Return to Rathdowne
I remember very clearly from London a feeling one got when you entered a particular area, say London Fields in Hackney or Church Street in Stoke Newington. It was as if you had left the bustling streets of the city behind and entered into what could be described as reminiscent of village life. The mood changed. One felt encased by the vibe and the atmosphere, protected almost. It provided for oneself a retreat, which as often happens in a busy city, can be very welcomed.
As I spend more days here in Melbourne, I have come to discover that Melbourne too has its little pockets. And today I returned to one in particular, one that exemplifies the feeling of village life very acutely: Rathdowne Street. This particular place happens to hold some strong memories of my childhood, as my family and I lived right by it for about 2 years from my age of eight. Funnily enough however the entire place has managed to escape my memory until just now when my drive home from uni brought me past it. It was lunch time, very conveniently, so I decided to stop and take a closer look.
Rathdowne Street has all the amenities you would expect from a village – cafes, butcher, organic fruiterer, pharmacy, library. But it also inherits that quaint mood from the leafy streets and the child-friendly park in the centre. Being on the backdoor of Lygon Street there is also a hint of the Italian influence in the choice of cuisines, and I am pleased to see that the old La Porchetta where I spent many evenings as a child eating margarita pizza and sipping granitas is still standing.
As I walk up and down I notice how serene the place feels. Things somehow feel slower. And this is not due to a lack of custom – the place is full of life. It is something in the air one could say. The bell of a nearby school rings out as I wander a little further, and by the time it ceases I settle on a place to eat. It is a clean-cut patisserie come restaurant called the Depot de Pain.
I am a big fan of the bakery come cafe concept that offers its eye-appealing goods for purchase as well as an extended menu for those craving something more ‘sit-down’ or substantial. This place fits the bill with an extensive display of sweet and savoury pick-me-ups at the counter as well as a menu offering classic French dishes, such as croque monsieur, steak with frites and béarnaise, and Toulouse sausages. I decide to go for a croque monsieur, as I believe many French places can be judged by this typical snack. I am also feeling a little indulgent... there’s nothing like a fried sandwich to kick one into action!
The croque monsieur when it arrived, to be honest, didn’t look like much. But that impression changed when I got some into my mouth. The bread crunched softly under my teeth and the taste of butter oozed out with the ham and cheese. I felt instant satisfaction with each bite. It was accompanied by a simple green salad dressed nicely in a vinaigrette, so nothing on the plate has been ignored or neglected, and that was nice to see.
The simple interior of wooden tables and stools inside pale pine walls enhanced the colour of the food, and it seemed fitting that this should stand out as the main attraction. The service was smooth and jovial, and you could sense the positive approach of the owner’s endeavour. The only pity I felt for the staff was seeing the steep windy staircase that led down to the storeroom below. I too have had to deal with a windy staircase in a restaurant before, and they often catch one off guard!
The Depot de Pain sits quietly on a corner directly across from the park, so throughout my lunch I had full view of the autumn trees and leaves that have recently turned. There was much to watch as I sat and ate, and it was hard not to inherit that peaceful feeling one would achieve on a day like that in a smaller town.
It was certainly a nice way to pass the day. A good spot, a nice walk. Friendly vibes all round. Although the best deception that Rathdowne Street really achieved of not belonging to a big city, was that all the nearby parking was free. Who would have thought that was possible?
Books and Confused Cooks
For someone who loves food it is not hard to find influences everywhere. Just walk down a street in any built up area and darts of food get thrown your way – street-side table tops, bakery windows, customers of cafes walking with take-aways. It is certainly hard to keep food off the mind. I’ve even caught myself staring into passenger windows of stationary cars to get a glimpse of their snack. Obsessed? Quite possibly. But along with the passion also comes confusion. In the world of food that so lately seems to be becoming a Melbourne trend and fashionable topic of conversation, which particular area does a food lover focus on? The choice is certainly out there – Melbourne’s multicultural population ensures that every cuisine and taste can be sampled if you know where to look, and the familiar fusion trend also enables a stretching and experimenting with traditional foods and methods into something new. So in this sea of sweet and savoury vastness, where does one drop their anchor?
