14 April, 2009

Cafeklatsch II: North II, Gingerlee IV, Cavallero

North: 717 Rathdowne St, Carlton North; 03 9348 1276
Gingerlee: 117 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9380 4430
Cavallero: 300 Smith St, Collingwood; 03 9417 1377

It's not breaking any ground to say that Melbourne has a surfeit of cafes. It's also established that in certain parts of town, a certain style of cafe has become de rigueur. So what do they all do to differentiate themselves from each another?

In most cases, it's down to the menu. Innovative combinations, stand-out ingredients, or a signature dish are to the key to successful trade amidst the inner north's glut of relaxed dining options. In Carlton, the cafe called North has made extra certain by adding a particularly effective feature wall - seemingly drawn on in texta and featuring hundreds of cartoon-style, framed portraits. It would be endlessly arresting if their menu (also wall-mounted) didn't already give patrons enough to ponder.

Many are drawn to North, however, on the promise of a particular menu item. Hence, while they may be distracted by huevos rancheros (pictured right...and let me tell you, you won't eat for the rest of the day if you make it through that plate), or the house (cannelini) beans, they read only as far as: Reuben sandwich - grilled corn beef on an open sandwich with Swiss cheese, dill mayo and sauerkraut.
It doesn't look like much when it comes out, but it does the job. Look at the perfectly grilled cheese, just turning black at the edges; check out the corned beef slices overhanging the edges of the bread. And did someone say sauerkraut? They're as generous with the cabbage here as the bratwurst stand at Queen Vic Markets. I've soft spots for both corned beef and for old-school, open-topped sandwich-type arrangements, and this particular example made for a fine, filling and fulfilling lunch.

Grab a $2.50 gingerbread man on your way out the door.

Gingerlee doesn't seem to have skipped a beat since it opened almost two years ago - it's consistently packed, and its Syrian French toast is frequently written up. The cafe sits squarely in a concentrated eating zone, with Small Block, Poached, Sugardough and La Paloma all nearby, not to mention Rumi immediately across the street. Gingerlee's original menu seems to have held pretty steady, with Middle-Eastern touches on their breakfast and lunch dishes their signature. The French toast (with orange-blossom water and labne) is a case in point, along with their breakfast tagine. There's also the option, for those seriously in need, to order a Bloody Mary with breakfast.

Even their poached eggs come with something a little exotic, in this case one of my all-time favourite indulgences, Persian fetta (last featured on this blog in the creamed spinach from Greg Malouf at Stones). The poached eggs and fetta are accompanied by sourdough toast (of the bring-me-a-steak-knife-to-cut-this-crust variety) and avocado. Half an avocado to be exact - happy for them not to skimp on that! What I loved about this dish was building taste combinations on my fork - eggs, avocado, toast; creamy fetta and buttery bread; toast, avocado and fetta; and, more often than not, everything piled up together and manoeuvred with no small amount effort to my waiting mouth, followed shortly by a little squirm and a smile as all the tastes blended together.

Over Collingwood way, what does a cafe do among the bevy of Smith Street options to let everyone know they're both worthwhile and safe to try? At Cavallero, they start at the front, with elaborate wrought-iron gates across the front of the shop. A stag-head behind the linear, understated bar is incongruous amongst the otherwise bare walls housing booths and communal tables. By day, oodles of light flows in from front and back, but at night, funky light fittings keep the mood low-key.

Cavallero is succeeding at being different things to different crowds, achieving status as both a cafe and a bar. On the eating front, they've done interesting things when divvying up their menu, picking times of day rather than style of dish. One can choose from Early, Middle or Late, roughly equating to breakfast, lunch, dinner/tapas. Only roughly, however. Under Early there are also Extras, that really don't match the expected bacon, mushroom etc, but instead offer more obtuse mixed options, featuring avocado and gremolata, for example. It's a frequently changing menu as well, so a winning dish may have been usurped if you go back for a second try.

A subsection on the menu, under Middle, offers Bread, but goes much further than just a house-style, including filled options such as pide, or a combo of bread and olives. It's the Bread section luring many a customer, either for the Carolina-style pork sandwich (with roasted pork belly and a barbecue sauce fashioned on site) recently featured in the age (melbourne) magazine or their fried chicken and coleslaw sandwich.

The pide on this occasion came with spiced vegetables and a lively labne. It was certainly hearty and offered enough flavour kick to keep things interesting. I'm never so sure about putting potato into a sandwich, however. The eggplant, onion and labne were very welcome, and the potato was pretty tasty on its own, but a less starchy veg would have been preferable.

An honourable mention in the interesting menu stakes to El Mirage in Brunswick East, where a recent visit saw me making a win-win choice between rare beef salad with haloumi and basil, or poached eggs with fig chutney and ricotta, while others at the table went for an accomplished penne ragu, as well as $6 fruit toast with honey. Great with a T2 chai.


  1. Lovely! I think it is time for a return visit to North...

  2. It's a nice place to pass the time, North. I'm keen to give Cavallero another go, but I'm forewarned not to go with my hopes on sampling something that was on the menu last time! (That antipasto platter on your blog look astonishing.)

  3. First time here! Loving your posts and pretty pictures...

    Will be back again!

  4. Cheers Gneake! Looking forward to hearing from you again :)

  5. Having stumbled upon your blog by accident, I find myself entranced. What a wonderful combination - food and words - and two of my favourite pursuits.
    I look forward to reading many an older post in the coming weeks!

  6. Welcome joy, and thanks! Hope you enjoy browsing through :)