Café Gaia, South Yarra

Having lived in South Yarra for two years, I thought I knew of and had visited every café in the immediate area. Yet when I went looking for a place to have breakfast along Toorak Road, by happenstance I discovered nestled barely twenty metres back from the busy street corner, a lush green canopy of trees which had been protecting one of the suburb’s best kept culinary secrets from my line of sight.

The café has a unique charm and ambience that reminded me of a small wooden cabin or cubby house with a covered verandah, large open windows and quiet cosy nooks to hide yourself away from the busyness of the world close by.

The morning was unseasonably warm allowing me to retreat outside on the deck and enjoy the serenity. Although the café is extremely popular (it appears that I must be the only person in the area who wasn’t aware of its existence), the service is readily attentive and quick to ensure that your coffee order is taken and on its way. The all-day brunch menu is not overly exhaustive with only several signature dishes to focus your attention. The dish that immediately caught my eye, and to be fair probably because it was the only sweet option on the menu, was the exotic sounding Dr Marty’s Crumpets with citrus curd, aerated rhubarb mascarpone, toasted macadamia and sesame.

Dr Marty's Crumpets with citrus curd, aerated rhubarb mascarpone, toasted macadamia and sesame - Cafe Gaia, South Yarra
Dr Marty’s Crumpets with citrus curd, aerated rhubarb mascarpone, toasted macadamia and sesame – Cafe Gaia, South Yarra

If I could describe autumn on a plate, this dish would be it. The spectacular arrangement of colours, flavours and textures on the matt black plate was beautiful to behold and resembled my favourite season. My eyes were immediately drawn to the dollops of lemon curd perfectly curated on the plate and the pillows of whipped mascarpone placed beneath the crumpets.

The crumpets were deliciously moist and dense – enough to absorb all the elements on the plate. Whilst the poached rhubarb was sharp on the palate, the strawberries in comparison were sweet to taste and balanced the tart flavour of the lemon curd. The hero of the dish was the rhubarb mascarpone with the consistency of a dessert mousse and therefore a rare treat for breakfast.

Working my way through breakfast, there were morsels of macadamia and pistachio nuts and a smattering of sesame seeds interspersed beneath the crumpets to provide another textural element to the mix.

I love finding hidden treasures, especially ones with outstanding food and service and thankfully Café Gaia is no longer obscured from my view.

Cafe Gaia on Urbanspoon

Urban Provedore, South Yarra

Some Saturday mornings you have all the time in the world, and yet others are chock full of appointments, shopping, social, family or sporting obligations and running errands. Ever since I started my working life all those years ago, my guilty pleasure has been to head to a café and treat myself to a cooked breakfast to unwind from the pressures of the week. This Saturday, I had an appointment at 10am in South Yarra but habits are hard to break and I still wanted to indulge in my breakfast ritual. With time and location playing the critical factors in my choice, I decided to have breakfast at “Urban Provedore” in Toorak Road.

Now for the confession. I had breakfast at Urban Provedore around four months ago and I was less than impressed. Newly opened, I think that everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Poor service, ordinary food and even the cash register didn’t want to be there. Yet in the passage of time, I had my fingers crossed that it was just teething problems and that things may have improved.

Urban Provedore is located on the ground floor beneath a new apartment complex, 50 metres from Chapel Street. The sleek fit out is inviting with warm timber tones, industrial accents and a feature wall showcasing a range of condiments and dry foods for sale. Walking in at 9am with that sense of déjà vu, I found a small table with fantastic views of the streetscape along Toorak Road, grabbed a newspaper, sat down and I waited.

After five or so minutes, I had an awkward exchange with someone who was grabbing menus and water for another table that had just been seated nearby and somehow managed to convey that I also wanted to order a coffee and see a menu, if it wasn’t too much trouble. From that moment on, things markedly improved.

The menu hasn’t changed since my last visit and is relatively simple and classic in its breakfast options, although a tad on the expensive side. Being due for something savoury and egg-centric, I choose the “Gin and dill cured ocean trout with creamy goats cheese and dill scrambled eggs, beetroot relish and toasted rye”.

