Melbourne Coffee Wars
You can't talk about Melbourne without talking about coffee. There are who knows how many coffee shops per square kilometre in the Central Business District (CBD) and beyond; a java junkie's ground (pun intended), no doubt. Cool, funky cafés are like hideaways in the city's sometimes colourful graffiti and sometimes bare-walled laneways.
The question of which coffee shop reigns whole bean supreme is more than a matter of mild, medium or dark roast taste. It's also about service, ambience and the culture that flows in and out of the cafés' doors and reverberates throughout.
Here is a round-up of some of Melbourne's most popular cafés where I got lost in java-jolting wonder.
Degraves Espresso Bar: French
Coffee: Soy Cappuccino - Mild flavour notes, served at almost luke warm temperature and lack lustre. In desperate need of love.
Service - Fair, but could be better. Coming from Canada where a small cup is a medium in Australia, I opt for.....well....large. The waitress clearly heard me say large but did not mention that what I would get is a regular (small).
An explanation is given after the fact: "We only have regular, sorry." OK. Forgiven. BUT only because she wrinkled her face in half-nervous, half- 'I know that sucks' apology. Someone give the girl a hug or a cappuccino.....made with love.....and warmth.....and lots of it!
Ambience and culture: Old school French with Italian and Spanish food fare. White paint stained walls have been given purposeful wear and tear. Settle into theatre style seating and gaze around: A Champagne Pommery picture hangs as the main centre piece and bottles of wine populate wooden shelves behind a buzzing barista counter.
Score real estate on the patio and become part of the café buzz and scenery that is Degraves Street. Your neighbouring patrons are tourists, 20-to-30 year olds popping in from shops nearby and the self-employed or unemployed middle aged.
Verdict: Go for the ambience, not the coffee.
Brunetti (City Square): Italian
Coffee: Soy Cappuccino - Dark roast with bitter undertones, frothy-rific but not over the top, delivers just the right caffeine hit, but could be a little hotter in temperature.
Service: A friendly, Italian accented server bears with me as I scan an array of desserts with Naaz-esque indecisiveness. She knows her desserts well, each of which sound like a gourmet pasta dish that takes me back to 2008 in Venice. This counters the barista - who while makes a decent coffee - tells me to Google what kind of roast the coffee bean he uses is. Uhhh, so what about that thing called "product knowledge"? Should I Google that too and report back to you?
Ambience and culture: Best experienced at Brunetti's Carlton location. The City Square location is an outdoor patio where free day students, tourists, workers and pigeons up for a peck are the patrons. Still, its post-modern Italian decor blends class and sophistication inside-out.
Walk into the café and see how steel and dark wood are combined to form a chic postmodern design. Your eyes are arrested by desserts of every texture and colour: cakes, biscuits and pastries; all encased in a brightly lit glass counter. Outdoors, cement and steel lined benches are decorated with floral tile tops and a pigeon here or there is waiting to pounce on your food.
Verdict: A great place for an outdoor dessert. My chocolate devil desserts of choice: Baci Di Dama (Chocolate hazelnut biscuit filled with dark chocolate ganache) and Bigne Cioccolato (Choux pastry filled with chocolate custard and topped with chocolate foundant).
Pellegrini's Espresso Bar: Italian
Coffee: Soy Cappuccino - Medium-to-dark roast with a bitter aftertaste, right amount of froth, spot on temperature. Hit me up again.
Service: Polite and efficient. The barista will lean in and let you in on some historical info. about the place as well as the owner in a hushed tone. That's if you wanna know, and like a tourist, ask to meet the owner because you read the place is considered an "institution" in Lonely Planet or one of those guidebooks.
Ambience and culture: Everything Italian. A strong waft of Italian food hits your nostrils from a ventilator above as you walk in. An Italian barista works the counter which is backed with Italian pop culture paraphernalia- framed celebrity pictures, paintings, vinyl records and bags of coffee beans.
Negotiate space and don't get all mafia about it. The after work dinner crowd, families and middle aged-to-senior aged men occupy tables at the back or sit atop stools at the counter. This is working class Australia. All sit quietly eating with nothing but the sound of forks and spoons scraping plates and the shuffle of servers carrying plates heaped with steamy pasta. A testament to how good the food must be.
Verdict: Coffee done right. I'm coming back during carb-o-'clock hours.
Coffee: Soy Cappuccino - Medium roast, not-so-bitter-not-so-sweet aftertaste, a little better than good but not great. A+ for art work.
Service: I was greeted and given a menu by a waitress. 12'ish minutes went by as I gazed around the café waiting to make eye contact with someone who could take my order. The place was a-hoppin' and I was a-forgotten! Cappuccino and avocado mash bagel took a tad too long to arrive, once again begging the question: Do they know this Canadian chic is here? Someone please toss a hockey puck in the air so I can get some attention.
Ambience and culture: Warehouse quirky. From the exposed piping to the large bowl lights shining down on the baristas and the outlined figures painted on the wall, this place is trippy-industrial. Unique pieces: A giant bowling pin standing in a corner and a vintage spaceship man overlooking the baristas like 'big brother is watching'. The patrons are a mix of eclectic students, 30-something year olds meeting for lunch and guys and gals that just wanna have fun.
Verdict: Drop in to check out the art and eat a uniquely made, 'who knew you could combine these ingredients together?' kinda bagel. Choose from open or closed bagels topped with salmon, chorizo, salami and tuna, which include anything from avocado to goat cheese, jalapenos and pine nuts as mix-ins. My bagel: Avocado, chilli and mint smash with cherry tomatoes, roquette and pine nuts. KA-RAZY!
Service: Swift, attentive and friendly. Baristas and servers know their coffee and desserts.
Ambience and culture: Small space packed with big character. Wood is the central motif. Wooden chairs hang from the ceiling, a glass encased wooden shelf holds baked desserts, walls have a torn, distressed look and reveal floral and clock sketches. A square cubby hole shelf contains coffee makers, mugs, bags of coffee beans and other java making hardware. A senior aged couple sharing a Lamington (Aussie Cake) is seated next to me, but throughout its 20-something year old students galore.
Verdict: 1st place winner for best coffee and café ambience and culture. Pair your java with any of BBB's cakes. The rhubarb cake topped with vanilla icing is the best thing I ate in Melbourne and you never woulda guessed is flourless and gluten-free. Definitely a sweet surprise.
Java house winner for café culture and ambience: Manchester Press
Java house winner for service: Brother Baba Budan
Java house winner for java: Brother Baba Budan
Best overall winner: Brother Baba Budan