Archive for the ‘Cafe’ Category

There’s a roaster in them (Surry) Hills. Reuben Hills, that is

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.

Reuben Hills
61 Albion St, Surry Hills, NSW
(02) 9211 5556
7 days, 7am-4pm


The Fern – another notch in Refern’s rebirth of cool

OK, so anyone who’s been paying attention knows that Redfern is the new Surry Hills. Really. Don’t believe me? Just go to the Eat House diner on the end of Chalmers Street, drink with the hipsters in The Norfolk’s groovy courtyard, shop at those amazing vintage furniture stores like Great Dane on Elizabeth Street.

And now it gets further cemented with The Fern, as in shorthand for Redfern, a stunning terrace on a leafy stretch of lower Pitt Street, just off of booming Cleveland Street and the nearly refurbished Prince Alfred Park. First impressions come via a groovy street-facing stone courtyard, set under mature palm trees, with white-painted iron chairs, cushions converting a rendered cement stretch into a long bench seat, and mix-and-match tables. It’s all breezy and tranquil, with the bordering gardens peppered with objects like an old push mover and what looks like a metal chook.

This is sophisticated café, for now, although there are plans to soon get a liquor license and extend trading to dinner. Well, make that food to go with aperitivo, those Italian pre-dinner drinks – chef Massimo Bianchi, who was one the heir apparent at Buon Ricordo and started up Uccello at The Ivy, is on board as consultant chef, and as such, so little wonder the menu has a slight Italian accent. For now that shows up in a breakfast bruschetta with scrambled eggs and smoke provolone, and in lunch fare like nduja (a kind of spicy pork pate) with sourdough and ricotta, and specials like a lamb ragu with housemade fettuccini.

The space is what truly sets The Fern apart, and it’s very much a bespoke effort by operators Julian Serna and Mark Wiley, two barmen who met at Merivale working high-profile venues like The Ivy Pool Bar, Establishment and Uccello – which explains the one degree of separation to chef Bianchi. The two still serve as drinks consultants, and recently worked with Porteno to set up its popular Argentinean-style bar.

The emphasis is on recycling, so menus are set upon vinyl records or their album sleeves, water is served in old glass jugs that used to hold McWilliams port or sherry, the sides of liquor boxes are used to decorate a stairwell, the back section is covered with Julian’s collection of old Mad magazines and “Spy Vs Spy” illustrations, and there are vintage chairs, tables and storage chests about. There’s also a nice collection of antique cocktail shakers on top of the fridge.
The most impressive feature is a colourful wallpaper of street art and graffiti from Melbourne laneways, and it looks so funky, it’s hard to believe the images were happy-snapped on Julian’s Blackberry camera. Mark also has his own wall, featuring his intrepid photographs taken from India, Southeast Asia and beyond.

There’s also an equal focus on comfort foods, such as the tasty and nicely plated huevos rancheros of eggs (they ask how you want them, but it’s all wrong unless you get them fried), refried beans, lemon/limey avocado chunks, and slices of cooked chorizo. It’s quite a satisfying plate, so I decide to forgive them for omitting the tortilla and chilli-tinged salsa that makes huevos rancheros what they are. I’m also intrigues by a ‘Morning Sunrise’ menu offering: a blend of fresh-squeezed OJ, banana yoghurt and honey. “Just a drop of goodness in the morning,” Julian says with a wink.

I later try the lamb ragu, which is appreciable hearty, even if the mince-like texture seems more ‘lamb bol’ than the fall-apart meats I associate with a slow-cooked ragu. If someone told me it was a tweak on a Bolognese I would’ve been very content, what with such nicely al dente fettuccine.

I already love The Fern, and my prediction is that this is Sydney’s next ‘it’ café. And once this place gets its nighttime trade going, it’s really going to be humming, although expect it to be a civil place for a bevvie – it’s surrounded by residential buildings after all. The tip is that the evening food is going to be affordable, maybe even free at times, a great pair to expected drinks like an Aperol cocktail or glass of Peroni. It’s all intended to be in the vein of Italy’s aperitivo, but without the half-price drinks, which would violate NSW licensing laws No matter, it’s close enough, and I’m already looking forward to spending long sessions hiding out here with a coffee from NZ’s Gravity, and maybe sticking around for nice digestivo as the sun goes down.

