Intro: If you have been living under a rock - or are just not that interested in food - you might not know that Vue de Monde's Shannon Bennett is definitely Melbourne's culinary heavyweight. Perhaps running with the theme of a former reputation for arrogance, Bennett moved his Carlton hideaway to a city back-alley, roped in a helluva lot of staff and lashed out on a really schmick fitout. Much to the chagrin of his critics, Bennett's top-notch and inventive grub has since resulted in a list of bookings as long as the list of accolades. It was against this background that Vue spawned Cafe Vue, in the same building. Rumor had it that Bennett's pastry chef would also be making the pastry for the cafe. When the rumor was confirmed in The Age, it was only a matter of time before this foodie and coffee nut succumbed to the cafe's irresistable pull. Heids' imminent departure proved the perfect excuse ...
The vibe: The cafe is slick, funky, fast-paced and cool. But it is also cold, emotionless and devoid of all personality. Neither the breathtaking cutlery and pristine chairs of the restaurant itself, nor the unapologetically playful artwork of the webpage or the book gets a look-in. Instead, we get glass, steel, red and photographs. If it were any other place, the seemingly standard illy fitout would be kind of cool, even though its uniformity in the cafes that I have seen from adelaide to barcelona make it seem very "high-end starbucks." Here, however, the look makes the cafe feel like the restaurant's abandoned bastard stepchild.
The staff, however, are great. At 11am, they seem happy, proudly announcing that we can't have a brioche because it hasn't been baked yet. They are only too eager to enthuse about pastry or ingredients and convoluted repeat orders are met with a welcoming - "don't worry about it, pay at the end." I even overheard some disdain and offence at the impending visit of an illy trainer.
The food: The food is the only area where I can make out Bennett's involvement, influence or interest. And, trust me, it's a good area to pick! I have a baked bean and duck confit jaffle. At a mere six bucks, I get the image of a chef gleefully burying it amidst the other menu items as a treasure for like-minded foodies. Heidi asks for a smoked salmon brioche. Unfortunately, she can't have one - the brioche is still being baked. I smile and she orders a different salmon concoction. At eight bucks, her sandwich doesn't terriffically phase me one way or the other, but she certainly enjoys it. I savour rich, almost cloying mouthfulls and wonder how Matt Preston could baulk at the bill. Maybe he went for the $15 lunchbox.
Of course, the pastry cabinet is the star attraction. And it does not dissappoint. Heidi and I share a chocolate tart and a pistachio cupcake. The cupcake reminds me of the pistachio macaroons at Laduree in Paris. As green as the incredible hulk, and with flavour to match. The chocolate tart is rich and tastes like it has a substantial cocoa content.
I leave feeling as I did when I left lunch in Paris. The food was spot on and stayed true to Bennett's French roots, with carefully selected ingredients delivering a powerful punch. My particular choices were quite rich and left me with something of a cloying sensation in the mouth, as I knew they would.
The coffee: Heidi was the one brave enough to order the espresso. I say nothing. She sips it and is revulsed, then asks me if I'd like to try it. I take her up on the offer, even though the sales pitch isn't exactly compelling. It's not too bad. Both ashy and sour, but fairly good for coffee that is clearly stale. I say as much and start talking about something else ... but my thoughts are cut short as a horrible and overwhelming ashy flavour develops a few minutes later. It's like there's a party in my mouth and everybody's smoking. Perhaps these words are what Matt Preston was searching for when he described his espresso as "potent." Fortunately, food arrives in short order. The ashy flavour was also the only hint of coffee that I tasted in the two mouthfuls of my latte that I could bring myself to down. Interesting, because the shots were extracted to the right volume and the milk was quite well textured. Another reviewer picked up on the milk texture, but how he can call this stuff "smooth" and lacking in "bite" is beyond me.
Not many things could bring me to try coffee that I know is likely to be stale, but Bennett's implicit thumbs up is one of them. I struggle to comprehend how a person who so obviously has an excellent palate can allow their name to be associated with coffee so terrible. Fortunately, Cafenatics is only a minute or so's walk away. I had been meaning to drop by and try their stuff since tagging along with the guys when they set up the machine at the newer Cafenatics. The owner was there and he treated Heids and I to some excellent shots. Sometimes the best things in life are literally free ;P
Conclusion: An awesome cafe. I will return for the food, but I think that I'll check out their tea.