Gin and dill cured ocean trout with creamy goats cheese and dill scrambled eggs, beetroot relish on toasted rye - Urban Provedore, South Yarra
Gin and dill cured ocean trout with creamy goats cheese and dill scrambled eggs, beetroot relish on toasted rye – Urban Provedore, South Yarra

Within ten minutes of ordering, breakfast arrived and I couldn’t believe the sheer size of the dish before me. Two large slices of toasted rye bread, placed side by side, formed the base of the dish. On top of the bread, several slices of cured ocean trout, a mountain of moist scrambled eggs, finished with a dollop of sweet beetroot relish and micro coriander leaves.

My friends and family are not at all surprised that I would order alcohol-infused fish for breakfast, although I couldn’t really detect any residual flavour from the gin within the fillets of the ocean trout. But needless to say, it was not too thickly sliced and really delicious.

Ever since my trip to Turkey earlier this year, I’ve developed a deep infinity for fresh dill and was overjoyed to see this herb generously used in the scrambled egg mixture. At the base of the pile of eggs, there were large portions of goats cheese with its creamy texture and rich, salty flavour lifting my taste buds to a whole new level. My breakfast was certainly plentiful and it well and truly eclipsed my previous dining experience.

The service is still somewhat variable at Urban Provedore, with some staff more attentive and friendly than others. After the menu fiasco, someone else approached my table and asked if I wanted another coffee. I enthusiastically said yes and then gave my coffee order. They started to write down my request, then hesitated and then asked me “Sorry, did you just say you’ve already ordered another coffee?” Ah no, but then again I’ve just ingested an unknown quantity of gin, so perhaps I did.

Within 45 minutes, I had enjoyed a substantial breakfast, two cups of coffee, read the paper, paid the bill and was ready to head towards my morning appointment down the road. I am extremely glad that I had decided to give Urban Provedore a second chance.

Urban Provedore on Urbanspoon

Jardin Tan, South Yarra

I’ve just booked my next culinary adventure to Vietnam in November and in anticipation of my upcoming trip, I now find myself totally obsessed with Vietnamese cuisine, recipes and restaurants. I had recently read that Shannon Bennett had taken occupancy of what was previously known as the Observatory Café at the Royal Botanic Gardens, and that his new establishment had a French-Vietnamese inspired menu which in turn determined my destination for breakfast.

Despite the threat of a potential rain shower, it felt exhilarating to put my walking shoes on and head for a long walk towards the Tan track. For half an hour, I lost myself in the intermittent sunshine and the first blush of spring decorating the trees along St Kilda road. With a sense of trepidation I walked up the footpath towards the Shrine towards Jardin Tan. I was thoroughly prepared for long queues, irritable toddlers and a sea of lycra, yet as soon as I reached the entrance I was cordially greeted by the maître d, asked where I preferred to sit and then casually escorted out towards the back of the restaurant, to a small decked area which overlooked the vegetable garden.

In truth, it felt like I had started my holiday already as I sat down on the turquoise timber deck chair and gazed out over the garden, enjoying the tranquillity and sounds of nature, far away from the din of the city and the people dining inside. The colourful paintings on the wall, the collection of condiments and oriental crockery on the table were telling my mind that I was now in south east Asia rather than downtown Melbourne.

As soon as I sat down, the service was very pleasant and attentive with my coffee order taken, water poured and a vibrant breakfast menu to peruse. Breakfast caters for health-conscious with offerings of coconut porridge, granola and Bircher muesli as well as more substantial dishes, with the traditional elements given a distinct Vietnamese flavour. I’ve seen some beautiful pictures of the banh xeo (crispy pancake with pork and shrimp) on social media but I was intrigued about the Vietnamese fried eggs, pulled pork, nuoc mam cham when I saw it on the menu. 

Vietnamese fried eggs, pulled pork, nuoc mam cham - Jardin Tan, South Yarra
Vietnamese fried eggs, pulled pork, nuoc mam cham – Jardin Tan, South Yarra

I didn’t wait too long before my breakfast arrived. The first mouthful of pork, fried egg with the nuoc mam cham sauce was beyond description, other than it was simply devine. The photo probably doesn’t do the pulled pork justice, but while it looks dry, it was actually extremely moist with a lot of flavour. I usually don’t enjoy runny eggs but the accompanying sweet, sour, salty and spicy Vietnamese dipping sauce was absolutely delicious. I’m in danger of making a batch at home and drizzling it over everything I make for the next week.