The more I cook the more I learn that it is not possible to be good at everything – like any skilled profession there are certain tasks that one holds strength in and others that can be done at a mediocre level. When it comes to cooking I think it is important to recognise or know one’s ‘genre’ and to become knowledgeable and talented in that area, just like a musician picks their style or sound for example and becomes associated with it. I find that I will probably at some point have to do the same and am wondering in which field I will find myself. Incidentally that question was not helped at all by my casual afternoon stroll that I took today...
Walking in the Collingwood vicinity I stumbled past Books for Cooks on Gertrude Street and decided to take a look inside. I wasn’t in a rush and had a bit of time on my hands so thought a little browse wouldn’t go astray (more of that influence thing you see). Walking in however and seeing the back to back shelves of spines made my initial approach more hesitant than anticipated. Here wasn’t your usual display of the predictable names: Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, The River Cottage – though they were certainly in there. This was a whole new display altogether. Logically there were sections in which books were grouped: French, Italian, Asian, certain chefs. But within those groups came something altogether overwhelming. There were shelves on just one subject, rows on one type of drink. I recall a group of books on schnapps, another few shelves on the perfect pie. There were endless examples of appetisers, grandmas recipes, garden cooking. It was impossible to even get a starting point. As I meandered inside the same question just kept entering my head: how on earth does one pick? Here was the perfect example of just how vast the culinary world is. And I was totally lost in it.
The most baffling thing about my confusion I suppose was that it was so obvious. Of course all these sections exist. Food has multiple layers and flavours, it makes total sense to have reading on meat, honey, icing. But it was seeing it like that – divided and ordered into endless categories that just got my head spinning. I suppose what it was was realising just how much to this food life there really is. The options certainly are endless, and it makes one already confused about what direction to go in even more indecisive. I guess like any new occupation things become more defined with growth, and I should allow for time to develop and narrow things down more organically. One could see this as a good thing – if I wanted to become a master in Chinese canapés for example I could do that. The possibility is definitely there. I guess the thing to do now is just wait and see where my taste buds take me, and feel confident that there is a place in this world for even the most peculiar passions.I left the store with mixed emotions. One was bewilderment and curiosity as to where this foodie life could lead, and I wondered as I walked what could possibly be in store for me down the track. The other feeling was one of hunger. All those books and pictures... at least the confusion wasn’t killing my appetite!
Go Green at the Refectory
The first thing that hits you is the cakes. No joke, I literally gasped a little when I saw them. Piles of pastries, cheesecake bases topped with thick creamy fillings, slices, muffins, sponges. It was a wall of flour products. And things only got better from there. Across from the cakes sprawled the home-made filos – pies, spinach and ricotta triangles, quiches, and then adjacent to that the most packed fridge of salads in plates, row upon row of goodness that practically spilled out of the bowls. Had I died and gone to food heaven? The blackboard above hinted at even more devour-inspiring meals: breakfast burritos, lamb cutlets, lentil burgers. If you had a craving – it would be satisfied here.
The setting is a beautiful old house with exposed brickwork and a mix match of wooden chairs and tables. Picture frames line the walls as do the cracks, and it is literally like a home-style haven for foodies. As you head out to the courtyard you cross the base of a windy staircase with its steps creeping up to the floor above, and further on one enters into little alcoves that could have been a salon or a lounge room. Out the back in the courtyard there are more rickety tables and scattered stools providing everyone with a place to sit. There is even an outhouse for a toilet - it doesn’t get more rustic than this.
It’s all on offer here. Extensive menu, a constant buzz of talkers and eaters, and a room or seat for whichever mood you’re in. The sugar sits on the table in a tea cup; this place just screams homemade. And the food that fills the bellies of those who enter is the truest sign of that. Rustic salads, huge cakes filled with cream, sandwiches that remind you of the ones your mum used to make. Sure some things are unrefined, but I get the impression that finesse is not the aim here. It is more along the lines of lots of food, lots of people – let’s feed the masses. It is considerably refreshing especially in a city where food snobbery and pedanticness can reign supreme and make one even with very good food skills feel barely adequate. And the lunch time rush just proves its popularity. Literally as I sit here on my first paragraph the stream of people just continues. A group leaves and more take their place. And yet despite the business it flows. There is no sense of a back-up here or a delay. The staff have obviously been trained with thorough systems to keep waiting to a minimum and service upbeat and speedy. On the board there is also a number for requests: you can phone up for cakes baked to order – only 2 hours needed before collection. Now if that isn’t efficiency I don’t know what is.
