Melbourne Cafe Review: Sensory Lab

The final stop on our caffeine charged Melbourne adventure was Sensory Lab – home of Hario products and a pretty amazing brew bar operation where the coffee scientists can apparently brew a cup to your taste specifications. We didn’t put this to the test. Sadly. As it wasn’t entirely clear how that all worked. There were some cool vials of scent which matched up with traditional tasting note features, so I assume the idea was you selected a few of those and got a little blend made on the spot.

Customer service wasn’t the strong point of this place, the staff were really friendly but they just seemed distracted by life. Or something.

It wasn’t exceptionally busy, but we did get there after what I assume is a lunch time rush for a CBD cafe attached physically to David Jones… Don’t, I repeat, Don’t go down to the food court and mistake the “cafe” there for the sensory lab. I almost did. Because my directions were “the cafe at David Jones”… Sensory Lab is on the non-Mall side of David Jones, and it is literally the entrance to the shop… we ordered coffees on arrival, I had a short black because I wanted to try the single origin, and that’s how it was recommended (it was prepped via a Slayer. I still think the Slayer is a thing of beauty).

The coffees were alright, but not excellent. Robyn didn’t like hers much at all, at first, but it was, to my thinking a nice slightly-bitter dark chocolatey kind of deal, and it was pretty smooth. It is possible that after the approximately 25 shots I’d had over the five day period that I was a little bit palate fatigued.

Sensory Lab is a retail arm for St. Ali coffee. They’ve got a few blends and a rotating batch of seasonal single origins. The customer service let down came when I ordered my second coffee, a flat white, and they appeared to forget about it (they did actually forget about it, I had to remind them) for about 20 minutes. Luckily we were enjoying our little spot in a window alcove watching people on the streets of Melbourne. And this cute little old lady buying some specialty coffee gear. I had to take a sneaky photo so it’s not great…

When it arrived the flat white was actually pretty sensational, it’s possible the piccolo we had in the first round was an anomaly, it’s also possible that the wait heightened my anticipation. Who knows.

I am wondering how much using panella rather than sugar is the mark of a quality cafe…

While we weren’t blown out of the park by Sensory Lab, they do offer what I think is the best coffee web shop in Australia. So their website is worth checking out.

Melbourne Cafe Review: Axil Coffee

What do you get when you cross two of the highest Australian finishers in the World Barista Championships, with a big budget, a crack kitchen team, and a showroom style set up in suburban Hawthorn? The best cafe experience I’ve ever had. Seriously. I think I’ve vaguely mentioned in the past that it seems to be hard to simultaneously do great food and great coffee… but wow. Axil smashes it out of the park.

Sometimes it must seem like I’m incapable of giving bad reviews – that’s mostly because I just ignore cafes where I expect to be disappointed. I have pretty high standards, a cafe has to have a level of buzz, or demonstrate a level of commitment to coffee before I’ll darken its doors. I’m worried now that no cafe will live up to this experience…

Lets talk about the coffee… I started with my stock standard double shot flat white – I go with this because while I’m not adverse to a little bit of milk in my coffee I like throwing the ratio a little bit further towards the coffee side, and piccolos are a little bit too small, it’s like two piccolos for the price of one…

Neither of the luminary lights of the barista competition were behind the machine – Matt Perger, who I recognise because I watched his heat at the WBC online, and David Makin, who I recognise because I google imaged him, were in the house. But they were doing little odd jobs. The girl behind the machine didn’t miss a beat though, and their signature blend was rich and tasty, and it had a great lingering aftertaste. Happily I didn’t enjoy this aftertaste for too long… because wow. Did I mention their food… The all day breakfast menu looked pretty extravagant, but we’d already had brekkie at St Ali. And I find it almost impossible to go past a delicious slab of pork belly. Sadly, wifey was reluctant for us to both order the same thing… so she ordered a lamb wrap. Being a pretty dutiful and loving husband, I agreed to go halvies. But boy did I regret that. The pork belly with truffle infused mashed potato was possibly the best thing I’ve ever eaten. It was certainly the best pork belly I’ve ever had. And it was a bargain at $20. A steal.

The lamb wrap was pretty good too. Don’t get me wrong.

But boy did I score some husband points… I mean… just look at it (again).

I followed the pork belly up with a piccolo on Ethiopian Sidamo, which is one of my favourite single origins. It’s just so fruity, tasting notes say blueberry – I reckon with milk you get this amazingly clear burst of strawberry. It’s amazing stuff.

