thought of indulging in a Cassoulet with braised beans, smoked ham hock, lamb shoulder, toulouse sausage, confit duck leg, persilade and fried egg. The description of the Prawn and Corn Fritters was beyond compare and even the Avocado on Toast sounded extraordinary with the inclusion of wekame, sesame, pickled cucumber salad and lemon gel as key elements within the dish. My coffee arrived and someone was keen to take my order, but inexplicably I needed another couple of minutes to arrive at a decision. After much deliberation, I finally settled on the Crispy Eggs with sweet potato puree, ham jock, salad of fennel, radish, red onion and candied walnuts.

The café fit-out is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity and elegance, almost a refined industrial décor that made the frustrated interior designer in me just sit back and admire the room’s composition in jealous admiration. Soft tan leather cushions on the banquette seating, attractive pendant lighting, glossy black Thonet chairs, elegant gold lettering on every door and window and beautiful polished wooden bench tops and tables in rich warm tones ticked all of my aesthetic boxes.

Coffee is available in a standard cup size, although after my spree of ordering larger versions, the glass seemed to have shrunk. My latte was creamy and delicious but after a couple of sips, another glass was definitely in order.

Crispy Eggs with sweet potato puree, ham hock, salad of fennel, radish, red onion and candied walnuts - Mr Hendricks Cafe, Balwyn
Crispy Eggs with sweet potato puree, ham hock, salad of fennel, radish, red onion and candied walnuts – Mr Hendricks Cafe, Balwyn

Trying to capture an appropriate image for my food chronicle was no mean feat – there were so many colours and items on the plate that trying to fit them into one frame was a frustrating task. Photographic duties aside, I went straight for the ham hock which was simply delicious, slightly crispy yet soft and salty at the same time. There was plenty of meat on the plate, yet it was something I found myself wanting more and more of. The crumb on the boiled eggs came away easily and delicious with the sweet potato puree, but made for a bit of sport trying to scoop a mouthful onto my fork. “Slippery little suckers”, one might say.

I’m not a huge advocate of salad for breakfast yet surprisingly, I loved it and would say it was absolutely my favourite part of breakfast. From the crunch of the candied walnuts to the finely shaved fennel, the entire salad was beautifully dressed with a silky, smooth and slightly sweet honey mustard dressing, with every leaf glistening with the sheen of olive oil.

Completely satisfied with my breakfast, I even ordered a third cup of coffee just so I could sit and prolong the indulgence for just a little bit longer. A way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach, and Mr Hendricks, I’d have to say that you have certainly captured mine.

Mr Hendricks Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Adeney Milk Bar, Kew

When I first signed up for a brief sojourn to Kew, my friend Alison took me on a quick tour of her neighbourhood and the first place of interest was Adeney Milk Bar Café, just a short walk around the corner. So with the promise of warm weather, blue skies and birds either tweeting or swooping, after many months in seclusion I was so eager to get to Adeney that I almost skipped all the way there.

Naturally with the sun out, all the outdoor seating beneath the front verandah was fully occupied but thankfully there were a few tables near the front window that were still available. The interior of the café is so inviting and homely, making me feel that I was almost indulging in a breakfast in someone’s home.

Perched on the banquette seating along the wall, I had a wonderful view of the street outside and full view of another separate dining space towards the rear of building. It’s quite cosy in the seating department and not long after arriving, a family with very young children sat down at the next table alongside me, which was in such close proximity that I could have helped myself to their breakfast as well. It was no laughing matter when the little girl then proceeded to keep yelling repeatedly in my left ear, “Mummy, what can I have to eat?” for what seemed like an eternity.

The coffee machine was in full throttle with a constant flow of both in-house and take-away orders coming from all directions. Believe it or not, there is a dedicated walk-up sliding window behind the counter, available for those wanting to order take-away coffees without having to step inside. When I had a sip of my large hot skinny latte once it arrived, I immediately knew what all the fuss was about. The Fitzroy Street house blend sourced from Industry Beans was incredibly smooth, creamy and delicious that I found myself just staring absentmindedly into space, nursing the warm glass in my hands and taking lots of long, slow sips.

