Sometimes it takes longer than anticipated to try somewhere for the first time. Earl Canteen is only ten minutes walk from work and rumours of high quality sandwiches and macarons had been circulating for months but we'd never really got around to paying a call. Originally the plan was for five of us to visit to sample a wide range of offerings, but because of last minute issues it ended up with on Ms Counting Her Calories and moi.
While the official address is 500 Bourke Street the entrance is actually off Little Bourke. The outside is mainly glass and metal, with a fairly funky green sign and a few tables and chairs.
To me the inside was much more interesting. In fact, while I'd only ever really heard about the quality of the food here I was equally impressed with the set up and service. Busy yes, but not uncomfortably so the day we ate at the communal table. First impressions are always important and mine was of a bright and well lit, modern professionally run café. I wouldn't necessarily want to come here for a first date or in a large group but it was fine for just the two of us (some colleagues have however reported it can get very noisy and crowded).
But it's not the décor which brings the hordes here it's the food. Lower than expected on numbers Ms Counting and myself were limited to the pork belly and chicken salad baguettes.
The Pork Belly is probably the best known and most popular of the baguettes here. Crispy pork belly with apple, cabbage and fennel coleslaw and wilted silver beet, I must admit to paying limited attention to the salad and focusing on the pork. The key is that it's very good, restaurant quality pork - moist and tender like you expect for belly pork but not nearly as fatty as you often get and with excellent crackling on top. Wrap that between two slices of quality bread and you are bound to get a good baguette.
The chicken baguette came with lime and palm sugar poached chicken, crunchy salad, coriander, chilli and nuoc nam (which I had to look up but is a Vietnamese fish sauce). Again, as with the pork baguette it's not your typical chicken salad sandwich but as if someone has taken a restaurant quality salad and placed it in the baguette. With its use of the sauce, chilli and coriander it's the lighter and fresher tasting of the baguettes, and while Ms Counting preferred the pork belly I thought both were very good.
After checking out the selection at the front counter we were unable to pass over the cakes and macarons. Best of our choices I thought was the chocolate and caramel tart, with its good, dense but not overly heavy base combined with rich caramel and chocolate flavours. Ms Counting and myself have both been struck by a case of collective amnesia in trying to remember exactly which macaron she ordered (raspberry we think), but can both confirm it came with a crispy shell, chewy centre and sweet but delicate flavours. My only criticism was the size, very much the case of one bite each and it was gone. The pear and polenta cake was also well flavoured but texture wise a little dry, so that while I would have been satisfied with it at most cafes it fell a bit below the rest of the food.
A most satisfactory lunch tastewise in a pleasant and well organised café. My compliments as well to the staff, who came across as quick and professional even when very busy. While better quality ingredients are naturally more expensive, at around $13 for a baguette compounded by servings not being terribly large (at least for me) the only thing which would stop this place becoming a regular haunt for me is the price. So I think it's destined for the every now and again or 'to show someone who hasn't been there' type venue rather than somewhere I'll visit every week.
Food - 8
Service - 8
Ambience - 8
Price - 6
500 Bourke Street (enter via Little Bourke)
Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: (03) 9600 1995