Snooze and I must be amongst the few Melbourne food bloggers who hadn't paid their respects at the consecrated ground that is St Ali's in South Melbourne. I suspect that the main reason was that so much of its fame is based on the quality of its caffeine and neither of us are coffee drinkers (almost a sacrilege in Melbourne). However, it was finally time to bite the bullet and visit one of the best known and loved cafes in Melbourne.
If you didn't know St Ali's was there it would be easy to miss. Tucked into a nondescript building in a small street running parallel to Clarendon Street, the first time I found St Ali was by accident, drawn to the high quality street art painted on the buildings opposite. Walk through the door though and it's a bit like entering Aladdin's cave, as the room opens up into a larger than expected dining area with a few quirky little alcoves off to the side. The interior is done up in a very typically grungy industrial style but here it felt like it worked particularly well. I suspect it's because so many places seem to adopt the industrial look as their motif because it is such a Melbourne look. This can result in a slightly unnatural feeling though, like the space has been forced into the direction the café owner wanted to go. In contrast here it felt completely natural, like it was saying 'I'm an old industrial space, deal with it'. The result is a surprisingly comfortable and interesting place to eat.
While we hardly had the place to ourselves arriving before 8.30 on a Sunday meant we had the choice of where to sit, communal table or our smaller table for two. Also, in contrast to some reports we found the staff friendly and helpful, delivering menus efficiently and recommending personal favourites when snooze was having trouble deciding which juice to order (in the end the surprisingly 'peary' pear, strawberry and mint).
The menu uses quirky names to describe its breakfast offerings. For example, the egg-based dishes are described under 'chickens bare gifts', the bircher muesli 'keep me regular'. Fortunately the dishes are just quirky enough to pull off what could otherwise be a pretentious touch, with our choices the 'coco channel' French toast and 'my Mexican cousin' corn fritters.
There are places where I think the food was technically better prepared and presented, but it almost felt like I admired the food as much as wanting to eat it (Duchess of Spotswood comes to mind). What I liked most about the food here was that rather than being particularly complex or novel flavours it was things I wanted to eat and could happily do so every day. My coco channel - French toast with berry and rhubarb compote, served with a quenelle of labneh and lemon curd - was generous in size with the smooth sweetness and tartness of the different ingredients contrasting nicely.
The stars of Snooze's Mexican cousin - corn fritters with baby spinach, haloumi and kasundi with poached eggs - were possibly my favourite corn fritters I've tried. I am not such a fan of spinach leaves and thought the kasundi could have done with more of a kick, but the eggs were nicely poached, the haloumi squeaky and the fritters moist, tasty and crispy on the outside, softer in the middle.
I'm a big fan of breakfast desserts but lately pickings seemed to have been a little thin. Not here though where almost every item behind the counter raised a flicker of interest. After consulting with Snooze the cake we were both most interested in trying was the white chocolate and raspberry croissant cake. Homemade in style, taste and texture wise very reminiscent of an upmarket bread and butter pudding rendered quite luxurious through the use of croissant rather than stale bread.
Big ticks almost all around. My chai and Snooze's juice were both very good, the food what I am usually looking for both in style and quality and staff and atmosphere good. If I had to pick on two things it felt that after we had finished staff attention seemed to morph slightly from being attentive to provide good service to attentive to encourage us to free up the table for the next customer, which was not really necessary with a number of tables still vacant. It also seemed marginally above average in price. However, no problems in paying a slight premium for what was one of my favourite Melbourne café experiences, and somewhere that will undoubtedly be front of mind when it comes to showing visitors that distinctly Melbourne experience.
Food - 8
Ambience - 8.5
Service - 8
Price - 6.5
12-18 Yarra Place
South Melbourne VIC 3205
Tel: (03) 9686 2990