Willow Urban Retreat review

Willow Urban Retreat is all soothing pale tones.
Willow Urban Retreat is all soothing pale tones. Photo: Simon Schluter

1203 High St Armadale, VIC 3143

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 7am-3.30pm; Sat-Sun 8am-4pm
Features Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9822 8778

I'm all for being well but I'm sceptical of "wellness", the pulsating evidence-free orb that encompasses body rubs, brown rice and bliss balls. However, being a chakra-denier doesn't stop a person from enjoying a place like Willow Urban Retreat, a hub where stressed city souls gather for detoxification, alignment and glow inducement.

On the one side, there are treatment rooms and studios for movement and mindfulness. On the other, a busy cafe rendered in soothing pale tones and sensuous curves, with purified air pumped through vents, friendly and solicitous waiters and rather lovely food.

The menu is mercifully free of the word "superfood" though buzz ingredients like chia seeds, turmeric and coconut are rife, somewhat undoing the farm-to-table pronouncements of the menu. Chef Nick Cree (ex-Supernormal, Feast of Merit and Top Paddock) designs the dishes alongside a naturopath, and the principles of Ayurveda, an ancient Indian health protocol, are threaded through.

Armadale uttapam: Rice pancake with bananas, sour cherries and maple butter.
Armadale uttapam: Rice pancake with bananas, sour cherries and maple butter. Photo: Simon Schluter

I started with a cleanser shot of lemon, aloe vera, chia seeds and moringa, an Indian tree that produces nutritious leaves though, as with all these things, dosage is the kicker. It was tart and zingy; the claim that it is alkalising sent my sceptometer soaring. There are also Ayurvedic teas that are either calming, soothing or stimulating and various elixirs, including coffee, thank god.

I'm averse to much of this stuff but I'll never quibble about food that is well-considered, carefully cooked and beautifully presented, and that applies to everything I've eaten here.

The signature dish is a ripper. It's an Armadale version of uttapam, a southern Indian pancake made with a fermented batter of lentils and rice flour. This plate-sized stunner is fat and springy, light yet satisfying and topped with melty caramelised bananas (don't panic, they're cooked with maple syrup, not sugar), sour cherries and turmeric yoghurt.

Rockling and okra curry.
Rockling and okra curry. Photo: Simon Schluter

Also shaking up breakfast is the Indian baked egg dish with punchy split-pea dal and wholemeal flatbread. It's showered with curry leaves, one of the spice world's most fragrant treasures, and luxed up with cumin yoghurt. India has so many terrific breakfast dishes – it's exciting to see these flavours hitting Melbourne's morning menus.

Lunchy stuff includes gorgeous salads: roast root veg, mixed grains, vibrant greens, all lovingly composed, carefully dressed and – of course – wholesome.

The menu is mostly vegetarian but you can add steamed chicken or slow-cooked lamb shoulder to the salads or plump for the fish curry, which is so good I may even have felt a surge of wellness while eating it. Pristine rockling and gorgeous sticky-slimy okra wedges are daubed with a mild and elegant sauce redolent of tamarind, turmeric and coconut. I felt healthy when I arrived but I'm almost ready to believe the curry added a happy month to my life.

Indian-inspired baked eggs and flatbread.
Indian-inspired baked eggs and flatbread. Photo: Simon Schluter

Owner Sharon Bassat is an ex-teacher married to venture capitalist Paul Bassat (he started and sold SEEK, and is an AFL commissioner) and much of the fresh produce comes from their Red Hill property. Since opening in April, Willow has become popular with women who look like they may also have a shack on the Mornington Peninsula.

It's a scene but it's an upbeat one which makes it easy to enjoy the vibes and vibrant fare even if you take your cleanser shots with an extra pinch of salt.

Rating: Four stars (out of five)