Praise the lord for the reliable saintliness of this cafe’s always-present breakfast desserts.
One of Melbourne’s longest-established inner-city suburbs, South Melbourne is a chameleon. It’s one part lined with nostalgic Victoriana terraced houses, and yet another part, consisting of grey Soviet-style medium-density blocks and increasingly, higher-rise apartment buildings arranged like a concreted shipyard. At night, it can be promenade through a valley of booze, sleaze, and sex. During the day, it’s alternatively windswept or sun-drenched, overrun by families and a young generation attracted to the bustle and hum of numerous cafes and the South Melbourne Market. Being little more than a garage situated along a nondescript back laneway, St Ali is a cafe that buzzes from early morning to late night, with the decibel levels often reaching that of a jack-hammer commonly heard at nearby apartment building construction sites. It can be beautifully cosy, yet also frightfully claustrophobic. The roller doors retract fully to allow breezes to flow into a large area that houses mainly huge raw-wooded communal tables, walls plastered with propagandistic-style posters, and various chemistry-lab-like coffee-making contraptions displayed behind a long counter.
St Ali’s brunch menu reflects nothing of the Middle Eastern origins of the cafe’s name, apparently derived from the Islamic patron saint of coffee, Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili. No matter — it is nonetheless one of the most adventurous brunch menus of the numerous cafes that MoMo & Coco have frequented in a lifetime of living in Melbourne. All the usual breakfast suspects are present, but interpreted in ravishingly delicious ways, mostly successfully too. For those who prefer savoury breakfasts, the “My Mexican Cousin” (corn fritters) and the aptly-named “Coronary” (a fry-up) are reliable bets. For sweet-tooths on the quest for sweet breakfasts, there are usually three sweet options available — muesli, cake-bread and french toast. MoMo & Coco would recommend that you bypass the too-healthy, why-bother, grain-based option. Instead, enter a feverishly sweet heaven with the following two options (with slight seasonal changes).
Firstly, MoMo & Coco would recommend that you do not go pass St Ali’s cake-bread breakfast. In autumn/winter time, it can vary between a ginger cake-bread or a banana-bread, with a medley of crumble or poached fruit. In spring/summer time, as on MoMo & Coco’s most recent visit where we remembered to bring the camera, there was the luscious “Summer Loving — Pear and Coconut Bread with Mangoes and Lavender Ricotta” ($15). Not as saccharine as its description may have you believe, it was evocative in aroma, taste and texture of a tropical coastline. The cake-bread centrepiece was a sandy-coloured slab with a gritty mouthfeel that could be attributed to the dessicated coconut enfolded through it. To balance this slight dryness, a frothy wave of ricotta wrapped a white shawl over the cake, its so-claimed lavender essence unfortunately, imperceptible. The sunset tones of the mango piece and bright green of mint leaves likewise conjured that perfect beachside cocktail while idly swinging in a hammock.
The second sweet option available at St Ali is the brioche french toast, often with berries, sometimes with citrus bits, once upon a time a boring missable maple syrup rehearsal. While somewhat overpriced (ranging from $16-$19 from past tastings), financial regret is not an emotion that one will experience when this sweet breakfast arrives, although physical regret may be possible upon complete consumption by a single greedy glutton. The version for which to keep a weather-eye open is the chocolate one. For only the second-time in several visits to St Ali, MoMo & Coco’s most recent visit happily allowed us to indulge in a “Napoleon Complex — Brioche French Toast, Coffee, Mascarpone, Coffee Soil, Blueberries and Cranberries” ($18). Like its namesake’s attempt to reconquer the ancient lands, it would be futile to consume this sweet breakfast on one’s own, presented as an insurmountable mountain range overlooking an impassable floodplain of very rich and very thick chocolate mascarpone and a fine snow dusting of chocolate soil. MoMo & Coco shared it between four friends. Rendering everyone speechless, we can only describe the experience in superlatives: it’s absolutely decadent, delicious, diabetic, deadly.
The coffee making apparatus at St Ali verges on laboratory experimentalism and is a bonus, but not what attracts us here. Rather, St Ali is a reliable brunch spot with a diverse brunch menu that caters well for sweet-tooths too.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: St Ali Cafe, 12-18 Yarra Place, South Melbourne, Vic 3205.
- ☑ Budget: $.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Breakfast dessert.
- ☑ Must-eat: Every dessert that you can fit in.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Praise the lord for the reliable saintliness of this cafe’s always-present breakfast desserts.