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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Touchwood, Richmond

The last Saturday in September is considered in Victoria to be one of the most sacred days of the calendar year. Like many people, I had AFL Grand Final social obligations to attend in the afternoon however mine were located on the other side of Richmond, away from the MCG. I caught up with a friend during the week who lives in that location and happened to mention what my weekend plans were and that I was hoping to have breakfast in Richmond beforehand. Her immediate response was “Have you been to Touchwood?”.

I looked up Touchwood on the internet and decided that was where I was heading to for breakfast. Making my way there on the tram and navigating through large crowds of Hawks and Swans supporters, it suddenly occurred to me that having breakfast in Richmond on Grand Final day was probably not a wise decision and that I might be in for a long wait. When I got to Touchwood, there was a lengthy queue of people waiting outside, however luck was on my side and I was seated at a bench seat along the front window as soon as I walked in, with a fantastic view of the comings and goings of Bridge Road to divert my attention.

The café is right on trend with a neutral industrial interior – wooden bench tops with a black steel finish, a combination of exposed timber and metal beams, filament pendant lighting, and brick walls covered in stark white paint.

The seasonal menu is exciting with lots of different breakfast dishes to choose from – sticky coconut quinoa pudding; Dr Martys Crumpets with smashed banana, toasted hazelnuts and fresh honeycomb; Nasi Goreng; a Morning Grain Salad; two wicked versions of Avocado toast accompanied by a variety of fresh ingredients and the description of Touchwood Massive was absolutely mouth-watering but could easily sustain someone for at least 24 hours. I hardly ever see waffles on a menu and feeling that I was long overdue for something sweet, I ordered the “Banana and blueberry wholemeal waffles, organic maple syrup, vanilla crème fraiche and strawberry dust”.

My skinny latte when it arrived was probably one of the best coffees I’ve had for a long while. Made from a special blend of beans roasted by Five Senses, it was deliciously hot, sweet and creamy to taste. From the first sip, I mentally made plans to order my next cup as soon as I could and then my breakfast appeared before me.

Banana and blueberry wholemeal waffles, organic maple syrup, vanilla creme fraiche and strawberry dust - Touchwood, Richmond
Banana and blueberry wholemeal waffles, organic maple syrup, vanilla creme fraiche and strawberry dust – Touchwood, Richmond

With the sun streaming through the front windows, all the beautiful, harmonious colours on the plate seemed to be more vibrant and spectacular to the eye. The waffles were easy to tackle and delicious with the fresh fruit. Little pools of maple syrup kept the waffles soft and sweet however the dominant feature on the plate was the large quenelle of crème fraiche. A little dollop here and there went a long way. I must admit I was a little sceptical about the inclusion of wholemeal flour in the batter but couldn’t detect a hint of it on my palate. The few sprigs of lemon balm on the plate added a few little extra bursts of flavour and is undoubtedly my favourite herb of the moment. The waffles filled me up considerably and I couldn’t possibly finish off the crème fraiche and expect to indulge in the afternoon’s festivities.

The service is great and despite the rapid turnover and succession of clientele, you are made to feel welcome and no request is too much trouble. With amazing coffee and beautiful food, I hope I get the opportunity to go back there before next year’s AFL Grand Final.

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