The great north of the river versus the south of the river debate. Which is better? The generalisations are that the South is pretentious and the North is full of unwashed bohemian hippies, but don’t quote me on any of that.
When I moved to Melbourne in 2002 (cue Ministry of Sound Chillout Sessions 3), I started out south of the Yarra and being a newbie to this town, not only was I was oblivious to North versus South rivalry, I was also quite unaware of what the North had to offer. On the surface, I thought it was a dirty shithole full of full of unwashed bohemian hippies. I made the occasional trip to Brunswick St – with great disdain because it took, like, forever. And when I crossed the river again, between Richmond and South Yarra train stations, I felt at ease being back on terra firma. I enjoyed my little world in and around St Kilda; saying hello to the prostitutes whilst on my way for a walk along the Esplanade, beers at the Prince of Wales, the awesome delis on Carlisle St and I spent many a Friday night playing lots of pool at the Arcadia Hotel in South Yarra. Good times.
Once my Sister had moved to North Carlton and other friends were settling nearby in Collingwood, it was inevitable that I moved closer. I got as far as Richmond in 2004 and since then, I’ve progressively moved further north; spending the last 6 years in Carlton North, Fitzroy North, Thornbury and recently, back to Fitzroy North. I’ve also increasingly become more passionate and parochial about the north. It’s my life. It’s where relationships have been forged and failed, it’s where my kids were born and raised and it’s part of me. If an unknown rich relative bequests me a decent amount of cash for a house deposit, I’ll happily spend the rest of my life here. As for the south? I just think it’s pretentious.
Fortunately for me, as my deep-seated love for the north increased (as did my passion for all things food), the north became the biggest jewel in Melbourne’s culinary crown (southsiders may disagree), with Gertrude St becoming the new Brunswick St, then Smith St became the new Gertrude St, then pockets of places-to-be on St Georges Rd, High St in Northcote and Thornbury and the cool end of Lygon St.
Poor Nicholson Street missed a lot of it. Sure, there’s Pope Joan / The Bishop of Ostia and Milkwood, but they’re up the end past Brunswick Rd… and that’s East Brunswick, which is too cool for school anyway. Nicholson Village is the bit that roughly starts at one end around Reid / Richardson Sts and ends at Holden St / Brunswick Rd and for all it’s gems like Milawa Cheese, the two butchers, Artastic – for all your picture framing needs (gratuituous plug), it’s always been a little hit and miss for coffee and food.
Bramble & Vine is unfortunately not very well known, which is a damn shame because it’s great (review coming in the new year), other places like Birdie Num Nums were good, now are not so good. Then some guy from the, ugh, south had the temerity to expand on his ‘little’ cafe in South Melbourne and along came St. Ali North… BAM!
Putting a coffee shop on the Capital City Trail on Park Street, just off the corner of Nicholson Street, was always going to work. I would imagine that many others (myself included) would have had that idea in the back of their heads at some point. Fortunately Sal Malatesta and Jesse Gerner did it and from my (so far) five visits, they have done it very well.
It’s not without it’s minor faults, but please bear in mind (that’s you, discerning urbanspoon reviewers) it’s been open for a little under a month and the reputation of its southside sibling has clearly preceded it. There was absolutely no way this place was going to get away with a soft opening, in December, during the festive season. I mean, people loved the concept of having the St Ali brand in their neck of the woods, some bastards stole their brand spanking new twin Synesso Hydro coffee machines, around $45,000 worth of kit!
I haven’t had enough visits to get all funky with St. Ali North’s range of coffee offerings, but all of the strong skinny flat whites, short blacks and short macchiatos have been consistently exemplary and I’ve become so addicted to adding a tiny bit of the panela organic cane sugar (an unrefined, caramelly sugar that does not detract from the flavour of the coffee), I was compelled to leave with half a kg under my arm after today’s visit.
As for the food, I will continue to work my way through the menu and vow to not have the same thing twice until I’ve exhausted this promise… however the burger will be sure to get a more frequent work out. The ‘St. Ali Royale’ ($16) is a Wagyu beef burger topped with aged cheddar, house bacon (just look for it hanging in it’s own shrine), Russian dressing and housemade pickles on the side. Anywhere that offers a burger from 7am deserves a medal; especially if it’s made by someone with the same last surname (Chris Hamburger, as opposed to Chris St. Ali Royale… I don’t know where he works. Or if he exists).
‘My Mexican Cousin’ ($21.50); a favourite on the South Melbourne St. Ali menu also features at North… fried sweet corn fritters with kasundi, halloumi, greens, tomato and poached eggs. I liked it, but overall the dish was a little on the dry side. My poached eggs were a tad over and perhaps some gooey-er yolks or the addition of some of their avocado mash would have provided some better balance.
Villa Verde free-range eggs come four ways - poached, scrambled, fried or 63’ 63° ($10.5o). You can add field mushrooms, haloumi or bean ragout for an extra $4 a pop. For $4.50, you can add either bacon, house-smoked salmon, morcilla or feta and avocado mash.
On another visit, trying to be a little bit healthy before Christmas, I stuck to poached eggs with bean ragout and avo mash. The avo was mash midly spiced and flecked with feta. The beans, whilst well flavoured, were a little tough, like when you salt the water when cooking any legumes. Overall though, it was great. I regret not getting the bacon though.
Other dishes tried by my various brekky partners include the house-baked fruit toast, with fruit conserve and labneh ($7.50) – it’s fruit toast, but damn good fruit toast – and Bircher muesli with mango, lychee and toasted nuts ($12.50) which is what Maximilian Bircher-Benner might have eaten when he went on holidays to Thailand.
A simple kid’s menu is also offered. For $8 you can choose from several dishes, like scrambled eggs with bacon or a cheese toastie with tomato sauce on the side.
Due to the design and the concrete floors, the decibel levels can get a little out of control, but you can live with it.
Welcome to the neighbourhood.
St. Ali North
815 Nicholson St (on the bike path on Park St), Carlton North VIC
(03) 9686 2990
Good For: Raising the bar on great food and great coffee in the North
Not Good For: Impatient people; you could wait a little bit for a table and people with sensitive ears (you could listen to your iPod)