12/18 Yarra Pl
South Melbourne 3205
(03) 9686 2990
Last Saturday, Miss Z, Miss L and I ventured out to the back streets of South Melbourne to visit St Ali for breakfast. Miss Z and Miss L had both recently visited for coffee, and were keen to go back to try the food. As we approached the barely sign-posted entranced, I noticed the faded Arabian palace on the white brick wall. Even as I write this, the lyrics from Aladdin are playing over and over in my head:
Prince Ali! Mighty is he! Ali Ababwa
Strong as ten regular men, definitely!
He faced the galloping hordes
A hundred bad guys with swords
Who sent those goons to their lords?
Why, Prince Ali!
St Ali, however is named after Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili: a mystic and so-called patron saint of coffee. In 2005, Mark Dundon opened St Ali and began roasting and grinding his own coffee for both the cafe and a few select customers. In 2008, he sold the business to Salvatore Malatesta to open the notorious Seven Seeds in Carlton. Malatesta went on to expand his empire, acquiring Liar Liar and opening Outpost and Sensory Lab. St Ali, however, remains the jewel in Malatesta’s retail crown.
We arrived around 11AM and were pleased when the waitress told us the wait time would only be only 5-10 minutes. We thought she may have just been optimistic, however, she was on the money. 10 minutes later we were sitting at a table inside the large warehouse-style cafe.
First up: coffee. The coffee culture in this place is very evident, and so it is a natural haven for coffee addicts. Begin by choosing from either the house, single origin or speciality blend, before selecting your desired strength: either a 25ml or 50ml coffee hit. Then the cup size: short (90ml), tulip (150ml) or bowl (220ml), and finally your cutting agent: water, milk (full or skim) or bonsoy. Don’t be afraid to talk to your waiter here; there are so many options and ways to craft your ideal coffee it can be intimidating.
We started with a round of house blend lattes and cappuccinos which the three of us found to be watery – not weak, watery (pictured in the white cup). I was pretty disappointed with what we got, which is why I recommend talking to your waitress about how you like it.
Following the food we ordered a second round of coffees, however this time, Miss L and Miss Z consulted with our waitress to concoct the perfect brew: the “magic” as they call it – which is served in a slightly smaller cup – brewed with the special blend was their drug of choice, so if you like your coffee on the stronger side I recommend you go for that (pictured in the brown cup).
The food arrived in a good amount of time. Miss L chose the “mexican cousin” – corn fritters, spinach, fresh tomato, poached eggs (with the option of fried) and haloumi topped with kasundi ($17.00). The dish looked great and was full of flavour. I was lucky enough to try a bite: yum! While the fritters themselves may have been a little over cooked, I am looking for fault.
Miss Z chose the “coco channel” – french toast with a berry and rhubarb compote served with labne and lemon curd ($17.50). Again, I was lucky enough to score a bite. The lemon curd was just right: not too sweet and just the way I like it. Another good choice.
Finally, after I couldn’t decide between the “mexican second cousin” – poached eggs with creamed corn, chilli relish and witloaf salad on sourdough toast ($18.50) or the “regina fungi” – poached eggs with slow cooked mushrooms, herbs, rocket and feta on sourdough toast with balsamic reduction ($19.50), I left it to our waitress to decide: she went for the latter. Amazing – the mushrooms alone were to die for, and the balsamic reduction added a little kick of sweet acidity that cut through the creaminess of the poached eggs. Faultless.
With our second round of coffees, I decided to try a cake from their display next to the cash register at the back of the cafe. I ordered a slice of orange polenta cake to share between the three of us, but found it dry and a disappointing way to finish what was otherwise faultless food.
While I struggle to find fault with the food at this place (with the exception of the cake), the same can not be said for the service. Bad service can entirely ruin a perfectly good meal, and I’m sad to report that that’s exactly what we got. I can deal with an inattentive waitress who is struggling to cope with a large rush of people at brunching peak hour, but this was so much more than that.
When we got up to pay, what we got was a rude, obnoxious older waiter or manager who could not understand simple instructions of where we had been sitting, and so thrust us on to another waitress who simply didn’t have time to deal with us. With a condescending attitude, she demanded we tell he exactly what we’d had rather than looking up the docket, and I contemplated leaving off the cake as penance (though my conscience got the better of me). It was definitely not a good way to end an otherwise enjoyable meal, and may deter me from ever going back.
To have not just one, but 3 utterly horrible waiters is inexcusable, and I have been told by others that this is not just a one off occurrence. While Miss Z tells me she had a great waiter on her previous visit, I’m not sure I can forgive them for the experience.
So if you’re in the area and looking for terrific food this may just be the best place for it. Just don’t expect to be served with a smile.