WHEN Orange opened for business at the Windsor end of Chapel Street, it comprised one slightly shabby single shopfront where owner Steve Boyle dished up orange juice and coffee while poaching eggs on a domestic stove. Fast-forward 13 years and it's a different beast altogether. One shopfront has become two (including a recently renovated bar area on the corner) and the formerly poky dining room now encompasses several spaces that stretch back into the building. There's a real kitchen, too.
But beyond the physical transformation, Orange now seems to be undergoing - or at least attempting to undergo - a more fundamental change.
Perhaps there's an element of sibling rivalry at work here, a Jan and Marcia Brady, or Vincent Chase and Johnny Drama, kind of tension that's set the changes in motion. Orange's sister restaurant, Pandora's Box, opened just around the corner last year, attracting plenty of excited attention as punters flocked to the shiny-tiled fitout, the box-ticking wine list, the flexible Spanish-leaning menu. Orange kept doing its thing - breakfast until mid-afternoon, straightforward cafe food, decent coffee staff with attitude - but was suddenly and unmistakably left in the shadow of its more popular, sexier, more finessed and pampered sibling.
The success of Pandora's Box - hardly surprising in this neck of the woods, where, with one or two notable exceptions, quality dining remains unfathomably hard to come by - seems to have inspired Steve Boyle and his manager, Lok Thornton (formerly of Vue de Monde, Royal Mail, Annie Smithers), to lift the game at Orange. And while the changes are not particularly radical, they do see the old workhorse setting out for slightly more upmarket pastures.
The user-friendly local bistro feel of old has been retained - the dark-hued, timber-clad rooms with their upholstered booths, '70s light fittings and East Village-channelling vibe give off an endearing whiff of southside bohemian glamour.
There's a smart little wine list that divides its affections equally between the new and old worlds (something of a no-brainer, given Thornton's involvement), floor staff who look as if they don't mind being there and a general feeling of communal socks being pulled up.
The menu of contemporary Euro-centric food has stayed in ''don't scare the horses'' territory but things are being finessed, with a noticeable drop in the number of dishes on the new, more streamlined list. The cooking comes courtesy of Ben Craven, most recently spotted helping out Philippa Sibley during her all-too-short stint at Il Fornaio, and who's also worked at Circa and Attica.
Craven's cooking is pretty solid and he has a good eye for presentation but there's a bit of a tendency to lapse - some over-seasoning here, some overcooking there, some rushed, untidy plating - that need to be addressed if Orange is to arrive at the places it's obviously wanting to go.
A salad of buffalo mozzarella, grilled asparagus and pickled green chillies ($12) is a case in point. The ingredients are good; the cheese, with just a hint of background sweetness, playing nicely with the grill-striped asparagus and the sprightly chillies that are mainly about tang but still retain a pleasant background heat. It's a good dish with nicely balanced flavours that is let down a little by drab presentation.
Similarly, a clever dish that combines chargrilled quail with cubes of watermelon sweetened with pomegranate and is topped with crumbled pistachios ($14) looks great and could have been mesmerising but for the quail arriving too cool and its skin with no discernible crispness.
There are no problems with a chicken and carrot terrine ($15), a lovely-looking slice of pale, slightly pink meat with Dutch carrots and tarragon at its centre that shares a plate with cornichons and chargrilled bread. It's an elegant dish, a lesson in subtlety and restrained seasoning.
Equally good but eschewing restraint for big-flavoured bolshiness is the Wagyu rump ($28), a dark-pink piece of grass-fed beef from Gippsland, richly flavoured and topped with grated fresh horseradish. It comes with roasted baby beets, slices of radish and caperberries but it's a good idea to also order a side of the sliced, fried potatoes ($7), the salty starch pulling all the elements together in an altogether satisfying way.
Prettiest dish of the night award goes to the confit ocean trout ($27), a lovely tumble of pale pinks and creams that includes peeled and creamy-textured kipfler potatoes, some rounds of softened leeks and caper-dominated tartare sauce, all topped with a poached egg. Soft, velvety textures and balanced vinegary tang - what's not to love?
Desserts appear to be a work in progress and, like Orange itself, seem headed in the right direction. Sibley is doing some consulting on this end of the menu and her hand can be seen in the chocolate-brownie delice ($14), a beautifully textured, slightly bitter slice of richness accompanied by mint and caramel ice-cream. A rhubarb crumble ($12) was less impressive, its crumble having something of a share-house bowl-of-muesli quality to it. It seemed more representative of the old Orange than the new.
One of the best things about Orange - and surely a large part of why it's survived in a tough industry for well over a decade - is that it has always had a real sense of place. The changes it has undergone have reflected the growth and change of the neighbourhood around it. This latest incarnation is certainly mirroring the shifting demographic down this end of Chapel Street.
It may not yet have the coherence of its stylish little sister but there's already plenty to admire as Orange seeks to distinguish itself among others of its kind. The way things are going at present puts this cafe of humble origins firmly in ''watch this space'' territory.
- 03 9529 1644
- Cuisine - Modern Australian
- Prices - Entree $16, main $28, dessert $14
- Opening Hours - Daily, 6.30am-late
- Author - Michael Harden