Aucuba

Sweet potato waffle with maple miso sauce and parmesan ice-cream.
Sweet potato waffle with maple miso sauce and parmesan ice-cream. Photo: Jesse Marlow

108 Bank Street South Melbourne, Victoria 3205

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 7am-4pm; Sat-Sun 8am-4pm
Features Vegetarian friendly
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9041 3904

Speciality cafes … we've seen it all. What's next, Melbourne?

How about a roastery in the back streets of South Melbourne with a siphon coffee bar, a menu of plant-based Japanese-accented brunch food, a chef who comes with high-end restaurant polish, and blue pineapple wallpaper?

Sure – why not.

Japan meets Finland at Aucuba.
Japan meets Finland at Aucuba. Photo: Jesse Marlow

That's the deal at Aucuba, which opened down the wrong end of Bank Street – the within-diesel-sucking-distance-of-Kings-Way-end – late in April with all the above-mentioned features, including the pineapple wallpaper.

As owner Mark Knapp explains, pineapples are a symbol of hospitality in Europe. They were once imported at great expense from the New World, and the upper classes used to rent them for dinner party centrepieces. Now we slice 'em, dice 'em and put 'em on a pizza.

On the wall here they just add to the vague Finland-meets-Japan vibe (that's a thing: ask a Japanese person; ask a Finn. They're into each other's cultures).

The mac 'n' three cheese toastie.
The mac 'n' three cheese toastie. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Aucuba's all-day menu is a sneaky one; you may ponder it for some time before you notice the absence of animal other than egg in most dishes (though you can add sides of organic, free-range and ethically produced chicken, bacon or pork belly), but you will get the Japanese vibe quickly from dishes such as umeshu-soaked muesli with coconut cream and fuji apple; matcha yoghurt panna cotta; a tempura mushroom burger with sesame slaw; and green tea-infused soba noodles with beetroot gazpacho.

"We wanted the hero to be the plant," says Mark Knapp. "And it's very much inspired by Japanese cuisine."

The Japanese feel is there even in chef Andrew Grantham's (ex-Becco, Bistro d'Orsay) waffles: sweet potato-based things with a maple miso sauce, served with parmesan ice-cream and caramel popcorn. It may look unpromising on the menu, but on the plate it's a pleasant mess of flavours and textures: umami, sweet, some salty caramel crunch from the popcorn, and the parmesan ice-cream subtle enough to be a cold, savoury hit rather than an overwhelming burp of butyric acidity.

An onsen egg is a tasty slow-cooked one, bursting over sauteed shiitake mushrooms and sliced avocado, with a salty-sweet miso foam on top. Underneath is a porridge of teff, the Horn of Africa grain that is the main ingredient in injera bread. Good. Interesting even. But it also has an unnerving grittiness – about every third mouthful offered a little sand-grain crunch (though it's fair to say Knapp warned us about this). You know it's not taking the enamel off your teeth, but it does set them on edge.

But a mac 'n' cheese toastie is comfort food for anyone who finds the rest of the menu daunting. Parmesan, roquefort and tasty are gently truffle-infused and laced with just a little macaroni, nicely oozy and cheesy on toasted white sourdough. This is more about the cheese than the mac – and it's a good thing with a siphon of house-roasted Ethiopia Biftu that has an almost tea-like tannic finish. The (coffee) plant is the hero here for sure.

Do… Peanut butter salt and pepper tofu roll with wasabi mayo.

Don't… Skip the siphon bar: a chance to talk coffee with owner Mark Knapp.

Dish… Sweet potato waffle with maple miso sauce.

Vibe… No risk, no reward.

http://www.aucubacoffee.com/