But then it was time for dessert. I’m a bit of a sweet-tooth, so I ordered the nougat parfait, which came with lemon sorbet, smashed honeycomb, turkish fairy floss, and passionfruit… the parfait itself was an icecream slab stacked with nuts and fruit, and packed with flavour.

It was, again, probably the best dessert I’ve ever eaten. The honeycomb and fairy floss did this amazing explosion in your mouth, it wasn’t just that the flavours popped. There was actually a physical expansion going on, it felt like eating those shock rock lollies you get as a kid, but actually tasted sophisticated.

So the coffee and the food were top notch. The staff were friendly, chatty, and really welcoming and accommodating, we were there past closing time and they looked like they were having heaps of fun together. They even offered to sell me a couple of Barista Championship trophies from their coffee store – at the right price… I ended up buying a couple of bags of beans from the Axil Shop – which is pretty well stocked, and seems to be rotated based on seasonality. The word cloud tasting note labels (on each bag, as well as on the signs) are a great touch.

The fit out is funky with lots of black, and dashes of white and yellow to add some contrast.

Axil wasn’t just the highlight of our trip around Melbourne’s cafes, it was the highlight of our trip to Melbourne. Well, for me anyway, and the shared pork belly must put it near the top of the list for wifey.

Melbourne Cafe Review: St. ALi

St ALi is an old skool member of the Melbourne specialty coffee fraternity, from what I can gather, anyway. The guy who started Seven Seeds did so after selling St ALi. It’s all pretty connected, but St. ALi is, if not the father of the scene, the uncle… Because it predates hipsters, I’d say its milieu is grungy, whatever you want to call it, it’s got character in spades. Nooks and crannies around an old shed/warehouse have been converted into dining spaces, the chairs are essentially found objects, old chairs, and planks of wood. It’s eclectic and classy. And it is famous for its coffee – in particular, the Champions Blend.

Like a bunch of other specialty coffee places, part of St ALi’s charter seems to be educating consumers so that they’ll enjoy the coffee experience a little bit more. The waitress was able to tell us a little bit more than average about the single origins they had on offer.

The coffee was pretty charming too, my flat white on the single origin Colombian La Pradera, carried the promised apple flavours through from the first sip to the aftertaste. It was light and bright.

The Champions Blend was pretty special both as a piccolo and as my standard double shot flat white.

We were in for breakfast – and my “Childhood Memory” – poached pear on pear and coconut bread with coffee marscapone and cinnamon dukkah. The dukkah was interesting, it was a little bit salty, which made the meal pop a little.

Wifey took on “My Mexican Cousin” a corn fritter dish with a bunch of Mexican charm.

The menu (pdf) is good humoured and varied, which is what I like in a cafe menu.

Perhaps tapping into Melbourne’s nominal origins, the city was originally dubbed Batmania, the St ALi logo on the menu is part of the charm.

St ALi has recently expanded its horizons, opening a store in the UK, and it is easy to see why. Both the cafe and the coffee was full of charm and character.

Melbourne Cafe Review: Market Lane

Depending on where you park, Market Lane is either at the front or the rear of the Prahran markets in South Yarra. The markets are a bit of a feast for the senses with delis, fruit shops, cheese stores and my favourites – Greek dessert and patisserie stores. So a specialty cafe that sets up in this sort of locale needs to be outstanding. Enter Market Lane.

Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a cafe’s aesthetic quite so much. Wooden benches, chalk boards, washed out colour and plenty of greys and whites… and dashes of colour.

The coffee was the star of the show though – I ordered a “coffee flight” which includes three pourovers from different origins, and followed up with a flat white. Their attention to detail was top notch, and my co-pilots, the parents of the friend we stayed with, had never had brewed coffee before and left incredibly impressed with the clarity of the flavours described on the beautifully designed take-home tasting cards.

The espresso based drinks were also pretty super, they came with vintage tea spoons, which again, were a nice touch.

We didn’t have any food here, and I’m not sure why you would with the range of options available just outside the door. But Market Lane was my favourite coffee stop, I really don’t understand why other cafes charge more for brewed and pourover coffees than they do for the standard espressos, but the $12 coffee flight is a bit of a steal, it kept our table of five pretty happy, and gave us the chance to sample some pretty exotic coffees at a bargain basement price.

Melbourne Cafe Review: Proud Mary

Proud Mary was stop number two on Saturday. We were pretty full after our Seven Seeds brunch, but their menu suckered us in. And we weren’t sorry. This was one of our top three cafes from our expedition. It was wifey’s second favourite, and my third. We’ll get to my top two shortly…

Proud Mary has a menu they can rightly take pride in. It’s amazing. The range of coffees is superb, and they’re as geeky about their tea as well, which is always nice. My dinepanions favoured the tea, while I sampled their coffee wares. The pot of chai, the lapsang souchong, and some other tea whose name I can’t remember, were all popular – and brewed using a clever dripper. The brew temperature and times were included on the menu, which was a nice piece of transparency.

