St Ali North

Zucchini and asparagus salad.
Zucchini and asparagus salad. Photo: Eddie Jim

815 Nicholson Street Brunswick East, Victoria 3057

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Opening hours Daily 6.30am-5pm
Features Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Mastercard, Visa
Phone 03 9380 5455

To lose one espresso machine, Mr Malatesta, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks more like really bad luck …

After the various coups Salvatore Malatesta and Jesse Gerner scored around the opening of St Ali North - including adding chef Chris Hamburger from Anada and The Aylesbury and pastry chef Shaun Quade (Duchess of Spotswood, The Brix) to their crew (which includes Malatesta's trusty coffee consigliere and head barista Matt Perger) - the theft of the $20,000-plus Synessos on the night they had been plumbed in, and just a few days before opening, was what had Twitter hashtagging @ST_ALi in late November.

But the story has matured and it's time to talk about the cafe itself.

St. Ali in Carlton North.
St. Ali in Carlton North. Photo: Eddie Jim

For a start, the location: is there a better spot in town for a cool cafeteria than this swath of lawn beside a busy bike path in Melbourne's inner north? I doubt it.

The site has allowed Malatesta and Gerner to build from the ground up. Design collective Barbara and Fellows (it did Plantation) has delivered a light, open space with plenty of windows onto the greenery and seating to suit any mood: deep window ledges looking across the lawn to the bike path; outside tables with a view of a playground; tables in the thick of the (sometimes loud) indoor action; and stools at a long communal bench that doubles as a brew bar. There's a takeaway coffee window, too, open from 6am.

Gerner has overseen a short menu of brunchy staples with some twists. My Mexican Cousin - sweet, moist kibbeh-shaped corn fritters served with haloumi, kasundi and a runny-yolked poached egg - has made the journey north from South Melbourne, joining such northside delights as a breakfast sandwich of pork loaf that's meatily reminiscent of the pate in banh mi, with a sour-sweet pineapple relish; a comfort-food wagyu beef burger served on a brioche bun with cheddar, bacon, Russian dressing and pickles (the McAli maybe?); and two moist piles of rabbit rillettes on crunchy, garlicky sourdough croutons complemented by a cappuccino cup of cold tomato soup with a nice savoury edge.

Cappuccino con freddo.
Cappuccino con freddo. Photo: Eddie Jim

Quade is baking up a pastry storm in the kitchen, with a rotating menu of treats ("We have to let him roam free," says Perger explaining why the whiskey-spiked garibaldi - my early favourite - had disappeared). There's a peach and macadamia tart with baked cream, a lemon meringue cake with lemon and thyme curd (it's gluten-free, too), and a lamington that deserves some kind of cake award - a moist, rich chocolate sponge filled with house-made blackberry jam and chocolate cream.

A St Ali-roasted short black has an almost honeycombish nose and is syrupy in the mouth with a hint of sweet fruit and a pleasantly bitter finish, but there's a coffee surprise for filter aficionados - Perger has installed a batch brewer that brews 2½ litres at a time and keeps it ready to serve under vacuum.

It's quick, economical and still does the filter business quite well.

Chocolate lamington.
Chocolate lamington. Photo: Eddie Jim

There's a fridge full of St Ali beans for home brewers and you can even rent a post box for after-hours bean collection. Mr Malatesta thinks of everything …

So who would steal a pair of Synessos? And what cafe, anywhere in Australia, would risk buying the purloined machines? Well, there are theories about the likely culprits that I can't repeat; and according to Malatesta, "Synesso says they've probably gone to South Korea, where they cost closer to $30,000."

The serial numbers of the stolen machines are 306121440 and 307121481. So next time you're in Seoul for coffee …

Breakfast St Ali breakfast sandwich - pork loaf, pineapple chutney, fried egg, $15.50
Lunch Rabbit rillettes on toast with chilled tomato soup, $15
Drinks Espresso coffee $4; filter coffee $4