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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Seven:am, Port Melbourne

Twelve months ago to the day, I moved into the Southbank area and one of the things I was things I was really looking forward to, was discovering all the wonderful places to eat in the nearby Port Melbourne area. So fast forward 365 days and although I have got as far as asking friends who live there where I should go for breakfast, I have dismally failed to follow through on my own culinary targets and actually get there.

Thinking that it was high time that I needed to rectify the situation, I looked up the location of one of the recommendations, Seven:am café to plan my journey but with the temperature registering a mere seven degrees mid-morning, I wasn’t sure if going out for breakfast was such a great idea after all.

Rugged up with scarf, coat and gloves and happily situated on the No. 109 tram to Port Melbourne, I rediscovered both my enthusiasm and appetite again, secretly glad that I didn’t give into the temptation to stay and eat at home instead. Seven:am is located in Bay Street, not far from the corner of Graham Street so finding the café wasn’t difficult and extremely accessible by public transport, driving home the fact that I really should have taken this journey sooner. Proudly emblazoned across the front window “Winner – Best Breakfast Restaurant in the 2011 Restaurant & Catering ‘Awards for Excellence'”, Seven:am was definitely a cosy, warm and inviting place to be.

As soon as I walked in, I was greeted at the door with a beautiful, friendly smile and the ambient noise of people enjoying themselves and the clatter of cutlery. The place was busy and there was not a vacant seat to be had, for which the waitress was profusely apologising to me for (?!) but apart from thinking that it was my fault for not getting out of my warm bed sooner, I was more than happy to wait for a table to become available … and yet only two minutes later I was actually seated at my own table with a menu and raring to go.

The menu, which still had “Summer 14/15” in the header, looked a little pre-loved although full of fantastic descriptions of popular brunch options. My eyes did spy my all-time favourite dish being Ricotta Cakes (complete with boysenberry ice-cream) but needless to say, I was in the mood for something a little more heart-warming and so I chose the Kessler Bacon with poached eggs, spinach, beans and sourdough dish instead.

There is so much going on visually with the interior of the café that my eyes were continually drawn to different sections of the walls and ceilings to absorb it all in. The most striking element is the pegboard feature wall with a myriad of glass jars all filled with artificial plants, and nicely decorated along a series of shelves. Above me were a couple of mobile cotton clouds suspended from the ceiling, where coloured wool had been used to create a simple but creative mural of sunshine rays and blue skies. Collages of black and white photos, framed pictures and other memorabilia covered the adjoining brick walls to emphasise the warm feeling of familiarity and the comforts of home.

And to keep adding to the feelings of warmth and comfort, the arrival of my super-sized skinny latte which was deliciously hot and creamy, brought my cold fingers back to life and went down like a treat.

Kessler Bacon with poached eggs, spinach, beans and sourdough - Seven:am, Port Melbourne
Kessler Bacon with poached eggs, spinach, beans and sourdough – Seven:am, Port Melbourne

There was a little bit of a wait on breakfast but which was long forgotten once it was placed on the table as my dish was everything that I wanted it to be. With steam wafting above the eggs and beans, I knew that I was in for a nice warm, comforting dish. The thick-cut bacon was tender, juicy and just superb. While the spinach and eggs were also delicious, the real surprise in the flavour stakes was the Middle Eastern take on the homemade baked beans which had been beautifully spiced with either cumin or ras el hanout and cooked with onion and red capsicum.

With no particular place to be, I happily ordered a smaller coffee when it was suggested to me by my lovely waitress and felt content to watch the good people of North Melbourne go about their Saturday morning activities along Bay Street. Surrounded in warmth and having enjoyed my indulgence in good food and great service, I decided that seven was indeed my favourite number.

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Magic Mountain Saloon, Melbourne

Saturday is always a day of anticipation. As much as I love heading off to discover great places to eat, the first order of business on the weekend is to make my own latte and crawl back into bed to read Saturday’s edition of The Age on my iPad. One of favourite segments is Kylie Northover’s write up of Melbourne’s best brekkies and what’s new on the burgeoning café scene. Lying in the comfort and warmth of my bed, I started to read about Magic Mountain Saloon and it’s “out there” breakfast menu, which is essentially a mash up of Anglo and Thai flavours. I didn’t have to read very far to be sold on the idea of experiencing my own weekend breakfast there, as the article had a very enticing picture of the Chicken and Kaffir Lime Scotched Eggs, Pork Ribs and Tamarind breakfast dish.

