680 Centre Road Bentleigh East, Victoria 3165
|Opening hours||Daily 7am-4.30pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 9579 0734|
Is tea the new coffee? At The Merchants Guild, tea has its own list, almost as long as the food menu, complete with tasting notes. The spacious cafe, a former $2 shop, is owned by Mario Minichilli and Vincent Conti, the team behind St Kilda's Inkr7, and is as much a showcase for their selection of reserve teas as it is for chef and co-owner Paul Davies' creative food. ''We feel tea should be appreciated as much as coffee,'' says Conti. ''We find a lot of people are getting into their tea.''
The leaf love is evident as soon as you walk through the door, with several varieties stored in special temperature-controlled fridges.
Towards the back of the cafe, the huge communal table is almost part of the tea ''factory'' where Conti and Minichilli operate the boutique chai tea label they launched eight years ago, Prana Chai, which is distributed Australia-wide and abroad. It's a popular item on the menu here and even as a non-chai drinker, I can attest it is delicious. The secret to their blend, says Conti, is that it's ''handmade with love''. Awww.
''We sell a truckload of chai here and we've seen a steady increase in the past few years,'' he says. ''It'll never be as big as coffee, but tea is growing.'' Some of the tea names (sourced from around the world) read like something from a 19th-century bordello menu - Golden Monkey, a classic black Chinese tea; Jasmine Pearls, tea that's been hand-rolled into a pearl shape and grown next to jasmine flower; Good Morning, a hearty Assam blend and Iron Goddess, a partially oxidised oolong - and are all served in their own particular ways, complete with individual tea timers.
''Everything is prepared properly,'' says Conti. ''We do it all to the best of our ability.''
Coffee is also taken seriously, with Padre for milk blends and a rotating roster of Melbourne roasters for single origin and espressos.
But it's not all liquid here - the food is a great mix of influences spicing up usual brunch suspects. There's the obligatory ''superfood'' dishes, such as the breakfast of avocado, kale, broccoli, barley and mung sprouts, served with green chilli and pumpkin seeds on toast with light cottage cheese and free-range eggs, for $18.50 but this, thankfully, sits directly above the doughnut French toast with vanilla mascarpone, peaches, berries and pistachios ($16.50). There's also a touch of the Mediterranean (eggs panzanella with jamon, basil and dehydrated cherry tomatoes, $18.50), some Asian (Vietnamese banh mi duck baguette with pickled veg, pate, chilli and coriander, $13.50) - the ubiquitous Americana (Mississippi chicken with a Creole coleslaw of cabbage, fennel, apple and purple carrots, $18) or the pulled pork salad with black bean, sweet corn, avocado, cucumber and creme fraiche ($19) - or you can play it safe with a good old ham, tomato and grilled cheese sourdough toastie for $11.
The sweet pea and feta smash on a super dark rye bread with Spanish sardines and a lemon and herb crumb ($15/$17 with a poached egg) is a standout, the big juicy sardines perfectly fried and the (mostly whole) sweet peas enhanced by just the right amount of feta.
Cakes from nearby Miss Ladybird Cakes in McKinnon provide a perfect accompaniment.