I settle in to a plate of various salads and a mushroom and parmesan pastry triangle. It is fresh and colourful but lacks seasoning. Still, it is nice to know I’m getting my five a day in just one sitting, and for an affordable price at the same time. As I eat my eyes constantly catch the array of things on offer at the counter by my side, it is very hard not to stare. At first you wonder if it could all possibly get eaten, but the constant orders suggests that a big amount of food is certainly consumed on these premises.It’s certainly hard to knock it: a steady clientele, an endless choice of tastes and flavours, and all completely affordable. The only resentment I have is that it isn’t on my side of town.
I love lazy afternoons. I love them even more when they are unexpected and god has somehow allowed you two hours in the day when you can do whatever it is that you would like to do. Today I have been fortunate enough to gain two spare hours in between class whilst a teacher sorts his life out. ‘Brilliant’ I thought – time for coffee. As two hours provides a whole 120 minutes to spend at my will, I decided not to venture to my local spot in Footscray for a caffeine hit but venture back into town. There’s this place that I’ve heard of, and have been told about, and as it sits right near the train station it is easy to make the quick journey to and from uni as needed. The place is called Kinfolk, and if the name itself doesn’t evoke a gentle, cheery and positive image then sitting in the building will. The high ceilings give space to the airy, bright, hippy-feeling venture that has graced the grotty end of Bourke Street with something cultural. Kinfolk sits just a few metres up from Southern Cross Station, making commuting here a breeze (for those of us who still use the public transport system) and it is nice to be enticed to an end of town not always noticed.
Inside it is hard not to be calmed and invited by the decor. Floor to ceiling windows open up the front of the venue, and collections of assorted knick-knacks decorate the fridges and tables. On the main wall is my favourite feature – a hand-painted tree stretching the entire length of the wall, adorned with boxes of birds on its branches. It’s really lovely.
Equally as lovely are the staff, who welcome you openly and genuinely, and I enjoy discussing the menu with one of the girls. The food looks fresh, appealing and colourful, and gives the impression that to consume it would be good for your soul. I have always been a fan of the communal table in cafes, and with five large wooden structures in the room this place offers each visitor a place at one.
Yet the real shining element of the place would have to be its philosophy. As I peruse the place I learn that Kinfolk is one of the latest projects by the group YGAP (y generation against poverty) and that proceeds from the cafe go to the development of their local and international projects. Volunteer activities are advertised on the wall and acknowledge that any skills are welcomed including accountants, architects and chefs. Produce is all ethically sourced enabling the customers as well as the creators to note that their contributions and consumptions are all of a good cause. It is certainly refreshing to dine at a place where money and profit has come from worldly awareness and intent to change rather than personal gain.As I finish up my coffee the sun sends a slither of sunlight onto my table and adds even more to the wholesome feel of this well thought-out and considerate spot. I am certainly glad to have used this window of opportunity and come to town on this afternoon. And if lazy afternoons are to be indulged in again in the future, this would certainly be a place to pick. Plus, they’re playing Fleetwood Mac. Who could argue with that.
Brunetti’s and I
I really admire institutions. How amazing that some people can start out with an idea, work at it, get it up and running, and then 25 years down the track be known as one of the finest examples in its industry and accredited with true craftsmanship of its kind. Without realising you become that name that everyone recognises as a master of your cuisine, and associates you with guaranteed satisfaction. I am a frequent visitor of such a place – one whose name is certainly recognised amongst other fellow Melbournian’s; and that is Brunetti’s in Carlton. Whilst I know it has extended its outlets to other locations around Melbourne, I still see the Carlton store as the original place to go to, and the best one of the lot too.