The Fern, 4 Pitt Street, Redfern
Tel: 0410 705 093

Cup Fever – Campos Coffee Cupping Room, Newtown

For all of Sydney’s talk about serious coffee, the city has never had a cupping room before. We’re talking the same kind of smelling, sucking, spitting and other ill-mannered gestures that have previously accompanied wine snobbery… and party pashes. Heck, even all of those Americans that Aussie like to take the piss out of for having crap coffee have cupping rooms in plenty of their newfangled Third Wave coffee houses. We better put the medal to the ristretto lest we get left behind.

Thankfully, serious coffee dudes Campos unveiled their shiny new cupping room – the city’s first – two weeks ago, and I was invited along today for a looksee. The room is upstairs from the barista-bustling Newtown flagship. Three of us were led up the dark, narrow staircase. We knocked on the door, upon which a slit in the door flew open, with eyes peering through like a Depression-era speakeasy. Nifty.

We entered the spacious, dark room, with all eyes drawn to the brightly lit cupping table, glowing with a halo effect – coffee heaven, I presume. I’ve been to other cuppings in New York, and in comparison, there are some serious pluses to the Campos version. Firstly, there’s lots of personal attention and education. Secondly, everyone gets their own cups and spoons, which is a nice hygienic approach compared to the NY method, with its shared cups between dozens of spoons kinda washed in mugs of boiled water that hopefully kill anything picked up from that taster’s ex-boyfriend. On the other hand, the NYC sessions were free, but I’ll pay $8.80 for piece of mind.

The cupping consisted of seven types of coffee beans, with grinds ranging from naturally dried Honduran to PNG, Kenyan, Indian ‘monsoon’ and even one from an unlabelled mass-producer. To start, we shook each cup of grinds to get a sense of their smell in their dried state. The characteristics varied widely: one was full of lime and citrus, another chocolately and yet another aromatic. The Indian monsoon – named because the beans are exposed to rains and winds so that they emulate the monsoon conditions when the beans used to be exported on clipper ships, which makes them pale and swell, and gain a unique, strong flavour – reminded me of leather and earth. The mass-market beans barely smelt of anything at all.

Next, the grinds were covered in 93-degree water, upon which a crust formed and floated on top. We were instructed to delicately break through the crust with our spoons, and each of us took note of the changes in the smell characteristics. Finally, the crusts were removed by Campos barista Todd McCarthy, who’s been charged with running the cupping room sessions. Lastly, we tasted the infused coffee water in each cup. I fall in love with the delicate, fruity Kenyan, but such purist thoughts aren’t so simple, as we’re taught about how roasters blend different beans to enhance flavours and create complexity.

We stumble out of the room, infused with a greater appreciation of how a specialty roaster like Campos controls its quality and builds intricate blends like a fine apothecary.

Each session runs 45 minutes, holds about four to six people, and costs a measly $8.80 “for now”, we’re told. Get in while it’s a no-brainer. And there’s good news for other Aussie capital cities: Brisvegas is getting its own cupping room at Campos’ two-year-old outpost there, and Melbourne will see its first Campos coffee house open later this week, popping up along Carlton’s Elgin Street. How good is it that you’ll be able to score Seven Seeds and Campos in a single coffee stroll?

Campos Coffee Cupping Room, 193 Missendon Rd, Newtown, NSW
Sessions: Tues to Fri at 7.30am, 9am & 1pm; Sat 8.30am, 1pm & 3pm
Campos Melbourne, 144 Elgin St, Carlton, Vic
Campos Brisbane,11 Wandoo St, Fortitude Valley, Qld

Campos Coffee on Urbanspoon

The Robots Are Coming! – Robo Cog cafe

It’s been a disastrous month for breakfast in Sydney, with two of my favourite new cafes closing their brekkie business. First there was Redfern’s Moose General Store, which got rolled by Sydney City Council over its sidewalk seating, then Chalmers Street’s Eat House decided serving breakfast and lunch was too much and started focusing on dinners only.

So it is with great pleasure that I announce a week-old newcomer in Surry Hills called Robo Cog – as in robots and bicycle cogs. A natural combination, no? Well, the robots appear to be a bit of a fascination by the Bangkok boys (with unfairly cool names like “House” and “Jet”) who run this new café, with toy robots invading the shelving and various robot motifs on display, from the walls to the bathrooms.

