There’s a new Pope in town, and she’s a beauty. There’s a pile of Pope Joan books stacked in front of the register about the namesake of this heaving café in Melbourne’s Brunswick East, but my pilgrimage is moreso determined by the pedigree – Matt Wilkinson, only recently the head chef at Circa, has left the fine-dining building and created an equally fine neighbourhood café in Brunswick East, in the city’s north.
Aside from a cross-street café, the equally new Milkwood, there’s not much else here on this pedestrian section of Nicholson Street, so it’s extra surprising to find this sizeable café with its chock-a-block table, dogs hanging out the front, and more diners spilling out onto the adjoining outdoor area. It’s buzzy and feels like a bohemian hangout with an above-average budget. There are marble-covered milk crates as tables on the sidewalk, a forest-painted cement floor, wood furnishings and an ornate faux-rusted iron lantern light that dominates the room. It’s a bright room, but vintage hanging scales and found objects keep things creative.
The food has England at its heart, with the first sign being the Stilton Blue pots used to hold sugar for the Allpress coffee brewed here. ¬The barrista does the beans justice with a smooth pour and a rich crema. Other English touches include San Pellegrino bottles filled with HP sauce, and black-and-white kitchen tiles with an interected ‘O’ pattern that looks like an overhead view of an English garden.
It takes a little while for the service to get going. I’m greeted pleasantly at the door – “Take a seat wherever you like” – but then for the first 10 minutes I’m left staring out into space while I wait for a menu and to order coffee. The young staff, dressed smartly in olive cross-backed aprons, are continually on the move, but I’m here after the weekend brunch rush, so this issue seems to be a lack of eye contact. Finally, one waiter notices my gaze, rushes over to bring me a menu and for the rest of my stay is attentive. All is forgiven.
I ask the waiter for his menu favourites and he recommends the poached eggs with a ‘rosti’ hash of smoked fish (including eel and salmon), or the crumbed coddle egg with an anchovy and blood sausage salad. There’s also an omelette of souffled nettle, sorrel and Meredith feta that’s catches my fancy, and I later see on Wilkinson’s Twitter page that he forages for the nettles when he’s out in the countryside. Nice.
I’m given loads of good options, and therefore become stuck with indecision. I finally choose the egg and rosti before my waiter notices he needs to get back to work. The eggs arrive poached beautifully, with the yolk balancing runny and gelatinous, while the hash nicely mellows the smokiness of the fish with the potato. It’s all freshened up with a bit of mixed greens enlivened with chervil and parsley. I enjoy it all, even if it goes down too quickly and I’m left wanting more. Hmm, maybe I should have gotten the “Not So Full English Breakfast”, with its scrambled eggs, Cumberland sausage, bacon and baked beans.
I finish off with the house herbal tea, a slightly fruity and herbal rose-coloured blend, and a nice tough to what’s already a likeably unconventional menu. And that’s without even considering the lunchtime fare of the blackboard specials, strategically placed to a wood-cut moosehead. There’s a cream of pumpkin soup scratched off the list, followed by salads, a strozzapreti pasta, and such enticing sandwiches as oxtongue and piccalilli or another called ‘The Cornish’ featuring chicken and stuffing.
I look around the interior and notice the communal table next to me resplendent with weekend newspapers, as well as a right angle of bar stools around the opposite corners of the storefront window. There’s also the sunny, outdoor wooden deck that extends to a brick wall; it’s open air but undercover and winterised with wall-mounted heat lamps. Just as I’m gazing across the room, a tempting pistachio and currant muffin walks passed me, its face powdered with icing sugar. I’m instantly attracted, but then remember that I’m running City to Surf next week, and pass. Until we meet again.
Wilkinson is out today, so I don’t get to ask him about the Pope Joan reference. A post-Google reveals she’s a legendary, but likely fictitious, female pope who served during the Middle Ages. How she ties into the restaurant, I don’t have the faintest, but she did dress up as a man until she was outed during childbirth. Not sure what Matt’s trying to tel me, but I think I’ll keep this as one of those “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenarios and just love the café for what it is – a fantastic, creative cafe that one has one major fault… Pope Joan doesn’t have a sister in Sydney.
Pope Joan, 77-79 Nicholson St, Brunswick East, Vic, (03) 9388 8858, www.popejoan.com.au