501 Chapel St South Yarra, VIC 3141
|Opening hours||Sat-Sun 8am-10pm, Mon-Wed 7am-6pm, Thu-Fri 7am-10pm|
|Features||Licensed, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9804 7654|
How's your New Year going? I'm proud I haven't broken any resolutions yet, mostly because I committed to keeping eating. Low expectations are a sure path to success – I prove it every year. Whether you're in glutton or green smoothie mode, Rustica's huge new bakery-cafe headquarters will meet you more than halfway.
The front of the building is a stylish (sometimes noisy) cafe, strung with greenery and splashed with light. It's comfortable and welcoming: I especially love the large round tables hugged by banquettes but there are plenty of perches for doing the laptop tap too.
Buying loaves to love at home? There's a retail counter at the back of the dining area racked with airy sourdough, seeded wholewheat and olive-basil bread, and a pastry counter with danishes and cronuts lined up from here to heaven.
Behind that is the huge working space that churns it all out: half a chilled butter-won't-melt pastry kitchen and the rest given over to kneading, proving and baking.
Rustica was bursting out of its Fitzroy location, where it could only turn out 120 loaves at a time. Here, $600,000 worth of ovens bake up to 400 loaves at once. That will mean an increased range at Rustica's six stores (also Fitzroy, Hawthorn, two city outlets and one at Highpoint) and for its 120 wholesale customers.
What hasn't changed is the starter, the natural raising agent added to each batch of dough. Owner-baker Brenton Lang kicked off his wheat and rye starters nine years ago. I love the burbling odyssey of flour, water and life, the yeasty narrative, endlessly carrying its story forward, used, multiplied and nurtured, and now ferried across the river. That's real bread for you.
There's real food too. Plated pastry dishes are a theme: a Vegemite danish (surely it should be called an "aussie"?) is topped with dusky Vegemite-spiked parmesan custard, sliced avocado and a pretty salad of watercress and toasted hazelnuts. It's a fancy spin on Vegemite-and-avo on toast.
Pronouncing "kouign-amann" isn't easy (try 'kween ah-mahn) but eating it is. Rustica's version of the sugar-crusted, butter-layered scroll is made with buckwheat flour and is eye-poppingly plated with poached and dried stonefruit, vanilla-infused mascarpone and salted caramel-wattleseed sauce. For a blow-out breakfast, it's lively and zinging.
You don't have to go big on bread. Vibrant veg dishes include miso-rubbed roasted cauliflower with a salad of quinoa, goji berries, kale, broccolini and smoked almonds. The superfoodie shopping list of ingredients rang my alarm bells but the combination is tasty as well as wholesome.
Baba ghanoush is a Rustica regular and the Chapel Street version is the most refined yet: smoky eggplant puree is the base for a salady tumble of grilled eggplant, fresh and blistered cherry tomatoes, poached eggs and crumbled haloumi. It's bright brunching excellence.
Many dishes straddle lunch and dinner, including excellent fluffy gnocchi with pea puree and lemon ricotta, though I'd say the evening offering is the shakiest part of the equation – straddling day and night is tricky.
One of the pleasing things about the new Rustica HQ is that it has brought welcome buzz to retail slumpy Chapel Street, where the casual wanderer could be forgiven for thinking the strip had been renamed "For Lease".
I once bought jeans in the 500-square-metre building that is now home to Rustica. I approve of the transition: it's much more fun to wrap my mouth around baked goods than to squeeze my bottom half into denim.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five).