213 Queen Street Melbourne, Victoria 300003 9642 1213
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri, 7am-4pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
The Deli Counter is the sort of place where nourishment comes not only from the forthright food, but from the gestures and attitude of the people who work there.
The postie hands over the mail and staff offer him a free coffee. A plate of fried pita chips might materialise ''for you to try''. Ask the person taking orders at the counter what the day's fish is and the chef comes over holding up a tray of whole bream, before slipping away to fillet it, rub its skin with salt and bake it beautifully moist.
The fish and the other three mains, such as rolled pork shoulder, come with a couple of ''salads''. They're called salads because they're not hot, but they're a long way from leafy side-orders. These substantial vegetable-based numbers are straight-up chunky, without ornament: soft-roasted cauliflower mixed with caramelised onions and quartered fresh figs, or roughly chopped strips of roasted capsicum and fennel, grassy leaves and all, with occasional globs of creamy goat's cheese clinging in its folds. The ingredients are left to do the talking. It makes a wholesome meal, and, at $18, a very good deal.
The downstairs dining room is mostly an open kitchen. It has a long, wooden counter where you order and pay and can eyeball those salads, and bench seating, some of it along a gloriously large arched window fronting Queen Street and framing autumn leaves drifting from trees and sharking parking inspectors. The ubiquitous industrial stamp comes by way of smart road-sign composites, reminiscent of Rosalie Gascoigne, but residual '70s touches from some leftover lightfittings and beams make it loveably smart. Upstairs there are four tables, but it's a bit boxy and lifeless despite its balcony and windows.
Those on a lunch run can take the Deli Counter's other main lunch gig, filled pides, back to their desk. The bread's the only thing here that's bought in: soft pockets rammed with roasted cauliflower, tahini, tomato and spring onion, humming with chilli and oozing sour cream. There's also an eggplant, potato, boiled egg, pickles and parsley version. Hunker down behind the partition to wrangle these into your mouth: it ain't pretty to watch.
Breakfast, from 7am, offers warming shakshuka (baked eggs in slow-cooked, paprika-pepped tomato), and cheese-filled pastries with shaved tomato, a soft-boiled egg and labna.
Workers anywhere near the corner of Queen and Little Bourke streets will want to find Deli Counter for its fresh, incidentally healthy food, reasonable prices and authentic personality, free from PR sheen. There's nothing like feeling warm, fuzzy and full in a quick lunch break.
Do… Plump for a window seat
Don't… Try to eat the fennel tips
Dish… Salad plate with your choice of protein
Vibe… Hospitality with a capital 'H'
Coming soon: The new Age Good Cafe Guide 2014 will be available for $5 with The Age on Saturday, June 21, from participating newsagents, while stocks last. It will also be available in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $9.99.