140 Flinders St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 7am-4pm; Sat-Sun 9am-4pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 8529 7610|
On first look, Cento Mani appears to be a tiny espresso bar wedged into the corner of a Flinders Street building. The pastry cabinet gives some clues as to what makes the place special – among the almond croissants and danish are a few sweet specialities from Colombia, and the drinks menu lists tropical juices as well as the requisite espresso. It would be easy to miss the staircase to the right of the counter that leads to a tiny balcony dining room, where a full menu is available.
Cento Mani opened in November of 2014, the work of Diego Reyes, who came to Australia the previous year to study at Melbourne University. Reyes had been CEO of a large company in Colombia, and he planned to return to that career – his trip to Australia was only supposed to last six months.
"I didn't know Australians were so crazy about coffee," Reyes says, explaining that his very first job as a small boy was picking coffee beans on his grandfather's farm. He decided to open a cafe, bringing Colombian coffee to Melbourne's CBD but also learning the very non-Colombian art of espresso.
"We started with coffee," he says, "and then people started asking, 'What do Colombians eat?'"
He added arepas – thick griddle-cooked corn cakes – to the menu.
Once the word got out that arepas were available, Colombian guests began to show up looking for a taste of home. After a while, he added a full menu of Colombian breakfast and lunch dishes. Some of those items have an Australian cafe spin to them: Colombian eggs on an arepa are presented much like many cafe egg dishes, with the option to add feta, chorizo, salmon, or a host of other ingredients. But some dishes are pure Colombian.
Caldo de costilla is a rich, deep short rib broth also known as "levanta muertos" because it is said to be able to bring you back from the dead after a long night of drinking. On weekend mornings at Cento Mani, you can find many customers gratefully slurping its soothing warmth.
Ajiaco is a pre-Hispanic dish, meaning it dates from before European settlers arrived in South America. It is a thick soup made from three kinds of potato, an ancient herb called "guascas", a sweetcorn cob, and topped with shredded chicken. It is intensely comforting, especially thanks to the ripe avocado and pleasingly salty white rice that comes alongside.
The fresh juices are fantastic – the passionfruit in particular is refreshing and just sour enough – and there are a couple of specialty drinks you have to try to be able to understand. The Colombian hot chocolate, for instance, comes infused with cloves and cinnamon and melted mozzarella cheese.
Cheese in your chocolate? That's right. "For Colombians," Reyes explains, "there is nothing more sexy than finishing the chocolate and getting to that melted cheese."
Go-to Dish: Ajiaco; caldo de costilla; Colombian hot chocolate.