In Melbourne's restlessly brilliant culinary scene, nothing can be taken at face value. Bars hide behind cupboards, restaurateurs experiment endlessly, and breakfast in an unassuming neighbourhood cafe can be an unexpected esoteric adventure. Here are three spots with a serious side order of surprise.
The brunch that blows your mind: White Mojo
In an airy white and blond CBD space, which looks deceptively conventional, resides what the team behind this new brunch spot gleefully term "carefully curated chaos".
White Mojo has turned brunch into a wild gastronomic ride – even by Melbourne standards – during which you might encounter the White Mojo croissant burger: soft-shell crab, pickled cucumber, chipotle mayonnaise and fried egg, all lovingly embraced by a croissant.
Or venture further into the disconcertingly delicious with cauliflower panna cotta, which comes with black pudding dust, Canadian scallop, crisp pancetta, 63-degree egg (cooked at the Heston Blumenthal-decreed optimum temperature for a perfect runny yolk), dehydrated red onion and potato popcorn, all served in a smoke-filled glass cloche.
There's a lovely quote on White Mojo's menu declaring that their fresh juices "encourage our customers to be their best, to feel empowered, to stay innovative, to be considerate and delightful and, of course, to be happy." After this, any other brunch will seem both boring and spiritually bereft.
115 Hardware Street, Melbourne CBD
Sagra Italian restaurant in Malvern. Photo: Anu Kumar
The restaurant that's (much) more than a restaurant: Sagra
The location of huge, four-level Italian food emporium Sagra is its first surprise. The sleepy suburb of Malvern last year found itself an unlikely home to this gleaming, bustling foodie hub that aims to satisfy your every possible epicurean whim – from early breakfast to late-night rooftop cocktails, takeaway, hampers, pantry ingredients or a sit-down, slap-up dinner. Event catering for 350? No probs.
And then there's art, furniture and views. This place wants you to sing, like Barry White: "You're my first, my last, my everything." And you might – especially when you try the Sicilian cannoli dipped in Callebaut dark chocolate.
The ground floor houses a central open kitchen surrounded by a 120-seater dining room where there's theatre aplenty as the chefs bring forth juicy lamb, pork ribs, calamari, heirloom tomatoes, eggplant and more from their pride and joy, a high-temperature Josper roasting oven.
To the rear are an alimentare and enoteca offering all the wines on the menu and an array of produce – cheese, salumi, ready-made meals – from local suppliers.
On the mezzanine floor, with views over the foodie action below, is a gallery with rotating exhibitions. Ascend a tucked-away staircase and you'll find a 100-seater rooftop bar with wow-factor views across Melbourne and an extravagant menu of Italian proseccos, wines, grappa and craft beers. This semi-secret eyrie is a standout, especially with a plate of Josper-roasted chicken wings and a Birra del Borgo ReAle APA from Lazio.
Or you could just do dessert, which can be enjoyed in the gallery, dining room or upstairs. Among all those very good reasons to come, we'd still pick the cannoli.
256 Glenferrie Road, Malvern
The bar that's almost not there: Bar Exuberante
Most cocktail lovers in Melbourne will be familiar with the Richmond space that used to be Matthew Bax's cult cocktail bar Der Raum, which morphed into "rum brothel" Bar Economico. You used to go through a sliding door at the back of bawdy Economico to access the hidden Exuberante, a tiny, 14-seater, windowless, wood-paneled homage to faded hotel pomp. When staying nearby, we decide to revisit. But when we arrive, Economico has gone, and all that remains is a dark, empty shop, the only furniture a lone writing desk marooned near the window. The sign out front has been crossed out.
We assume the whole lot's closed, because mercurial Bax is known for shutting or relocating his clever conceptual ventures without warning (Der Raum is now in Munich). But we ring the doorbell anyway. There's a pause, and then a fellow in a shabby concierge uniform, hat and all, appears from somewhere at the back. He unlocks the door, ushers all the way through the eerie empty space into a tiny, dishevelled manager's office. Beyond a door is Exuberante, made all the more surreal by its isolation.
Matthew Bax in character at Bar Exuberante. Photo: Carmen Zammit
You're in the once-salubrious private bar of the fictitious 1950s Havana Imperial Exuberante Palace Hotel, complete with typos on the menu, room keys as drinks tabs and the staff in full character. There's a Ladies' Menu with no prices, and a big bell that the bartender rings to signal the cocktail waitress (in French maid outfit) to deliver your drinks the two steps to your table. It's all a hilarious stage for the cocktail genius that defines Bax's venues.
The Hot Cold Pina Colada – warm white chocolate and coconut foam atop a chilled, lavender-infused rum cocktail – is one of the best drinks I've tasted anywhere. Who knows what lies ahead for Exuberante, but be persistent in seeking it out.
438 Church Street, Richmond
The writer travelled as a guest of Airbnb