Twenty & Six Espresso

Kylie Northover
The cafe's interior features copper piping and paste-ups.
The cafe's interior features copper piping and paste-ups. Photo: Ken Irwin

594 Queensberry Street North Melbourne, Victoria 3051

View map

Opening hours Mon 7.30am-3.30pm; Wed-Fri 7.30am-3.30pm; Sat-Sun 8am-3.30pm
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Ben Gage
Phone 03 9329 0298

Twenty & Six Espresso owners Majda Falan and Nedim Rahmanovic had originally intended Twenty & Six to be a design studio (Falan is an interior designer, Rahmanovic a graphic designer) with a cafe downstairs, as a split business, but they hadn't foreseen the cafe side of things taking off quite so well.

''Twenty & Six as it stands now is keeping our hands full,'' Falan says. ''The name of the business is the original name of the design practice we were going to pursue (26 letters in the alphabet, Nedim's love of typography shining through there), but the plans … proved unrealistic. We felt it wasn't fair to do either in halves, so we took a break from design, for a challenge and a change and are thrilled with what Twenty & Six has grown to be.''

The small space has been consistently busy since its inception a couple of years ago, their menu - and coffee - regularly changing with the seasons and quickly winning over locals.

Happy marriage: Pan-fried sardines with a slow-poached egg.
Happy marriage: Pan-fried sardines with a slow-poached egg. Photo: Ken Irwin

It's a small space - seating about 20 inside, and the same again in the backyard courtyard - minimally but stylishly fitted out with industrial copper piping here and the odd paste-up there, with an equally compact menu. But the execution and the artful presentation of even pedestrian sounding brunch dishes pushes Twenty & Six above some of its equally fashionable neighbours.

The usual eggy, toasty suspects are all here but once you're past the (admittedly delicious sounding) apricot, coconut and fig granola with yoghurt, almond milk and poached stone fruit ($12), this breakfast-brunch-lunch all in one menu steps it up. The Asian influences of the original menu have gone, replaced by largely Mediterranean flavours.

On the new autumn menu there's the black sticky rice pudding with coconut cream, banana, toasted coconut, pear and sesame snap ($15), and apple and rhubarb French toast with house-made honeycomb parfait and vanilla labna ($17; add Canadian maple syrup for $3, Istra bacon for $5) for the sugar-inclined, and some adventurous flavour combinations for more savoury palates.

Apple and rhubarb French toast with honeycomb parfait and vanilla labna.
Apple and rhubarb French toast with honeycomb parfait and vanilla labna. Photo: Ken Irwin

Chef Ben Gage recently added a crispy pork belly, pork and fennel sausage with braised cannellini beans, silverbeet, garlic toast and a slow-poached egg ($20) and pan-fried sardines with spicy confit cherry tomatoes, broccolini, green chilli and lime aioli on toast with a slow-poached egg ($18). It sounds at first like too many flavours fighting for attention, but it's actually a happy, spicy marriage.

Even the drinks list is something different - as well as Seven Seeds coffee and Chamellia teas, they offer affogato with house-made honeycomb ice-cream ($6) and Mexican horchata - a drink made with rice, almond milk and cinnamon sweetened with maple syrup ($6/$7 with optional espresso shot).

It is also one of the few Melbourne cafes stocking new Nora charcoal tarts - decadent tarts with fillings like buttered popcorn coconut caramel, topped with candied bacon and lemon and lemongrass ginger brulee - encased in black ''activated charcoal'' (no, really) black pastry shells, the creation of local Thai couple Jean and Tong.

The small amount of charcoal apparently has health-giving qualities as a detoxing agent, but Rahmanovic concedes ''the main motivation is the aesthetic''.