Illi Hill

Megan Johnston
New fit-out: A rustic kauri counter is repurposed from the former deli.
New fit-out: A rustic kauri counter is repurposed from the former deli. Photo: James Alcock

72 Illawarra Road Marrickville, New South Wales 2204

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Opening hours Daily, 7am-4pm,
Features Cheap Eats, Family friendly, Gluten-free options
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Jesus Estevez
Phone 0408 609 879

When a humble neighbourhood stalwart closes its doors, locals tend to question any replacement that has even a whiff of anything new and hip. And if that replacement arrives in the form of a stylish new cafe – well, surely that's only further insult.

So when shop-owners Con and Mary Fourfouris shut their corner deli after almost 50 years in business, newcomers Oleh Sokolovsky and Perry Silvio might have expected a less than rousing welcome with their new venue Illi Hill. (It's at the top of the hill on Illawarra Road.)

But if the busy weekend crowds are any indication, it seems the locals have come around quickly since the cafe opened in September. Con and Mary aren't far away either – they live out the back, supplying a steady stream of fresh herbs to the kitchen.

The ricotta and buttermilk hotcakes are more dessert than breakfast.
The ricotta and buttermilk hotcakes are more dessert than breakfast. Photo: James Alcock

Sokolovsky's background in furniture dealing (he owns online vintage store Juliet's Balcony and once worked in set design) is reflected in the new stripped-back fit-out. The interior feels homey yet uncluttered, with an exposed metal beam, vintage scales, old tiled walls and a rustic kauri counter repurposed from the former deli. The fruit and veg sign still proudly decorates the front window.

The space is also surprisingly roomy and includes designer touches such as brass tabletops and bentwood chairs, some of which have appeared on the set of big studio movies.

On a warm Saturday morning, the cruisy crowd is a mix 'n' match of older early risers, cheerful family groups of all ages and young tattooed mums sporting spiky neon haircuts.

The green scrambled eggs with spinach, peas and shallot.
The green scrambled eggs with spinach, peas and shallot. Photo: James Alcock

With an active toddler in tow, we're lucky to score a table next to the kids' nook on the side, with easy access to toys, books and pencils.

The able staff deliver a round of Little Marionette coffees, which are smooth yet strong, eliciting approving nods all around.

Then onto the smoothies: a banana, honey and cinnamon concoction that's velvety and not too sweet.  

The breakfast salad includes greens, avocado and almond flakes.
The breakfast salad includes greens, avocado and almond flakes. Photo: James Alcock

The all-day breakfast menu and compact lunch list from chef Jesus Estevez (formerly of Erskineville's Bar Nosh) is inventive and nourishing, with a focus on local and ethical produce from suppliers such as Feather and Bone, Country Valley Milk, AC Butchery and The Bread and Butter Project.

Neighbouring tables are scattered with baked eggs and heartier classics but we opt for more unusual dishes, starting with the "breakfast salad", a delicate assemblage of greens, avocado and almond flakes. Sprigs of fresh mint and zesty lemon labna elevate it above the ordinary, though the dressing is a little scant for my taste.

The Farmer Jo untoasted muesli is equally healthy, with hints of cinnamon and citrus and topped with a layer of natural yoghurt and colourful berries and melon.

My inner child is faintly disappointed when the green scrambled eggs don't arrive as glowing Dr Seuss-inspired blobs. But my grown-up self definitely approves of the eye-catching pillow of egg, spinach and shallot before me. Sweet baby peas pop in the mouth while crumbled feta and a dash of shimmering basil oil lend a soft richness.

The star of the morning, however, is the ricotta and buttermilk hotcakes. More dessert than breakfast, they're rich, moist and properly cakey, decorated with a wedge of dark chocolate praline, a layer of vanilla labna and soft, golden slices of saffron-poached pear. Drizzled with an orange glaze, they're demolished in no time.

Our healthy resolve by now completely unravelling, we order a hot chocolate to go and move towards the doorway. By now it seems half the suburb has packed out the place and the footpath outside. Welcome to the 'hood Illi Hill.

Ricotta and buttermilk hotcakes; green scrambled eggs on rye.
The Little Marionette and a local roaster.
Homey and DIY with a designer edge.
Pleasant, fuss-free and spot on.