The Vertue of the Coffee Drink

Covert cafe: the light-filled brew bar and eatery.
Covert cafe: the light-filled brew bar and eatery. Photo: Wayne Taylor

8 RAFFA Place Carlton, Victoria 3053

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 7am-4pm, Sat-Sun 7.30am-4pm
Features Licensed, Family friendly
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments Mastercard, Visa, eftpos
Phone 03 8060 6987

Carlton still has its secrets and hideaways, like the restaurant that some old guy supposedly operates in the living room of his terrace house, which you reach via an unmarked door on a street whose name I cannot reveal. The food there is average at best, people tell me, but the wise-guy atmosphere unparalleled.

Then there's this newish place with a strange name (is that a typo?) tucked away at the end of a lane behind a petrol station.

You're not likely to stumble on the Vertue of the Coffee Drink – you really have to go looking for it, and what you find when you get to the end of the lane is a brew bar and eatery, once a house and stables, that has been filled with light thanks to a transparent roof, greenery from a big hanging garden, and steampunkish quantities of brass, stainless steel and copper courtesy of a Has Garanti coffee roaster.

Muffaletta focaccia filled with cheese and cured meats.
Muffaletta focaccia filled with cheese and cured meats. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Coffee is a big part of the Vertue deal, with up to a dozen origins and blends listed on a separate menu for espresso, V60 or batch-brew. But the food isn't an afterthought. The seasonal menu is all about cafe standards, tweaked. The French toast is made with spicy fruit loaf and served with vanilla gelato and an almondy amaretti​ crumble, the porridge is oats and coconut with raspberry compote, and there are some quirky curveballs: a smoked fish chowder with Portarlington mussels, and a muffaletta sandwich, both of which channel their own streams of Americana.

The muffaletta originated in New Orleans, and its roots are Italian-American; here it's a couple of big squares of herby focaccia sandwiching a molten cheese-meaty mix of provolone, gouda, salami, smoked ham and capocollo​ (rendered in Newjoisy Italian as "capicola" on the menu) with a hit of black olives and roasted red peppers. It's a sandwich that's just as much at home on Lygon Street as Basin Street.

A bit more Melbourne cafe is a dish of tea-smoked salmon, cubes of fish seared to a gentle crunch outside and just-cooked through, arranged with little tangy cubes of green apple and a pair of polenta-crumbed and deep-fried poached eggs. A snow-white smear of cauliflower puree adds a savoury note and the aroma of truffles hangs over the dish from a splash of truffled oil.

Tea-smoked salmon with deep-fried poached eggs.
Tea-smoked salmon with deep-fried poached eggs. Photo: Wayne Taylor

A salad of amaranth and quinoa is vegan-friendly and health conscious – nutty-crunchy grains laced with toothy broccoli, long slices of cucumber and an avocado fan, while a dish of pork belly, zampone and white bean cassoulet comes with a big, crackly pig skin cracker.

The best of the coffee is in the espresso brews: maybe a Tanzania Kilimanjaro with black, nutty flavours or a savoury, berry-flavoured Kenya Gaturiri. The house blend, called 1852, has chocolate and peanutty flavours in milk, while an Ethiopia Mormora Guji was a little flat in a pourover.

The name comes from a 1650s London advertising bill promoting the "vertues" of coffee – a last secret about this place that needs almost as much explaining as the location.

Two Pigs pork belly and white bean cassoulet.
Two Pigs pork belly and white bean cassoulet. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Do ... the barista's breakfast – a flight of espresso, a magic and a batch brew
Don't ... miss the muffaletta for an alternative to Lygon Street focaccia
Dish ... Tea-smoked salmon
Vibe ... Secret coffeehouse