Cakes and Ale

Juicy: Pan-fried Spencer Gulf prawns in garlic butter.
Juicy: Pan-fried Spencer Gulf prawns in garlic butter. Photo: Wayne Taylor

102 Ocean Beach Road Sorrento, Victoria 3943

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Opening hours Daily 11am-11pm
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Breakfast-brunch, Events, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Leilani Wolfenden
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 5984 4995

You'd never suspect this was the best place for local seafood on the Mornington Peninsula.

This two-year-old Sorrento cafe morphs from breakfast spot to bistro throughout the day at the rate it takes to get a terracotta tan. The look is Country Living meets Temple and Webster. Gwyneth Paltrow​ meets Nigella Lawson. It's copies of Monocle and turquoise walls meets flowing ferns and Mumford and Sons.

The name Cakes and Ale doesn't help, though it's not a total red herring. Chef Leilani Wolfenden knows her way around a bag of flour, as evidenced by fat eclairs and fat lacquered pies that sit in squat formation on the counter. At night the choux dough has a little mustard added and becomes gnocchi Parisienne – rich, pan-fried nubbins of golden squish dressed with a rubble of fresh broad beans and broccoli with a white pepper left hook and melty lobes of mild squacquerone cheese.

Polished affair: The decor is Country Living magazine meets Temple and Webster.
Polished affair: The decor is Country Living magazine meets Temple and Webster. Photo: Wayne Taylor

But eagle-eyed fish fans will see straight past the charcuterie boards loaded with fiery slips of Spanish salami; beyond the sandy diners demanding caprioscas when they mean caipirinhas (and which the team makes twice to keep them happy despite needing to hand-crush the ice). They see past it all, straight to the St Leonards whitebait, to Bass Strait mackerel, and pickled mussels from Dromana bay.

This shouldn't be an anomaly in a seaside town but it is. The struggle to land that fish on your plate is a farce. Owners James Langley, who had stakes in St Jude's Cellars and Panama Dining Room, and Mathew Guthrie, who trod the boards at Libertine and cheese-centric Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, moved to the bay to get close to quality goods.

They found that their only local fish access would be from the supplier they'd previously used in the CBD, only here they'd have to wait the several extra hours for delivery. Finally, they found they could get the fresh-caught snapper, sardines and mackerel ferried across from Geelong. If new laws come into force in April banning commercial fishing in the bay area, even that could be off the cards.

Whole baby snapper receives a light touch.
Whole baby snapper receives a light touch. Photo: Wayne Taylor

For now, celebrate the good times while you can. Also celebrate that Wolfenden knows how to treat that seafood right. 

It might be mackerel, far less funky than you've ever seen it, gently poached in olive oil with fennel seeds until buttery soft and rumbled with waxy potatoes and shaved fennel. It's nicoise, but not as you know it.

You order the pan-fried prawns just for the dregs that remain after you've pulled the fat crustaceans from the ramekin, leaving a pool of sweet, prawny butter with whole slices of garlic for sopping up on your cob of bread.

Choux pastry gnocchi with broad beans, broccolini and creamy squacquerone cheese.
Choux pastry gnocchi with broad beans, broccolini and creamy squacquerone cheese. Photo: Wayne Taylor

But most nights, one in three people orders the whole snapper, also treated with the lightest touch – pan-fried with brown butter, delivered with a warmed cheek of lemon, capers and almonds.

It's fish un-fussed because it needs nothing else. You on the other hand want a picpoul de pinet​ from the Languedoc​ or the more ballsy Crittenden Estate fume blanc. It's a sharp list they like to keep fresh. You can see much the same care on a beer list that veers crafty, though familiar (Two Birds, Prickly Moses). Or how about a caipirinha? I hear they're all the rage.

Dessert? Eclairs are never a bad idea, unless you're anti coffee cream. If so, mainline your custard in the form of a strawberry fool with sharp rhubarb poached in bubbles. It's face in a rose bush floral, stopping short of potpourri.

Strawberry fool with champagne-poached rhubarb.
Strawberry fool with champagne-poached rhubarb. Photo: Wayne Taylor

This is a polished operation, where everyone's going to a lot of trouble to deliver good times on the floor and put good things on the plate. Run, don't walk. 

Pro tip 
Show up early afternoon for a seat in high season
Go-to dish Spencer Gulf prawns in garlic butter, $19
Like this? Bacash is still fighting the local seafood fight. 175 Domain Road, South Yarra

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.  
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best