The eggs were served on top of a banh mi baguette, which looked appetising until I started to chew on it and found it to be dry, tasteless and incredibly difficult to eat. At this point, I decided another cup of coffee would be the ticket. However as the café started to fill up, it was a little tricky trying to catch someone’s attention and request another coffee, short of going to the counter and pouring one myself.

The walk to the cash register was a feast for the eyes and senses with bountiful salads, cakes and drinks on display on the counter. What was a little less attractive was the price paid for two barely cooked eggs, a rock-hard baguette and two coffees which amounted to the grand total of $27. My morning of escapism was a lot cheaper than a trip to Vietnam, but you still need to make sure that you have brought plenty of spending money with you on the journey.

Jardin Tan on Urbanspoon

The Meeting Place Cafe, South Yarra

It’s a very rare occurrence when I visit a café for a second visit, however necessity sometimes dictates location. My gorgeous hair stylist is located in a small arcade in South Yarra, adjacent to The Meeting Place café, so in order to get to my early Saturday morning appointment, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and enjoy a quick breakfast there beforehand.

The courtyard area was occupied when I arrived 45 minutes before my scheduled appointment so I wandered inside and found a small table in a corner by the window with a view of the arcade. The owner was happy to see my return and promptly brought over the menu and a bottle of water, but in his excitement forgot to ask if I wanted a coffee, and at that time of the morning, I was really looking forward to one.

The menu has changed since my last visit in June; there are new dishes and the spelling mistakes are no longer the main attraction. Taking a look over the menu, I was happy to see that the Nutella and banana pancakes were still available, which was just what I felt like I needed to get me through the day. After a small wait, I ordered the pancakes and a large, hot skinny latte and settled in to read the newspaper.

My much-needed coffee arrived shortly thereafter, slightly on the strong side but very much appreciated. With the sun streaming through the large front windows, steadily sipping my coffee and reading the news of the day, I was enjoying my time out before realising that the clock was ticking and that I had an appointment that I wanted to honour. Before I knew it, half an hour had past, I had finished reading and my breakfast was yet to appear despite being due to be elsewhere in less than ten minutes. As soon as I sent a text message to warn my hairdresser that I could be late, the most perfect pancakes I have ever seen were placed in front of me.

Nutella and banana pancakes - roasted hazlenuts, strawberries served with vanilla custard - The Meeting Place, South Yarra
Nutella and banana pancakes – roasted hazlenuts, strawberries served with vanilla custard – The Meeting Place, South Yarra

Accompanied by a small jug of thin vanilla custard, the presentation of the dish was excellent: two perfectly formed, symmetrical pancakes stacked together, drizzled with maple syrup and chunks of hazlenuts, garnished with a strawberry that had been halved and fixed to the pancake with a dollop of nutella and a sprig of mint. Crispy on the edges, the pancakes had a moist and fluffy texture – not dry or doughy but cooked just right. The middle layer of the pancake stack consisted of nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread, topped with thin slices of fresh banana and sweet strawberries. It was so delicious and obviously formed with some care, that I forgot about the length of time it took to prepare and settled in and enjoyed my breakfast with gusto.

Nutella and banana pancakes - roasted hazlenuts, strawberries served with vanilla custard - The Meeting Place, South Yarra
Nutella and banana pancakes – roasted hazlenuts, strawberries served with vanilla custard – The Meeting Place, South Yarra

As luck would have it, my hairdresser arrived fifteen minutes after my scheduled appointment so in the end, the timing turned out to be spot on. I guess slow and steady wins the race.

The Meeting Place Cafe on Urbanspoon

Einstein’s Relative, South Yarra

The first breakfast I had when I moved into the South Yarra area was in a café located in the Yarra Lane precinct, adjacent to the train station called Outpost Café. Let’s just say that after that dining experience, I avoided the place altogether and didn’t look in that general direction when I walked to the train station every morning.

Recently, I noticed that there had been a lot of activity in that area during the morning and weekend periods, with people dining inside the café, and spilling over onto the chairs and tables set up in the laneway. Curiosity got the better of me and I thought that I should go and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

The majority of the space is occupied with the open kitchen, with bench space for dining along the perimeter of the café. The exterior walls are made from floor-to-ceiling glass which makes the relatively small space feel open and filled with natural light. Interspersed throughout the café along the benchtops are a series of recent bestselling cookbooks. I devoured the mouth-watering dishes in Ottolenghi’s “Plenty” whilst simultaneously enjoying my breakfast. Small, glass beakers filled with God-knows-what on the tables, together with colourful caricatures of Albert Einstein and friends displayed along the front counter, pay homage to the great scientist and café’s namesake.