The Winter menu at Adeney is fairly typical of most other cafés with all the usual suspects present. There are two smashed avocado options available, and after a lot of deliberation, I landed on the Winter Smash with avocado, chilli, coriander and fresh lime on toasted sourdough ($14) and added the poached egg ($3).

Winter Smash: avocado, chilli, coriander and fresh lime on toasted sourdough and poached egg - Adeney Milk Bar, Kew
Winter Smash: avocado, chilli, coriander and fresh lime on toasted sourdough and poached egg – Adeney Milk Bar, Kew

Although it’s called the “Winter Smash”, the bright green colours of the avocado, coriander sprigs and fresh lime were decidedly reminiscent of the approaching Spring season. There was quite a substantial amount of the avocado mixture on the plate to devour and while I thought that the inclusion of the red chilli would be the standout ingredient, after the first mouthful it was apparent that someone had been heavy-handed with the lime which had unfortunately left a slightly sour aftertaste. Although the flavours were a little out of balance, it was still extremely edible and enjoyable when paired with the crusty sourdough toast and soft poached egg. I had once again underestimated how restorative and satisfying a good dose of creamy avocado and bread can be.

Having finished another delicious cup of coffee along with my breakfast, all was good and right in my own little world and even more so when I realised that Adeney was going to be my new “local” for the next few weeks, which might also be just enough time for me to be able to stroll around the corner again and try their new Spring menu.

Adeney Milk Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mastic, Kew

There is something about beautiful sunny Saturday mornings during Spring. I don’t know whether it is the warm sunshine coupled with blue skies that spark feelings of rejuvenation or the fragrant blossoms on trees, but after working long hours during the colder months, under the constant glare of artificial lights and continually having to miss my beloved Body Pump classes, Saturday morning heralded my first non-working weekend for a month and brought with it, a commitment to get back into a healthier lifestyle. In the spirit of new beginnings, having temporarily exchanged my inner city lifestyle and relocated to the leafy surrounds of Kew for the coming month, the opportunity to explore new cafés and food destinations in the area brought an added sense of adventure. What better way to kick-off the weekend than by heading to Mastic, George Colombaris’ café venture dedicated to healthy and nutritious eating.

The café fit-out is quite unique; with plywood cabinetry and structures built overhead but has a rather confused sense of style in that I wasn’t sure if I was having breakfast at a high school cafeteria or the gymnasium. Thick coloured strips of red and clear plastic separate the café space from the neighbouring Hellenic Republic restaurant; green and white plastic-coated wire chairs are used for seating on top of a blue “raised dot” linoleum floor surface; large plywood communal tables with colourful geometric designs, blackboards and table tennis bats adorning the wall space all contributed to a decidedly “institutional” presence in the interior design. I retreated to a marble-topped table in the back corner and patiently waited five minutes or so for someone to acknowledge my arrival.

It’s not easy being green which I discovered when looking through the breakfast menu. As much as I desire to be lean and healthy, the thought of drinking a green whole fruit smoothie with kale, spinach and other leafy ingredients didn’t thrill me at all, nor did the farro salad and buckwheat porridge dishes. But what did catch my eye was the description of the French toast, blueberries, strawberries, crème fraiche and buckinis offering – I guess if George says it’s good for you, then who am I to say otherwise?

I was thoroughly looking forward to my latte which arrived in a beautiful matte black cup, only to be told by the waiter that they had to pop out back and get some more teaspoons. I usually hate having things placed in front of me and told not to touch, but I can only surmise that it was either my extreme tiredness or newly acquired zen-like attitude that enabled me to patiently watch this guy return to the front counter with a handful of clean spoons and commence his duties in the kitchen. I watched him disappear out back and several moments later he returned to the table with my breakfast. Just before he sped off, I politely asked for a teaspoon and he didn’t bat so much as an eyelid at my request.

