850 HIGH STREET THORNBURY. 9484 8857
Mon-Wed, 8am-4pm; Thu & Fri 8am-10pm; Sat 8.30am-10pm; Sun 8.30am-4pm.
When Little Henri opened two years ago, Thornbury hadn't quite taken off as it has these days.
"When we were looking at this area I remember thinking there's nothing around here," says head chef Tim Ashwood, who had been working at St Jude Cellars in Brunswick Street. "But one of our directors had a business north of Preston and he'd said he had to go to Northcote to get a decent lunch."
Now Little Henri is one of a handful of cafes in the area.
"We were early in the game but there's a lot of places now. There's been lots of little shops opening here as well because the rent's cheaper here. The artistic crowd got pushed out of Northcote a couple of years ago," says Ashwood.
Housed in a beautiful former old bank, Little Henri sticks mostly with classic dishes for its breakfast and brunch menu, but Ashwood, who has also worked at Vue de Monde, draws on his background in French cuisine, even for simpler dishes.
"Our food is French-themed with lots of technique - particularly the dinner menu - but the breakfast menu is more the type of food you used to eat as a kid growing up but with more finesse," he says.
Like the housemade baked beans with haloumi and gremolata ($14/$16 with egg/$17 with bacon/$19 both).
"There's a bit more care there than in your can of Heinz," Ashwood says.
The housemade crumpets - perfectly doughy and at least a couple of centimetres thick, served with lemon curd and strawberry syllabub ($14) - are another example.
"They're really popular, especially in this weather. I use a really old traditional recipe where we make the dough, bring it up and rest it at room temperature," Ashwood says. And no holes. "People think that's how crumpets should look, but (commercial crumpets) are artificially inflated so they get the holes."
Aside from pastries, which are brought in from Noisette in Port Melbourne, everything is made in-house, from the muesli (with almond, cranberries and cinnamon labne, $11) to the piadinis, (technically on the lunch menu from 12, and $13.50 with a small green salad or $14.50 with chunky chips). Little Henri's Ma's lamb meatballs and mozzarella is a highlight.
The most popular brekkie dish is zucchini fritters with housemade smoked salmon, avocado and horseradish cream ($16) and there's a raft of smaller (but richer) choices like the "McHenri", with bacon, egg, Emmental and Indian-style kasundi ($6) and the croissant with Henri's ma's ham, mustard, bechamel emmental and tomato ($9.50).
Breakfast is "super busy, particularly at the weekend", says Ashwood, but Little Henri attracts a broad range of locals.
"On any given day there'll be hipsters, young families with dogs and kids and then a couple of septuagenarians, the old local Greeks and Italians," he says. "At the weekend everyone's Instagramming photos of their food, but it's really become more of a local hangout than a destination cafe."
Don't let this deter you from heading north.