170 Main St Lilydale, VIC 3140
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 7am-4pm, Sat-Sun 8am-4pm|
|Features||Licensed, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Private dining|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9735 9724|
It's not getting any easier to run a food business these days, so it's understandable that many chefs resort to short-cuts such as opening packets, jars and tubs rather than making stocks, sauces and condiments. That sad reality makes it even more of a pleasure when you come upon a cafe that produces almost everything it puts on the plate.
Round Bird chef Laura Webb-James does almost everything from scratch at the six-year-old cafe she owns with husband Evan. The front of the sprawling premises showcases her excellent granola, jars of chutney and preserved fruit, even the cafe's cold brew, along with produce from the nearby Yarra Valley – it's a quality grocery as well as a place to eat.
The artisan ethic is just one of the things that makes Round Bird special. Also notable is the tucked-away private room that's perfect for larger gatherings (and has a come-hither Yarra Valley wine wall), the celebratory not-an-afterthought vegan selection, the way that brunch can be done as a multi-course banquet for just $30, and the fact that Laura is deaf which makes kitchen life – challenging already – even more so.
Laura and Evan both have fine dining backgrounds – they met in 2004 while she was cooking and he was waiting at Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel, a posh French restaurant then at Crown. A few years later they ended up at Yering Station, where she became head chef and he was restaurant manager. They've brought the polish and poise of those lauded restaurants to this casual outer-suburban cafe.
That granola is a golden-crunchy jumble of nuts, seeds, oats, coconut and spices, roasted in maple syrup then mixed with dried fruit. You can buy a big jar for home but eating in means you get it with poached local blood plums and the possibility of pairing it with the Round Bird hot choccy, with Laura's own chocolate syrup and marshmallows.
The cauliflower burger is a vegan winner. Cauli is cut into slabs and given the fried chicken treatment, marinated in vegan "buttermilk" made from soy milk, spices and lemon juice, then deep-fried to a lovely crisp. It's served with slaw dressed with a vegan aioli thickened by aquafaba, the water left after cooking chickpeas.
You can order a vegan brown rice bowl or do as I did and have it with house-smoked salmon. Whichever way you go, it's veg-stacked, dressed with a magical miso-ginger dressing (available by the jar) and finished with vegan chilli aioli.
If that's plenty enough plant-based for you, consider the exuberant Balinese-style chicken, marinated in turmeric, ginger and garlic, grilled, then piled up all juicy with lime-and-chilli tickled apple slaw and soft roti.
Laura has been completely deaf in her right ear since she was five. Her left ear deteriorated to the point that she had been functionally deaf for eight years until last July when she had one cochlear implant. It's been life-changing. "For the first time in a long time, I can actually have conversations without people yelling or me simply not understanding," she told me. It's incredible to consider that while profoundly impaired she ran the upscale Yering Station kitchen, then founded and forged on with a new business.
But it's somehow not surprising when you taste the energy and honest intent in the food and feel the easygoing passion here. The cafe's name comes from a children's book called Round Bird Can't Fly but you know what? This Round Bird is soaring.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five).