It isn’t a particularly traditional looking shop, but tradition is there none the less. It lies in the produce. I love that it is the products that are the stars of the show, and that nothing is being over caressed in order to sell. There is always an admiration in the display of the pastries, biscuits, cakes; with the impression that the only problem you might encounter in the store is picking your vice.
Sitting on the grass now in the Carlton Gardens I reach over to my nicely wrapped package and rip the sticker from the paper (what is it about unwrapping food that just entices the taste buds that little bit more?). I have chosen a slice of opera and a vanilla éclair. Both look awesome and I can’t decide which one to have first. It’s a tricky decision. But I am learning more and more that life is full of tricky decisions. I go for the opera. It is sticky but moist all at the same time and the layers crush softly between my teeth. The coffee cream spreads on my tongue and the sponge wedges behind my lip. Delicious. It’s naughty of me to type on my keyboard after indulging in chocolaty goods – but I think the keys have been this shade for a while now. Restraint and good behaviour does not often accompany me when it comes to dessert.
I try and wait before picking up the second (and unfortunately ultimate) item in the box. A man to my right intends to tamper with my mood by practicing his karate moves on a tree just next to me. The kicking is minimally impressive and the resulting banging doesn’t quite fit with this tranquil day. His huffing and puffing is exhausted. I try to ignore him. He pauses to gain his breath and my attention returns to the sunshine and sweetness of this day. I always think simple pleasures are the best pleasures. It does not take much to find contentment on a day like today.
My second sweet sensation satisfies equally as the first, and it is nice to lie on the grass slowly digesting and gazing at the sky. It is what I expect when I go to Brunetti’s – that a sense of repleteness will usually be achieved from the visit, and that satisfaction is only a few mouthfuls away. And like the time before and the time before that, this is no exception. Some people might say that to produce the same thing over and over like a template becomes stagnant and uninspiring to the creativity of your craft. But I believe it is the consistency of quality that keeps us, or certainly me, returning to that side street in Carlton on regular occasion. It is credit to the institution that despite fluctuation in food trends and the potential threat of ‘the next big thing’ – Brunetti’s has created a solid, successful, and reliably impressive establishment that knows its skill and does it well. And that, after all, is what being a Melbourne food institution is all about.(And I’ll tell you this as a sure thing as well, if Brunetti’s doesn’t change a single thing about its cakes for the next 20 years or so, you won’t hear a peep out of me).
New York Tomato
If there was such a thing as the perfect day this might just be it. 11 days into March and thoughts of summer return with the comeback of sunshine and fresh skies. I am sure I was not the only one who had given up hope; enough summers in the UK have proven to me that nothing, when it comes to summer, is for granted.
My return from uni brought me back to my house at the convenient time of lunch-hour, so instead of returning to bed (which really was my true intention) I reminded myself that days like this are rare and so instead have wandered down to my little local nook named New York Tomato. A two-block stroll from my house it is difficult to find excuses not to frequent this little hideaway every week or so. Unfortunately however it is my timetable that causes these visits to occur much less often than desired. Today is an exception.
Under a canopy of canvas and behind two roller garage doors sit the small and open tables of this little cafe. The music is upbeat as are the staff, and the menu offers enough personal touch on the typical Melbourne offerings to still appeal. Nursing a slight hangover today I have gone for a comfort pot of chai, enjoying its creaminess and savouring the nice addition of vanilla to my honey. As usual, plates of appealing cakes stare at me from the counter but unfortunately my purse is a little light today. Definitely next time.
People continue to meander in off the smaller streets and the relaxed ambiance continues as does the glorious afternoon sun. I see that I am not the only fan of this little caf and as more orders come out I sneak a peek at tempting plates. It is always reassuring to know that a local spot just down the road exists, lending a boost to the neighbourhood’s buzz and remaining unpretentious in its style. Offering simply breakfast and lunch this also limits the customers to true people of the neighbourhood and so encourages the sense of community one tries to find in a city.
My pot of tea goes down a treat and I scrape the last bits of foam from my cup. Conversations drift from weekend plans to business propositions and it’s nice to gently over hear the lives of others.
It will be nice to return here before long.