Given that St Ali North joins Salvatore Malatesta’s café empire (which includes St Ali South, Plantation and soon, a Sydney venture), that Malatesta led up to the opening with a promise-filled media push akin to a US electoral campaign (bike through coffee windows! Rooftop bar! Gardens!) and that when he did open in mid-December the café was promptly robbed, twice, of both coffee machines, then grinders, it was never going to sneak quietly onto the scene. The hype has caused a frenzy, but beyond the hoo haa, what’s it actually like?
As a place to get a coffee and cake to go, it's fine. Shaun Quade’s dainty peach tarts, and buttery, chewy biscuits sit prettily in the front cabinet – you might know Quade as the pastry whiz responsible for dessert degustation nights at the Duchess of Spotswood – and our take-away latte is solid (though we can't say as much for soy coffees which, on two occasions, are frothy and watery). Buy a glass vial of St Ali’s custom coffee bean blends while you’re waiting.
But should you choose to dine in, know this: service is problematic, and getting from door to table to sustenance can be an uphill battle. Nobody seems to be in charge, and the staff seem to be wandering around in various states of confusion or apathy. It’s a shame, as lengthy wait times for menus, and wrong orders showing up detracts heavily from all that is good.
Like the room - a clean-lined space in eggshell blue, with a pretty charcuterie cabinet, leafy pot-plants and Little Golden Books. With the crowd spilling out the bay windows onto the lawns, it’s a pretty inviting-looking pit stop if you’ve been peddling your sorry carcass along the adjacent Capital City Trail.
We love that you can get a filter coffee straight out of a pump-top flask just like in the good old US of A. And that you can brunch on rabbit rillettes spread over crisp toasts with a shot of icy cold tomato soup on the side. It’s a well-judged hit of salt, fat, acid and crunch.
Head chef Chris Hamburger is ex-Aylesbury, and his best dishes are those which aren't overworked. Like the porridge. No anorexic gruel, it's all creamy, sticky and gloopy and served with a good notch of salted butter and a fistful of brown sugar. Great stuff. But then there's the wilted kale sandwich. It's virtuous, but the acrid tang of a chunky saffron-heavy chickpea puree makes it more a penance than a party. We’d stick a fork in the breakfast dessert of brioche again, stacked with hot poached peaches and ice cream – but we might hold the bacon.
There’s potential here, but some ambitious ideas could do with reigning in in preference for more attention paid to the floor. Time, hopefully, will fix all.