What could be more romantic on Valentine’s Day than Elvis serenading you whilst waiting for a table at St Ali? Actually, the walk on the way through the Botanical Gardens was probably just as romantic, but not quite as unusual. Just like Elvis, this is a cafe with a strong record of producing classics.
It feels like the wave of what we call modern Melbourne cafes was started by St Ali. When I think of this genre I think of exceptional focus on coffee, accompanied by food that is presented akin to a quality restaurant, but based around breakfast staples with some contemporary technique that escalates the usual to the next level. The next wave, that has started with places like Hammer and Tong, and Operator25, is about bringing a new take on what is a breakfast staple, by transporting us to other Asian countries.
When you look at the menu at St Ali these days the impact of this cafe becomes more obvious, with the “Hall Of Fame” showing off creations by alumnus including Dead Man Espresso, and Ora Speciality Coffee. One dish, “My Mexican Cousin” was even responsible for an offshoot restaurant at one stage, but still holds centre stage here. It consists of corn fritters, grilled halloumi, corn, cucumber salsa, spicy tomato puree and green salad. Catherine is happy with this dish, and it is the first time she has tried it, but something that has been on a menu for many years is tough to go wrong with.
For me I am in new territory with the “North African Fry Up” which I’ve mainly ordered for the “merguez” which is spicy lamb sausage. Accompanying this delicious sausage is a healthy serving of scrambled eggs, avocado, chickpeas, coriander, and plenty of fresh chilli and flakes. The spice level is perfect for me, but I don’t add a huge amount of the fresh chilli to each bite. The scram is nicely seasoned and everything comes together beautifully.
Along with some great food, I am here for the coffee and the two single origins on offer don’t disappoint. The Konga Yiragacheffe from Ethiopia is the more robust style (that I would normally go for), and the Narino from Columbia has a bit more softness and complexity. Catherine started with the “Refresher” consisting of watermelon, apple and mint. However, the peppermint tea she ordered never made it to the table. While we could tell we had an experienced waitperson on our communal table, we could also tell it was not his best day in the office. He saw that my knife was dirty when he put it down, but never brought another one back, had to recheck our order, and didn’t bring us water until the second time we asked.
St Ali has always been a favourite cafe but others have come in the last five years that have caused us to detour from this quiet street in South Melbourne. This visit shows that little has changed about the great food and coffee on offer, and I’d hope service is normally much better.