Surry Hills needs another café like it needs another old-school Lebanese eatery on Elizabeth Street, cheap-and-cheerful Indian on Cleveland, vintage clothing store on Crown, or red-light terrace… well, all over.
That is, until Reuben Hills arrived on New Year’s Day. Ever since, it’s been the café and roaster that we Surry Hillbillies never knew we needed.
I recently did a story on Reuben Hills on Agenda, so consider this an update. In the weeks following, I’ve been four more times – not the usual habits for a food journalist who seldom goes back to the same place twice in a year. There’s just too much good eating to do.
But I’m currently having a love affair of Reuben Hills. Unlike Sydney’s penchant for copycat café menus, there’s not a single Bill’s ripoff in sight: no creamy eggs, no ricotta hotcakes, no corn fritters. And there’s no big brekkie, either, or a single bit of toast. Everything on here is something original for Sydney. And it’s all cooked by Megan McCulloch, an almost too-talented chef for a café, who previously worked for Heston Blumenthal at his The Hinds Head, which the Michelin Guide deemed the UK’s 2011 pub of the year. Here she’s created a Latino-dominated menu that’s inspired by the places of origin of Reuben Hills’ coffee beans, which right now means Latin and South America. Will we eventually see Kenyan dishes here, I wonder?
The two types of Honduran baleada (bali-yay-duh) are a great way to have an inspiring brekkie. You’ve got a folded corn tortilla filled with pimenton-spiced pulled pork, chimol (an El Salvadoran salsa made with radish) and crispy-fried onion. The other is a mix of egg, queso fresco (a soft white cheese popular in Mexico) and black beans that will make you forget about those half-hearted breakfast burritos floating around town.
I first share a baleada with my dining companion, as we also tuck into terracotta-baked eggs with shaved Jamon Serrano, spinach and ranchero sauces, as well as a brioche with dulche de leche (its also comes with mascarpone, but I found it to be a second-fiddle accompaniment).
I’ve been back for lunch, for the fantastic reuben, a pairing of wagyu salt brisket, pickled slaw, manchego cheese and horseradish cream. Technically it’s not really a reuben – my New York deli rulebook says it has to be made with corned beef – but it’s stellar notheless. The brisket is brined for three days and slow-cooked for a good portion of another. When’s the last time you had that many man-hours go into your sandwich?
I’ve later been back for dessert, especially after discovering the salted caramel milkshake, which I have craved ever since. And where else does your café menu start with sweets? Atop the list is the Doggs breakfast, a housemade ice-cream sandwich with a cake-like chocolate exterior and a pour of salted caramel sauce. And while we’re talking sweet things, I also like the small touch of the sugar on your table: it’s panela, a brown sugar made from evaporate sugarcane juice and especially popular in Colombia.
That I’m focused on the food is an extra testament to Reuben Hills, since its main line of business is, in fact, coffee. Owner Russell Beard is the coffee dude who started tiny Mosman roastery, The Source, and he was a shining light in a North Shore coffee scene that has few heroes. But the space proved to be too small, so he upped stakes and took his spare cash to Surry Hills.
At Reuben, Russell is doing some serious bean biz. He’s built a spacious boutique roastery on the floor above the café, which can be seen through cut-out glimpses in the ceiling below (or you’re welcome to merely climb the stairs for a perve). He’s reconditioned a 30kg Probat and 6kg Giesen, German roasting machines that are a step up from the Turkish variety – for coffee snobs, it’s like upgrading from a Toyota to a Mercedes. And like some of my other favourite coffee folks, Russell is travelling to the source of his beans and meeting directly with farmers. In fact, he’s been tagging along with Mark Dundon of Melbourne’s Seven Seeds and Heath Cater from Coffee Supreme, making their way to Honduras, Columbia, Brasil, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Russell doesn’t order through a coffee broker – he chooses his beans by the single lot in a face-to-face transaction.
Even with the caffeine dedication, there’s nothing pretentious about the coffee here. They do Clover and Aeropress filtered coffees, but never flaunt it, nor the artfully designed, dual Speedster and Mirage espresso machines from the Netherlands’ Kees Van Der Westen. Russell also holds free weekly coffee cuppings on Fridays at 10am, trying out beans that he roasts within small micro-roasting machines that allow for experimentation.
My favourite thing about Reuben Hills, though, is how the coffee and café community have treated this hot new start-up as a new addition to the family, rather than unwanted competition. Josh Nicholls from Café Ish, whose business is merely blocks away, excitedly told me about Reuben Hills when it launched on New Year’s Day. On a recent visit there, I founded the owners of Marrickville’s Coffee Alchemy, Randwick’s Kurtosh coffee and pastry house, Erskineville’s Shenkin café and a top barista from Mecca Espresso all happily dining and caffeinating here.
If you’re wondering about the name, it’s taken from a San Francisco-based pioneer in roasting equipment circa the early 1900s. Come here and you’ll also notice the menu’s striking black-and-white photo of roads, hills and a bridge – it’s simply a photo of Brazil, somewhere outside Sao Paolo, that Russell picked up in a market in Argentina.
I’d blabber or about the garage-like opening to the rear laneway, flouro lights, brick and cement industrial fit-out, but just go and soak it up yourself. And while I’ve nearly had the whole menu now, Russell says chef Megan is starting some specials this week. So the next time you’re here, look for a guy banging away on a laptop, putting a healthy teaspoon of panela into his latte, and ordering off the menu… and make sure to say hi.
61 Albion St, Surry Hills, NSW
(02) 9211 5556
7 days, 7am-4pm