The food was great. My friends ploughed into a pork neck stew thing complete with beans and packed with flavours, with a poached egg on top, and the most amazing pancakes I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Topped with chocolate fudge and candied mandarins. Amazing.

My toasted “sammy”, featuring avocado, brie, chicken, onion jam, aioli, and an amazing paprika relish on the side was also top quality. I would travel for that relish.

But Proud Mary isn’t on about food (though the food is excellent). What’s clear when you walk in the door is that Proud Mary is on about coffee. Their custom built metallic blue 6-group Synesso Hydra takes pride of place – and it is an amazing piece of coffee kit.

Even the door handles speak volumes about their attention to coffee, and they have these brilliant guides to making coffee that probably deserve their own posts somewhere down the track…

The coffees were perfect. I started with a piccolo made on the Panama Hartmann Honey, the described flavours were a little lost in the milk, but the buttery mouthfeel wasn’t. It was delicious. I followed that with a double shot flat white on the Angel Wings, which was also pretty special, and very sweet.

The staff were incredibly friendly, and like the staff at almost all the cafes we visited – knew their stuff when it comes to coffee. I like to test this by asking dumb questions that I already know the answers to, and sometimes I’m surprised when their answers are something a little out of the ordinary that expand my categories a bit.

I’d be there every weekend if I lived nearby, because only one other cafe compared when it came to the match up of food and coffee quality. And we’ll get to that one… Proud Mary doesn’t have a website that I can find via google, but you can follow them on Twitter.

Melbourne Cafe Review: The League of Honest Coffee

I had, in my mind, a long list of cafes to review when jetting in to Melbourne, and, to be honest, The League of Honest Coffee wasn’t on my radar. I love local knowledge though – so when our host promised to take us somewhere that had good coffee, we put our trust in him, and he didn’t disappoint.

In fact, my only disappointment was that the League of Honest Coffee wasn’t some sort of super hero themed, film noir, ghetto in a phone box. Though the disappointment in a lack of colour faded pretty quickly when I saw the two (that’s right, two) bright green Slayers on the bench.


Image Credit: Padre Coffee

The hanging Portafilter lamp is also a nice touch…

But that’s all pretty cosmetic, cafes are rubbish if they’re all style, no substance – and the League delivers on the packaging. In spades.

It’s one of a string of coffee outlets owned/operated by Padre Coffee. The strong flat white I ordered on arrival nailed it. It was on the El Salvador Mirasol Estate – and it was silky smooth with a chocolatiness on the Dairy Milk side of the spectrum (rather than the bitter cocoaesque side). I followed up with a piccolo on the Padre blend, which was also pretty sweet and special, my wife was also really happy with her hot chocolate. All our drinks were pitcher perfect – which I’ve decided is the best way to describe milk texture and temperature.

I’ve had so many coffees at other cafes since that all my tasting memories are starting to blend into one big pile of deliciousness, but I haven’t had many better coffees in my life. I will say that there are two things I’ve been struck by in this Melbourne jaunt, firstly – there are so many lady baristas in the specialty coffee scene down here, it’s not the man’s world that it sometimes feels like when you travel the streets of Brisbane, and secondly – the cream of the crop in Brisbane really holds its own against the cream of the crop in Melbourne.

The League of Honest Coffee is so named, allegedly (I read this somewhere, I didn’t ask anybody because I still secretly hope it’s a League of coffee super heroes), because they are committed to being informative about the origins of their coffees. Transparency in the coffee industry is something I respect, but it’s also essentially something I’ve come to expect – I’m not really interested in reviewing cafes that aren’t serious about being transparent, because I think this is part of being committed to quality coffee.

Here’s a snippet of their ethos from the Padre Coffee about us page:

“We treat coffee as a seasonal product. From the farms where the coffee is grown, through to the processing, storage and transport, every step of the journey is mindful of the next.

We encourage everyone to try different coffees, to promote a dialogue with your local cafes and coffee shops on the beans they use, where they come from and how they are roasted and prepared.”

While I wouldn’t go here just for the food (I would for the coffee, obviously), we had some pretty nice pastry treats from their cabinet of pretty nice pastry treats. You can see the last skerricks of one such treat in this photo.

They also offer a pretty massive selection of coffee kit, and one of the biggest and most exciting ranges of specialty beans I’ve ever seen (you can buy online, which is nice).

Creative design from the South

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