Willsmere Station review

Kunefe with orange blossom syrup.
Kunefe with orange blossom syrup. Photo: Simon Schluter

158 Pakington St Kew, VIC 3101

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Opening hours Tue-Wed 8am-3pm; Thu-Sun 8am-late
Features Licensed, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9853 3421

Is kunefe the best dessert ever? Or would you give the gong to knafeh, kanafeh or kunafa? Whatever you call it and whichever part of the Middle East (or Melbourne) you eat it, the essential elements are stretchy cheese, crunchy threads of pastry and a generous dousing of syrup.

I am thinking of starting a kunefe research collective so I have an excuse to dive deep into every version, including the Palestinian classic from Nablus with brined akkawi cheese and the variant made in Iran's Bazaar of Tabriz with rosewater and cinnamon. If you'd like to join my collective, you could do much worse than start at Willsmere Station, a cafe and wine bar in Kew with strong Turkish leanings and rather excellent kunefe.

Willsmere Station is owned by Akin Celik, born here to Turkish parents and a long-time Kew resident who worked in banking before he swapped spreadsheets for spreading cheer in cafes.

Inside Willsmere Station wine bar and cafe.
Inside Willsmere Station wine bar and cafe. Photo: Simon Schluter

In a quiet pocket of north Kew, just south of the Eastern Freeway, his second business (after Ringwood East's Younger Brother) is intimate with just 25 seats inside and a dozen more on the dog-friendly pavement. The interior is cheerfully tinged with pink and a semi-open kitchen overlooks the dining room. The menu is compact but what's on it is done very well.

Their kunefe, a collaboration between Celik and his chef Trinh Le, is a crunchy ball of thread-like kadayif pastry stuffed with a secret mixture of two cheeses, one to bring the stretch, the other to provide a restrained saltiness that offsets the sweetness.

The ball is fried to a golden crisp, plated with a scoop of super-smooth ice-cream (from Northcote's excellent Turkish ice-creamery Cuppa Turca) and scattered with pistachio and rose petals. Syrup is poured at the table: choose from orange blossom (my recommendation), pomegranate, lemon or Nutella.

Hunkar begendi (roasted eggplant bechamel with braised lamb).
Hunkar begendi (roasted eggplant bechamel with braised lamb). Photo: Simon Schluter

In Turkey, kunefe is often eaten late in the evening, after a stroll to a specialist sweet shop. Here in Kew, land of plenty, it's available all day.

You might kick the day off with menemen, a Turkish-style scramble with garlic, onion and peppers, or cilbir, poached eggs and herbed labne drizzled with brown butter sauce spiked with maras biber (say "mah-rush bee-bair"), a beautiful toasty chilli pepper from south-central Turkey.

The cafe's own herbed flatbread is fragrant with oregano and thyme. You'll dip it into eggs at brekkie, find it wrapped around lamb or sausage at lunch, and dunk it into rich stews at dinner time.

Pilaf with vine-wrapped sardines.
Pilaf with vine-wrapped sardines. Photo: Simon Schluter

Manti are a highlight at lunch and dinner: these teeny-tiny beef dumplings are made off-site by nimble Turkish fingers and doused with a yoghurt, chilli and burnt butter sauce.

Spiced pilaf with gleaming long-grain rice, barberries and nuts is topped with fall-apart lamb shoulder or – my favourite – sardines wrapped in vine leaves and grilled. We should all be eating more sardines; they're sustainable, local and nutritious and this is a lovely way to showcase them.

Hunkar begendi (fire-roasted eggplant bechamel topped with braised lamb) is classic Turkish comfort food and this version is as cosy as a pair of ugg boots. Braised duck paddles in a tomato-spiked broth; more flatbread is on hand to soak up the juices and good Turkish wine is there to enrich the cultural experience.

Willsmere Station isn't fancy but it's honest, heartfelt and a nice place to be. And, of course, its commitment to crunchy cheesy pastry goodness means Kew is now a key stop for my kunefe collective.

Rating: Four stars (out of five)