French toast, blueberries, strawberries, creme fraiche, buckinis - Mastic, Kew
French toast, blueberries, strawberries, creme fraiche, buckinis – Mastic, Kew

Healthy food needn’t be boring or ugly, as evidenced by the colourful array of berries and presentation of the dish. There was a mixture of both fresh and freeze-dried berries scattered over the toast providing lots of added flavour and texture to the palate. I have no idea what type of bread was served (or even if it was bread) but it was soft with a cake-like consistency and quite sweet to taste, as though drizzled in a syrup. It was extremely delicious and not as dense or heavy as a traditional French toast. Buckinis, as advised by Google, are activated grains of buckwheat and added another textural element in addition to the freeze-dried fruit. The crème fraiche broke up the density and sweetness of the cake mixture with just enough served to not overwhelm the other elements on the plate.

Not surprisingly, I polished off my first coffee due to its lukewarm state and was now anxious to order another. I slowly ate my breakfast and tried in vain to catch the attention of my waiter who had set himself the task of walking around the café to monitor empty tables (which were numerous) and not make eye-contact with actual customers. After an agonising five minutes, I suddenly hit upon the novel idea of scoffing down the remainder of my breakfast and placing my empty plate in full view in a desperate bid to lure him over to my table, and guess what … it worked. Incredibly, my second latte was brought over by the barista within a minute of ordering which restored some of my misgivings regarding the level of service at Mastic. Having enjoyed a “healthy” breakfast and a great cup of coffee, I had all the energy needed to venture out and make the most of my weekend.

Mastic Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Balderdash, Port Melbourne

Drinking copious amounts of alcohol mid-afternoon has the ability to make one believe that you are capable of almost anything. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of enjoying several new release Bress wines during a long lunch at Harry & Frankie’s wine bar in Port Melbourne. At last year’s Bress seasonal lunch, I made several vows that I was going to make a trip to their cellar door in Harcourt and re-stock my cellar and yet of course that journey never eventuated. So with the order form in front of me and a few glasses under my belt, I thought nothing of ordering half a dozen bottles of wine to pick up at a later date.

Naturally when the call came to collect my wines, only then did it dawn on me that it might prove to be somewhat difficult to lug six bottles home when using public transport as the preferred mode of transportation. Being the victim of my own senseless self-talk required me to return to Port Melbourne this weekend, and so it seemed a natural choice to head directly to the nearby Balderdash for breakfast.

Several friends who live in this locality have recommended this café to me and with the promise of warmer weather starting to eventuate, I started to feel glad that my crazy notions were taking me on random food adventures as I walked towards the café. When I walked inside, all the tables were occupied which left me with a seat in the front window to enjoy the brilliant warm sunshine.

The service at Balderdash is very friendly, attentive and definitely service with a smile. At first glance, the menu seemed to be a stock-standard café menu with a handful of typical breakfast dishes but when I stopped and took another look at the descriptions of each dish, I discovered another side to what was printed on paper.

I was intrigued about the description of the Pulled Pork Benedict although I wasn’t sure if it was served with toast, and as luck would have it, at that precise moment my coffee arrived. The person who served it saw the opened menu and was ready to take my breakfast order, but also took the time to explain in quite some detail what was included within the dish once I had asked the question. I was sold as soon as they said “brioche bun” but after politely listening to the spiel, I gave them the thumbs up to go ahead and locked in my order.

Enjoying a delicious hot, creamy latte and watching the morning traffic along Bay Street go by, I was shocked out of my reverie when breakfast was served within only what seemed several minutes after ordering.

Pulled Pork Benedict, Slow cooked pork shoulder with two poached eggs, hollandaise and prosciutto crumb - Balderdash, Port Melbourne
Pulled Pork Benedict, Slow cooked pork shoulder with two poached eggs, hollandaise and prosciutto crumb – Balderdash, Port Melbourne

A feast for eyes as well as being a substantial meal, the Pulled Pork Benedict consists of slow cooked pork shoulder with two poached eggs, hollandaise and prosciutto crumb, and is served on a brioche bun with fresh spinach. Although I had been leaning towards ordering the corn fritters when I had first arrived, I was glad that my inner voice again persuaded me to give this dish a try.

