Plain Sailing review

Vanilla and orange blossom yoghurt panna cotta with 'hempnola' (hemp granola).
Vanilla and orange blossom yoghurt panna cotta with 'hempnola' (hemp granola). Photo: Chris Hopkins

144 Ormond Rd Elwood, VIC 3184

View map

Features Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Family friendly
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9537 7060

Bong! That's the sound of the bell tolling, ringing in the new era of legal edible hemp. Dopey jokes aside, hemp is an easy-growing, high-protein, good-fat-packed crop that's starting to infiltrate the health food scene and is sure to make a broader culinary impact.

Hemp hits the menu at Plain Sailing in the hempnola, a buckwheat granola with goji berries and hemp seeds made by local company The Wild. But dishes at this four-month-old cafe are never just one thing: they're a jostling, joyful congregation of colour, texture and taste across many elements. So, chef Ryan Lording uses the hempnola as the crunchy backdrop for a whimsical assembly that includes a rosewater-scented and Middle-Eastern-spiced panna cotta, puce açai labne, fresh figs and green pistachios. It's a riot!

You might think "so far, so super food", but Lording's style is flavour first and health as a bonus. Just-toasted spices, a little squeeze of fresh citrus and the happy use of herbs keeps the dishes bright and lively, and even though they're busy, they eat well to the last bite.

Plain Sailing cafe in Elwood.
Plain Sailing cafe in Elwood.  Photo: Chris Hopkins

Lording trained under Algerian chef Pierre Khodja at Hawthorn's Canvas in the late noughties, standing beside his mentor for five years and consecutive Good Food Guide hats. After Canvas crumbled, Lording took his spice cupboard to Prahran's Tall Timber.

It was there that customers started driving his menu, turning his one vegetarian dish into the cafe's most popular and getting Lording thinking about alternative ways of dining. As the kale quotient increased, the queues grew, and Lording developed a cuisine with Middle Eastern flavours and paleo-ish principles.

He took his newfound notions to always-packed Left Field in Carnegie, and now to Plain Sailing, both of which he co-owns. You can see the approach very clearly in the Middle Eastern lamb brunch: the shoulder is marinated in chermoula, a cumin and coriander-heavy spice mix, slow-roasted, then pressed and fried so it's crisp on the outside and fall-apart juicy within. It's served with crisp chickpeas, kale, pomegranate, feta, pumpkin puree and fried eggs.

Middle Eastern lamb, pumpkin and chickpea fry-up with fried eggs, hummus and zaatar.
Middle Eastern lamb, pumpkin and chickpea fry-up with fried eggs, hummus and zaatar. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Yes, it will get you through to dinner but it's elegant and thoughtful as well as hearty. Characteristically, there's a zaatar with a difference sprinkled over it too. This classic herb mixture (usually sumac, thyme and sesame) includes pine nuts here, rounding out the flavour and adding to the texture.

This kind of condiment tweaking is a signature. Look out for a bright red beetroot dukkah with dehydrated beets (over the smashed avo), and basil and kale salt that's sprinkled over the tomato and burrata brekkie.

After five years doing daytime, Lording has opened Plain Sailing in the evenings too. The menu is playing it safe right now, pushing the lamb shoulder, roast chicken and beef ribs from the day menus into night service, but interesting, shareable dishes such as baked sweet potato and whole baby snapper point to exciting things to come.

Plain Sailing is welcoming – I've seen babies, octogenarians, active wearers, laptoppers and canoodlers here across multiple visits – and it's handsome too. The calm corner space is at the base of an apartment block and it's done in gorgeous greens and browns, like a sleek urban forest. The mix of modern Melbourne and the ancient Middle East is nicely judged (paleo by the pyramids?), making Plain Sailing an easy Elwood option.

Rating: Four stars (out of five)