The coffee has a sharp, distinctive flavour that is a little too bitter for my palate but nonetheless beautifully presented in one of the café’s trademark stylish emerald-green coffee cups.

The menu is not extensive but has a combination of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences, in conjunction with exotic sounding offerings incorporating organic superfoods such as the Acai Wake Up Bowl and Quinoa Porridge. I have a deep love of haloumi so I was instantly drawn to the Haloumi Bruschetta with seeded sourdough toast, diced haloumi, avocado, radish, tomato medley and a tangy yoghurt dressing.

Haloumi Bruschetta: Seeded sourdough toast with diced haloumi, avocado, radish, tomato medley and a tangy yoghurt dressing - Einstein's Relative, South Yarra
Haloumi Bruschetta: Seeded sourdough toast with diced haloumi, avocado, radish, tomato medley and a tangy yoghurt dressing – Einstein’s Relative, South Yarra

The first thing that struck me about my breakfast was the amazing array of colours. From the vibrant red and yellow displayed in the cherry tomatoes, to the golden brown grilled haloumi, complete with touches of green in the mashed avocado and hints of purple from the micro herb garnish. It was a feast for the eyes as well as for the stomach.

The haloumi cheese, with a crispy outer layer and soft centre was delicious, even more so when covered with the silky smooth yet spicy yoghurt sauce. The medley of thinly sliced radish, tomatoes and herbs were fresh and tasty and a perfect foil for the spice in the dish. With a little more added spice thrown in for good measure, the mashed avocado was also plentiful and helped to ensure that all the combined textures and flavours worked in harmony with each other. The sourdough bread was also great but with all the moisture from the avocado and dressing, it didn’t resemble toast for too long.

It seems a little strange but poignant that my last breakfast as a resident of South Yarra should be in the exact same location as the first one, but at least I can say with absolute certainty that this breakfast experience was thoroughly enjoyable!

Einstein's Relative on Urbanspoon

The Meeting Place Cafe, South Yarra

My friends like to have a little dig at my inclination to gravitate towards sweeter the breakfast options than the savoury variety. One friend even commented that I was only allowed to have French toast for breakfast if it was served with Gallic bacon, which seemed like a tall order at the time, until I discovered The Meeting Place Café.

Nestled towards the back of a small arcade off Toorak Road in South Yarra, this café has a distinct European ambience with a row of French bistro-style chairs and tables outside the entrance and a large ornate garden urn. It would be easy to imagine that you had been instantly transported to a village in France, rather than in inner city Melbourne.

Beneath the warmth of the outdoor heaters and market umbrellas, I had a fantastic view of the comings and goings of the arcade in both directions and was treated to an impromptu Thai cooking class from Marion Grasby showing on the TV screen directly in front of me, inside the café.

The coffee is made with roasted beans from Sensory Lab; sweet, creamy and subtle flavours of chocolate in the blend.

The all-day breakfast menu is eclectic with a variety of traditional dishes but with some interesting inclusions. Having found a café that served a style of French toast that met my friend’s brief, I felt that I had license to order the French toast with cinamon poached pears, crispy bacon and maple syrup (sic).

I’m someone who usually cannot tolerate poor spelling. The menu, temporary signage and the blackboard specials at the café have quite a few spelling errors which would normally make me cringe. But with further reflection, the service at The Meeting Place is extremely friendly and attentive with a customer focus, and the chefs appear to be putting their heart and soul in creating delicious food rather than directing their efforts elsewhere, so with that in mind I continued to enjoy the European odyssey and overlook the obvious.

French Toast with cinnamon poached pears, crispy bacon and maple syrup - The Meeting Place Cafe, South Yarra
French Toast with cinnamon poached pears, crispy bacon and maple syrup – The Meeting Place Cafe, South Yarra

When my French toast arrived, the presentation of the dish was spectacular. Two thick slices of battered bread, wedges of poached pear, fresh strawberries, a rasher of bacon decoratively wrapped around a quenelle of cream, decorated with a fresh sprig of mint and artfully drizzled dollops of maple syrup, and a fine layer of cinnamon dusting over the top.

