Photo: Eddie Jim
ANYONE can open a cafe, right? And many do, armed only with a sandwich press, a converted garage and high hopes.
But not everyone can open a cafe like Small Victories - a chic transformation of the former Rathdowne Street Food Store - with a dream cast of hospitality high-achievers and fine-dining food at cafe prices.
It's name-drop central, with Alric Hansen (formerly of Crimean and Bar Lourinha) in the kitchen, Ben Farrant (formerly of Gills Diner) running front-of-house, and barista Dane Johns (ex-Wide Open Road and The Premises) manning the custom-built machine with its robust, fruity Wide Open Road blend.
After a speedy three-week spruce-up, the split-level space is now white, airy and fresh, a 40-seater with room for 20 more on the footpath. Low lighting makes everyone look their best, there is a marble bar, and the sparse, unobtrusive fitout slips easily from breakfast (until 4pm) to lunch (from noon) to dinner (which starts in mid-July).
Hansen says he is often disappointed by cafe menus that promise the world, then deliver a dish ''cooked by some part-time student who's hungover from the night before''. Here, what appears on the plate often exceeds its description. The menu begins with high-end sides, including leek and cheddar croquettes, with crunchy outers and soft inners (the most awesome ''brekkie hash'' replacement), and spinach turned from ordinary to delectable, with garlic, slivers of red chilli, spring onions, dill, mint and coriander.
Hansen even manages to make waffles sophisticated, drizzling the fluffy, pancakey squares with his own not-too-sweet fenugreek syrup (the spice used in ''fake'' maple syrup), smoked muscovado sugar, poached pears, and chestnut (three types; as a biscuit crumb, candied and caramelised).
On both visits, poached eggs were just-set, not runny, and Hansen says he doesn't like the yolks too soft. Personally, I love a leaky egg, so I reckon next time I might go for the scramblers.
The yoghurt, black pudding and sausage are all made here, and so is the pasta, the rough-hewn strands of texturally splendid fettucine tossed with broccoli, plump Manzanilla olives, pine nuts, chilli, pecorino or an organic rabbit ragu.
There is an amazing Moroccan cauliflower and butternut pumpkin dish, the vegies rolled in spices (cumin, coriander, allspice, paprika), with tahini, toasted almonds and nigella seeds, the right parts crunchy, spicy and creamy.
And chunky Dench rolls, stuffed with crumbed chicken breast and dill-and-yoghurt coleslaw or barbecued pork belly, are new ''best sandwich'' contenders.
Expert staff set you up with the right bits and bobs, and Small Victories hums with the surety of hard-won hospitality experience.
Perhaps its greatest victory is that these on-paper credentials translate so well - and then some.
Where 617 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North, 9347 4064
Prices Breakfasts, $7-$18; lunches, $12-$22; cakes and biscuits, $3-$5.50
Cards Amex, DC, MC, V, Eftpos
Open Tues-Sun, 8am-4pm
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87 Hudsons Road, Spotswood, 9391 6016.
- 9347 4064
- Prices - Breakfasts, $7-$18; lunches, $12-$22; cakes and biscuits, $3-$5.50
- Features - Licensed
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS, Diners Club
- Opening Hours - Tues-Sun, 8am-4pm
- Author - Nina Rousseau