The shredded pork was extremely succulent and tender and also well-matched with the silky, creamy texture of the poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. The novelty factor was the smattering of dried and finely diced prosciutto over the eggs, to form a crunchy crumb and balance the abundance of soft textures throughout the dish. I have a deep and abiding love for any form of brioche at the best of times and the inclusion of the sweet and fluffy bread to this dish definitely brought a smile to my face.

While foolish talk can sometimes lead you on journeys that are unexpected, they can also be a source of fun and provide the opportunity to take the road less travelled. In the end, the belief in my own strength led me to towards a wonderful café and enjoy a fabulous meal that I might have otherwise overlooked. Ironically, I later discovered that carrying six bottles of wine home on a tram is actually an easy feat after all.

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Boundary Espresso, Preston

My desire to maintain my personal upkeep for less has led to my current obsession with the LivingSocial website and its bargain offerings. A recent purchase meant that I needed to be in Preston area to honour a commitment this past Saturday morning but more importantly it gave me a chance to explore somewhere new for breakfast. Looking at what cafés were located around the Bell Street and Plenty Road vicinity, I found Boundary Espresso on the map and planned my visit accordingly.

Walking along a somewhat bleak and desolate strip of Plenty Road, I could actually smell something delicious in the air just before Boundary Espresso came into view. My timing couldn’t have been more perfect when I pushed open the door into the tiny dining area and made my way to the last vacant table available inside.

After being warmly greeted with a menu and my coffee order taken, I sat back to take in the surrounds. Although there are only several tables available for patrons inside, the interior is homely with warm wooden furniture, a striking blue feature wall and floor to ceiling windows to flood the space with natural light.

The breakfast menu is fairly concise with a Turkish influence. In addition to the availability of pide specialties and a Turkish Breakfast, there are several variations of baked egg dishes, homemade muesli, and a pear and date crumble. I must admit that I missed noting the pear and date crumble until it was served to the table next to me, together with a serving of “Green eggs and ham”, both of which prompted a serious case of food envy on my behalf. But given the predictions of artic blasts embattling Melbourne over the coming weekend, I opted for heart-warming description of Two-egg caramelised leek and goats cheese omelette – containing two free-range eggs, caramelised leeks and goats cheese topped with an olive tapenade, served with toast – to ward off the winter chills.

My large, hot skinny latte was served in an exquisite ceramic tumbler and had a rich, roasted flavour. It’s easy to understand why there is a busy take-away coffee trade in addition to the constant throng of diners. The service is extremely friendly and obliging, with many of the regulars treated like long-lost friends.

Two-egg caramelised leek and goats cheese omelette - Boundary Espresso, Preston
Two-egg caramelised leek and goats cheese omelette – Boundary Espresso, Preston

It didn’t take all that long for breakfast to arrive at my table. The first order of business after taking a few obligatory photos was to take the thick wedges of butter and place them between piping hot pieces of toasted Turkish bread. While the wind and rain raged against the windows outside, there was nothing more comforting and delicious than tearing into warm bread dripping with melted butter.

I could discuss the nuances of omelettes as opposed to frittatas but whatever the outcome, the dish was extremely tasty and delicious. The salty flavours of the black olive tapenade were a perfect foil for the soft creaminess of the goats cheese found the in the centre of the egg dish. The peppery notes of the fresh rocket, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, cut through the rich textures of the egg and leek mixture. Needless to say all jealous thoughts of other dishes seemed to vanish upon consumption of my own breakfast but rather gave me something to look forward to upon my imminent return.

