Higher Ground

Cauliflower scramble.
Cauliflower scramble. Photo: Paul Jeffers

650 Little Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3004

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Opening hours Mon-Wed 7am-4pm; Thu-Fri 7am-11pm; Sat 8am-11pm; Sun 8am-4pm
Features Licensed, Vegetarian friendly
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 8899 6219

Nathan Toleman describes his cavernous powerhouse-turned-cafe at the bottom of Little Bourke Street as being like a hip hotel without the rooms – a lobby/lounge type thing with a very serious kitchen.

But with a buzzy vibe, towering brick walls and tall arched windows, Higher Ground feels more like it's part of some 19th-century train station – an upmarket one in a European capital, a Love Actually rendering of St Pancras​ maybe (wait … that's not in Europe any more).

The cafe extends over three levels, with seating at tables, bars, and on sofas and easy chairs ranged around coffee tables in nooks and lounge-like areas. It really would be a pleasant place to wait for a train to anywhere.

Higher Ground cafe covers three levels.
Higher Ground cafe covers three levels. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Thankfully the train station analogy ends at the pass. Chef Nate Wilkins has a squad of cooks who have been through various Melbourne kitchens working on brunch and lunch every day and a plate-based evening menu from Thursday to Saturday that features the likes of beef tartare with anchovy emulsion and salt-grass lamb with green sauce and olives.

There is a lot to like on the menu, which plays with the brunch classics, uses quality ingredients, and throws a few curve balls.

There's a peppery scramble of just-cooked eggs on a disc of chewy house-made flatbread that reminded a Glasgow-born lunch pal of a potato scone; the scramble is scattered with tasty cumin-spiced roasted cauliflower florets.

Go-to dish: Roasted mushrooms and polenta.
Go-to dish: Roasted mushrooms and polenta. Photo: Paul Jeffers

A curve-ball breakfast is lamb mince fried up and piled on two slices of sourdough toast with a couple of fried eggs – folk food from Little England maybe, given a Middle Eastern tang with smoked yoghurt and pomegranate.

Folk food from Little Melbourne could be a delicious dish of polenta topped with roasted and pickled mushrooms. The polenta is soft, almost porridge-like, with lovely, runny cheesy flavours, while the mushrooms have good toothy texture, and the contrasts are heightened by a generous scatter of hazelnut and sourdough crumble for lovely nutty crunch.

A lamb sausage roll with cucumber pickle is another riff on folk food, while a wagyu short-rib sandwich comes on a soft brioche-style roll, the beef super tender and moist with a pull-apart, stewy texture set against the crunch of a bahn-mi style salad of pickled carrot and daikon. Pretty straightforward, pretty tasty.

Toleman and Co know how to run a cafe show. Staff on the floor and in the theatrically lit open kitchen buzz about in workhouse-grey shirts and pinafores. The drinks menu has nine wines by the glass and stretches from Champagne to Nagambie, but also features work-day friendly cordials made by steeping fruit in vinegar and adding sugar: the kind of soft drink that an adult would actually drink, in sour-sweet flavours including pomegranate (garnished with pomegranate seeds) and tamarind (star anise).

With coffee from the group's own Square One roastery as espresso, batch and pour over brews, this is the full package, taking Melbourne cafe eating to another level, somewhere up there on, er, higher ground.

Pro Tip: Look out for breakfast degustations on weekends; coming soon.

Go-to Dish: Soft polenta with pickled and roasted mushrooms.