12/18 Yarra Place, South Melbourne
Rather shamefully, I’d never visited St Ali until last month. Obviously I’d known about it, had drunk coffee made from their beans elsewhere, had genuine intentions to go there, but something about South Yarra just seems so goddamn far away from where I live (North-East Melbourne) that it’s quite a sacrifice taking the time to drive down there. (It’s actually not so much the distance per se, but rather my tendency to get lost that adds time to the car trip!)
However, a trio of determined girlfriends was enough to get me motivated for a visit, and the promise of one of them sitting in my passenger seat was ample security that we wouldn’t lose our way! And so it was that the four of us descended on St Ali on an unusually (and blissfully) sunny Sunday a few weeks ago.
For some reason I had thought St Ali was quite posh and clean-lined. Not really sure where I got that impression from, but the cafe in truth is rather grungy, bohemian even, in fit out. I loved it instantly; a large space (converted warehouse) but somehow made intimate by the bustle and clutter of tables and benches. Nothing is uniform; plants hang miscellaneously from ceiling beams, different coloured woods mix and mingle, and varied light fittings keep the place bright.
The clientele is largely comprised of young students and professionals, all seemingly pleased to be enjoying a sunny Spring day. The room was quite noisy but I suppose brunch should be a noisy affair anyway, what with all the gossip and jokes and stories being shared. As such, it’s a great place for a big group of friends because they have quite a few large tables. We settled into a table in the middle of the room and were quickly served menus by a cheery waitress.
Also, am I the only one who gets the tune of ‘Prince Ali
‘ stuck in my head when I say the name ‘St Ali’ out loud? Prince Ali! Fabulous he! Ali Ababwaaaa….
We didn’t indulge in any of the sweets on offer, though they certainly looked tempting! Looks like the same patisserie that supplies Seven Seeds and a number of other cafes around town. I know for a fact that both the lamingtons and the carrot cakes are brilliant.
Originally opened by Mark Dundon in 2005 (who has since gone on to run Seven Seeds et al), St Ali is both a cafe and a roasting business. The passion behind the business is evident in both the attitudes of staff and the quality of the coffees that are gently and lovingly poured each day. Not to mention the packets of beans that are distributed to various other cafes around Melbourne. We had a strong but fruity blend that worked equally well black or with milk.
Long macchiato, excellent.
As usual, I’d done the requisite background reading before visiting, and it seems that when at St Ali, one must order My Mexican Cousin (#musthaveififrsttimer, #ohstaliyouandyourtwittertags), a somewhat famous dish of corn fritters, eggs, haloumi and kasundi.
And here is it! The fabled family member from south of the border!
This was a delicious dish, I can see why it’s so popular – no bread involved but very filling (I couldn’t finish it), and the sweet corn fritters were moist without being oily. Eggs nicely poached, good bit of greenery underneath to make you feel healthy, plus a bit of spice from the kasundi. Personally felt the haloumi was a bit superfluous, but at the same time it didn’t detract from the dish.
Was it worth $21.50? Mmmm…. no, I don’t think so, delicious though it was. Yes it was a big serve, but nothing super fancy or exotic to merit that price. There were a couple other dishes that also broke the $20 mark, and really, you should be able to get brunch for less. A dish plus a coffee and you’re verging on $25, which is a tad pricy for breakfast.
Both T and J had a delicious dish that I really liked the look of, 63 Degrees Above; cauliflower puree, white truffle oil, crispy prosciutto and eggs poached at some unknown and unhinted-at temperature, served in a cast iron pan. I loved the presentation, and while perhaps the dish could be faulted for being soft-on-soft-on-soft in terms of texture, it was delicious.
The other thing I noticed was a lack of consistency between dishes. Though T and J ordered the same dish, J got two pieces of toast; T just one. J had several large shards of prosciutto; T had a couple of significantly smaller pieces. Particularly on dishes going to the same table, that’s not very good practice. Consistency should be the first thing a cafe gets under control.
Miss R (‘the healthy one’) ordered the granola, often a boring dish, which actually looked beautiful; a happy tumble of toasted oats, organic vanilla yoghurt, strawberries and puffed rice.
Slightly pricy for brunch for four people, but we did appreciate the ‘5 things I must do before I die’ at the bottom of the receipt. #3 is next on my list – St Ali North (aka ‘that Carlton North bike-through that you may have heard about’) will have its official opening later this year at new location on Nicholson Street.
High prices aside, I really enjoyed both the food and the relaxed atmosphere at St Ali. Coffee? Tick. Food? Tick. Friendly staff? Tick.
Tick. Tick. Tick. I’m sold!