11 January, 2009

100 Mile Cafe

Level 3, Melbourne Central, 211 La Trobe St, Melbourne; 03 9654 0808

My only visit to 100 Mile Cafe came just a few weeks before it was due to close. Paul Mathis, the restaurant's owner, has been upfront about his two projects at the Melbourne Central site - 100 Mile and its predecessor SOS (a vegaquarian cafe) - losing big money, but he remains dedicated to the cause of presenting a sustainable dining option.

Both ventures were founded on admirable tenets. The earlier restaurant eschewed meat and fish sourced unsustainably. 100 Mile takes the ideology made popular by figures such as J.B. McKinnon and Alisa Smith in Vancouver, Canada (via their book, Plenty) and applies it to a restaurant format. (The only one of its kind in Australia that I know of - does anyone know of other restaurants going hardcore locavore?) The focus is about local eating, and while the radius may stretch beyond the nicely rounded 100 mile mark, diners can expect that food is sourced within Victoria.

Eating locally is often touted as a strong environmental protection mechanism. Transporting food from its growth source, to where it's processed, to the point of sale, and from there to the place of consumption, produces phenomenal amounts of emissions. In many cases, sourcing food from within 160 kilometres is far more energy efficient than the 1000+ km the majority of food travels to reach our plates.

The idea of Melbourne's population of four million being supported by agriculture and farming within a 160 km radius of the city is, naturally, fanciful. Locavorism works optimally with smaller communities than our metropolises. Inherent in locavorism, however, is the notion of seasonality, and embracing the concept of eating food in its natural cycles is a great first step to reducing your food's footprint, as well as making your diet healthier. Fresh, seasonal food needs very little dressing up and following the seasons - waiting for the first apples of autumn, or finding the first ripe peach of summer - adds excitement to food consumption.

So, in these last weeks of trading, what did 100 Mile Cafe have on offer?

A tasting plate of local produce makes for a tantalising entree.
Starting with the pink sticks and going anti-clockwise: pickled beetroot, eel mousse, calamari, proscuitto, felafel and marinated Mt Zero olives. A more diverse range of cuisines than I expected on a local tasting plate! The olives and pickles are from outside the 100 mile zone, sourced from the Grampians, about 300 km from Melbourne. Mt Zero also produce chickpeas and hence may have been the source for the felafel (and hopefully they all came in on the one truck!). The calamari are from nearby Portarlington.

For main, there was seared rainbow trout fillet - plucked from the Yarra Valley - with asparagus, kipfler potatoes and orange butter.
I believe strongly in locavorism and seasonality, and applaud Mathis's intent. Generally, I think the menu would have priced many otherwise eager consumers out of the equation, and the location just gave off the wrong vibe and attracted the wrong passing traffic (locavores and shopping centres don't always mix!). The politics of such a venture are difficult as well. Advertising a 'mostly local' restaurant just wouldn't have the same punch, but to truly source everything (eg, the calamari, sourced from within 100 km, are rice-flour dusted) from within a small radius would necessarily make the restaurant economically unviable (if not uninteresting).

A case in point: the highlight dish of the night was the chocolate fondant - served warm with caramel espresso ice cream and pistachio praline. Every bite was divine, but it's well known that both coffee and chocolate were menu items that Mathis had to source from much further afield (though he still went as close as possible - the coffee is from Byron Bay).

Wholesale change and strict rules aren't the answer to addressing sustainability through locavorism. Seasonality, something diners can rely on at many of Melbourne's restaurants, and awareness - on the part of restaurateurs to think about where they're sourcing produce from, and on the part of diners to enquire - are more important.


  1. Those look delicious! Too bad they have to close.

  2. I actually think Paul was ahead of his time people weren't ready for it, they might be now. Probably the wrong location too.

  3. I'd agree with that - the location, and its whole context - had a lot to do with it not working out. I've always thought a smaller cafe incarnation of the idea might have taken off better, and as you say, maybe he was just ahead of the game starting with an upscale restaurant.