There were a few unexpected taste elements in the dish, both good and not so good. While the toast was served hot off the grill, the poached pears appeared to come straight from the fridge so the extreme difference in temperature came as a complete surprise when pairing the two together, but only for the first mouthful. The French toast was well cooked and delectable especially when mixed with the maple syrup and cinnamon. The bacon was also delicious, not overly crisp, and went well with the bread and the sweeter options on the plate. I was expecting the cream on top of the French toast to be mascarpone or crème fraiche, which would have been unobtrusive in terms of flavour, but discovered it was actually sour cream. Quelle horreur! Sour cream unfortunately has a distinctive flavour and the taste was overbearing which didn’t pair well with the other sweet and savoury flavours and textures. Aside from this, my breakfast was substantive and enjoyable.

The next time I need a budget-friendly European escape for breakfast, I have my eyes set on the Nutella & banana pancakes with roasted hazlenuts, strawberries served with vanilla custurd (sic).

The Meeting Place Cafe on Urbanspoon

Townhouse, Toorak

Last year, I thought I would try and discover new breakfast destinations, courtesy of the Number 8 city bound tram. Whilst I was eager to visit all the cafés en route from the Domain Interchange through to Brunswick and Coburg, I also wondered what I would discover if I took a trip in the opposite direction. Its been almost a year to the day since I had walked up to Toorak village, and seeing as my days of living in the South Yarra area are almost coming to an end, I decided to catch the tram and see what new culinary adventure awaited.

A beautiful, sunny morning, it wasn’t long before I could see occupied chairs and tables outside on the footpath, and found an open and inviting café called “Townhouse”. The interior was stylish with touches of Scandinavian influence with clean wooden floors, chairs and tables, with an inviting dark grey, linen upholstered banquette seat opposite the coffee machine. I was captivated by the designer lighting over the counter area and secretly wished I had something similar in my pad.

I don’t represent myself as a coffee connoisseur, but I was in heaven upon first sip of my skinny latte. Without doubt, the best cup of coffee I have tasted in a long while, and you know that you are in the right place when you look up and see George Calombaris also enjoying breakfast there.

The menu had the usual offerings of fruit toast, muesli, porridge, various bacon and egg combinations with accompaniments, smoked salmon with avocado and eggs, omelette and pancakes. I was intrigued by the description of the pancakes which sounded slightly healthy: Rye, Chia Seed and Blueberry pancakes with vanilla mouse and maple syrup. I can recall my Mum making a buckwheat version when I was a young girl and its taken years to blot out the memory of their terrible taste. Yeuch! Whilst I was a little apprehensive about the inclusion of rye and chia seeds, I was willing to try something new.

Although I had a case of food envy when a plate of Smoked Salmon on Dark Rye with poached eggs, avocado and preserved lemon hollandaise arrived at the table next to mine. The presentation was fabulous and I almost wished that was what I had ordered, and then my breakfast arrived. Also beautifully presented, with four pikelet sized pancakes and dollops of vanilla mousse artfully arranged on the plate. The mousse was extremely fluffy with faint hints of vanilla bean, slightly sweetened by the juice from the blueberries but had more of a foam-like consistency. The pancakes were moist and generously filled with blueberries and drizzled with maple syrup. I couldn’t detect any obvious taste of rye or chia seeds but the pancakes were extremely light and delicious.

Rye, Chia Seed and Blueberry pancakes with vanilla mousse and maple syrup - Townhouse, Toorak
Rye, Chia Seed and Blueberry pancakes with vanilla mousse and maple syrup – Townhouse, Toorak

The service at Townhouse is efficient, perfunctory and unobtrusive but dare I say it, there is a lack of genuine personal interaction. My coffee order was taken within thirty seconds of being seated; my plate silently whisked away as soon as I had finished and my empty coffee glass also wordlessly taken. I really wanted another skinny latte after having enjoyed my first cup, and the usual “Would you like another coffee?” wasn’t forthcoming. Before I could request one, the waitress had sped off. As there was nothing on my table, service staff had no reason to come near me, so my only recourse was sit and stare around the café until I gained someone’s attention. My payment at the cash register was similarly conducted with robotic precision and I walked out with the feeling that I was another transaction rather than a customer.

Aside from that, Townhouse is a lovely café with delicious food and I hope that it doesn’t take another year to wander up to Toorak village and enjoy breakfast there again.

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