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Square and Compass, East Melbourne

When the headline of a feature article in last Tuesday week’s Epicure Good Food section of “The Age” newspaper announces “Melbourne’s best new cafes 2015”, I didn’t hesitate to greedily devour the descriptive text and stunning photos on my iPad, excited to discover potential new destinations for my Saturday morning breakfast adventures.

The top position for best new café was awarded to Square and Compass in East Melbourne. Apart from the fabulous looking photos of delicious food grabbing my undivided attention, when I looked up the café’s location in Clarendon Street, I was pleased to see that it was readily accessible via tram from home.

Located in a residential pocket of East Melbourne that is situated nearby to several private hospitals within the area, walking the short distance from the tram stop in Victoria Parade towards my intended address, it became apparent that it made smart business sense to establish a brand new eatery in this part of the city. The square and compass is widely recognised as the symbol of the Freemasons who also operate some of those same hospitals so the name of the café is a clever reference. Arriving at Clarendon Street, my heart almost sank … unfortunately for me, I think everyone else in Melbourne read the article too with a long queue of people waiting outside for a table to become available. I guess if you print it, they will come.

Square and Compass has a beautiful red-brick heritage frontage which contrasts the very modern interior fit-out with clean lines and soft pink accents once you set foot inside the front door. I confidently walked inside and stood by the counter for a few minutes to be able to put my name down on the list, but with every conceivable dining space fully occupied, I knew I was going to be in for a little bit of a wait before being seated.

So far I have been extremely fortunate in not having to wait for lengthy periods of time at most of the venues that I have been to so I’m not an expert in what constitutes a good or bad queue. My total wait time was fifteen minutes and I think that was partially due to the fact that I was a solo diner and made it a little easier for me to move up the list. Thankfully the sun was out and sitting outside to wait wasn’t too much of a hardship however I think there were a couple of groups who had been waiting for almost an hour for a table and their displeasure was becoming noticeable.

Just when I thought that I had been forgotten, my name was called and I was able to secure a place on the communal table towards the back of the internal dining area. I had no idea that there was also an outdoor section at the rear of the building which I could spy on through the floor to ceiling windows, looking just as comfortable and cosy as the inside although probably much quieter as the cacophony in the dining area from the volume of patrons packed inside was quite loud.

Flicking through the menu, there is a lot of variety to choose from including an impressive selection of ancient grains and super foods to enhance the average breakfast dish but it’s been a while since I indulged in something sweet so I ordered the Waffles, strawberry and rhubarb compote, vanilla crème, brandy snaps.

Waffles, strawberry and rhubarb compote, vanilla crème, brandy snaps - Square and Compass, East Melbourne
Waffles, strawberry and rhubarb compote, vanilla crème, brandy snaps – Square and Compass, East Melbourne

Understandably, there was a little bit of a wait on breakfast but surprisingly the food was served just before the coffee, despite ordering it when I was seated. The coffee was beautifully presented in a porcelain mug but the only thing hot about my coffee was the vessel in which it was served in, otherwise it was cool to drink and unremarkable.

There was a sense of déjà vu when the waffles arrived as they looked very similar to what I had ordered at Touchwood six months ago and then I realised that the two cafés have common ownership interests. The dish looked spectacular and drew lots of interest from fellow diners but the waffles were cold and rubbery and quite difficult to cut into smaller portions. The compote was nice as was the vanilla crème, fresh fruit and edible flowers but the hit for me was the brandy snaps to enhance the contribution in the flavour and texture stakes.

Kudos to the person on the door who kept his cheery disposition and capably managed the throng of people trying to get in through the doors. He was the only person willing to stop and take my order after hastily setting a place at the communal table for the arrival of another customer, otherwise I might still be sitting there waiting. There seemed to be a few staff running around to deposit meals and coffees from the kitchen with German efficiency but no one else in my section of the café who wanted to engage with general public.

To be honest, my experience at Square and Compass was okay … and only just okay. There have been some fantastic places that I have discovered over the last twelve months who have evolved without the same fanfare and media publicity and which I very much look forward returning to, but as for me Square and Compass haven’t made this list.

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