This end of Little Collins Street is rather quiet on a Saturday morning and I started to wonder if I had the correct address before noticing the fluorescent symbols illuminating the windows and doorway to let me know that I had reached my destination. The good thing is that there were no queues and once I walked inside, I really did have my pick of tables. The sole waiter on duty showed me to a table and banquette by the window but as luck would have it, that table was in desperate need of a clean. Once the situation had been rectified, I had a menu to peruse and my coffee was taken, although I wasn’t sure where the orders were going to as there wasn’t a lot of activity happening behind the counter where the coffee machine was located.

Magic Mountain Saloon really does feel like … well, a saloon. With dark interiors and dim lighting, the large bar area which takes centre stage, has been fashioned with a marble top and wooden decorative scrollwork overhead and obviously great pains have been taken to ensure that it looks like one of those bars featured in Hollywood’s version of the Wild West. For a breakfast venue, it felt somewhat cold and impersonal. I had the feeling as though I had walked into a bar still recovering from a big one the night before and I was sitting in the aftermath, so maybe there is no intended magic to be had in the ambience stakes – it simply is what it is – a bar that’s also open for breakfast.

The menu, aptly named “Breakfast on the Mountain” is quite comprehensive, with quite a few dishes to choose from, although helpfully categorised into distinct sections to make selections somewhat easier. It’s definitely Asian-inspired cuisine, but not as you or I would know it – picture pork belly rather than bacon or daikon as a substitute for potato in the humble hash brown and Morning Glory instead of baby spinach. Besides the eclectic morning food menu, there is also a substantial “Morning Sunshine” cocktail list and a range of non-alcoholic drinks. I prefer hot drinks in the cooler months but I was starting to mentally picture myself wandering to Magic Mountain Saloon in late Spring for breakfast and an iced beverage or two.

My Mum used to make scotched eggs when I was a little and whilst it always looked and tasted delicious, I can’t imagine it would have been easy to make. Being a dish that I would never make at home, I thought that the Chicken and Kaffir Lime Scotched Eggs, Pork Ribs and Tamarind would be a great start to the day. When I gave my breakfast order, my waiter asked me how much heat I could tolerate and at that hour of the day, I admitted that I preferred my spice intake to be on the mild side. The sage advice given to me was to choose another dish so off the cuff I went with the Ocean Trout and Ginger Scrambled Eggs and got the nod of approval from my waiter. Phew!

Ocean Trout and Ginger Scrambled Eggs - Magic Mountain Saloon, Melbourne
Ocean Trout and Ginger Scrambled Eggs – Magic Mountain Saloon, Melbourne

While breakfast was cooking, my coffee order arrived but unfortunately the café latte wasn’t that exceptional (or even hot) making me think that I really should have taken the time to digest the cocktail list. Thankfully I didn’t wait all that long for my breakfast to arrive and despite the last minute change in decision, I think I definitely made the right one. Succulent pieces of pan-seared ocean trout, mixed with a savoury interpretation of wok-tossed scrambled eggs, fresh sprigs of coriander, served on top of thickly sliced toast was just what I wanted and it was all mine. The flavour in the scrambled eggs was delicious but hard to define – I couldn’t overtly detect the presence of ginger on my palate because of the inclusion of spring onion and onion in the egg mixture – but it was silky smooth in texture and the Asian flavours were mouth-watering. I loved the chunky morsels of ocean trout which were beautifully cooked but the toast was so soft and light in texture, it was just perfect for absorbing the strong combination of flavours on the dish. It was quite an amazing breakfast and well recommended.

As the morning progressed, the dining room got a lot busier and the poor lone waiter started to be run off his feet so it was time to “get the hell out of Dodge” as they say in a famous Western. Magic Mountain Saloon offers something magical in its interpretation of breakfast fare and I know I need to come back soon to have a crack at the scotched eggs, even if I have to wash it down with a few slugs of whiskey to counteract the heat factor.

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