Then there’s the cycling element, which is equally inspired. The operators are bike geeks who have been running a neighbourhood bike repair and maintenance service just down the road. In a beautiful, blatant lack of commercial viability, they work on bikes or help people service their own two-wheelers and charge – wait for it – a$3 donation for the honour. In a materialistic city like Sydney, such a transaction may cause people to feel like they’ve woken up in Bizarro World. In the café, there are bicycles hung along the brick walls, a weekly feature that rotates bikes by customers who want to store and show off their pedallers.

Many locals might not have even noticed Robo Cog’s arrival, as it subtly took over a cottage on Riley Street that has long operated as one the city’s worst cafés in one of the city’s best café spaces. No longer. Not only do the Thai barrisas pour a sweet cappuccino, but they’re also roasting their own coffee on premise, using North Ryde’s Green Bean beans. The house blend is a mix of Ethiopian and… erm, something else that I can’t remember, with a fruity, nutty taste that’s solid, although I get the sense that they’re still working out the best roasting process. With such passion about, it feels like it’s just a matter of time. The crew also showed me a bag of coffee beans grown in Chang Rai, in Thailand’s north, which they’re experiment with for a unique espresso option.

The other clincher with Robo Cog is the price. Food starts here a gold-coin prices and then tops out at $9. At most Surry Hills cafes, that will buy you toast, but here it gets you a full-fledged breakfast. I started with a bacon-egg roll that cost little more than my coffee – decent, if a bit pedestrian – and at these prices, I should be able to get through the rest of the menu in about a week. See you there tomorrow, and don’t forget to bring some change.

Robo Cog, 249 Riley St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9281 2880

Robocog Cafe on Urbanspoon

Lunching above the Fairway

After weeks of back-and-forth emails and texts, I’d finally lined up lunch with Julia Baird, a deputy editor at Newsweek and an expat Aussie who made her mark as an op-ed editor for the Sydney Morning Herald. Despite being a native New Yorker, I’m in the strange position of being more comfortable networking with Australians through the friends and associated I’ve made over the past decade, and talking about life back in Sydney and Melbourne, and how it differs from being back in the US. My mother also gives me dirty looks each time I say “home” and I mean Sydney, not New York.


Julia just had a baby a few months ago, so she’s currently on maternity leave, and we decided to meet to eat near her place on the Upper West Side (UWS). I love the UWS for its relaxed streets and crawling distance to Central Park, but it’s also a bit of a dining wasteland, save some notable exceptions that I can never remember. With the usual dilemma of where to eat around here, Julia suggested the café above Fairway.

I used to date a girl on 81st street – one of the nicest women I’ve ever dated, for that matter, but I was too career-driven and selfish back then – so I had been past Fairway numerous times, but never stopped in. People would always rave about it, but I could never get the inspiration to haul shopping bags of food on the PATH train back to my apartment in Hoboken.

For non-locals, Fairway is a haven of incredible produce, meats and dry goods on Broadway (the street, not the theatre district), and a top spot for sourcing local and quality goods. I asked Julia if Fairway was still relevant in an age when upmarket chain Wholefoods was taking over New York, and she said yes – it’s still the most conveniently located and has a better offering of quality, artisan products.

Julia described the café as a classic UWS experience, but somehow I never knew about the upstairs café (serves me right for being a downtown NY snob). I arrived first, and found the entrance through the middle of the outdoor fruit stands, into a door and up the stairs near the lengthy cash-register lines, I quickly passed the bustle to the relative peace of the café upstairs. The room is neither dowdy nor refined, but simply comfortable: cleanly set tables, some with fresh flowers, and light streaming in from a wall of windows.


I have to admit that I expected a menu a bit more focused on the seasonal produce on offer (Sydney’s Café Sopra this isn’t), but it was more of a simple menu for casual grazing. I was tempted by the half-pound burgers, but having one big meal too many, I opted for one of the salads, which Julia recommended. I order the “composed” salad, a mix of mesclun leaves, halved cherry tomatoes, shreds of poached chicken, boiled shrimp (prawns), chunks of avocado, pieces of hardboiled egg, blanched green beans and pine nuts. It was all in a nicely light mustard vinaigrette, which is always welcome amid a heavy-handed approach to food that’s abundant in NY. But as expected, the bowl of salad with massive. Portion control remains a big peeve of mine about food in the US in general.

The salad was hearty, fresh enough and filling, if kinda forgetful. Julia told me that the pancakes are terrific, so I’ll have to come back for those, and there’s a whole steakhouse selection for dinner at a not-unreasonable prix-fix of $29. Maybe getting the prosciutto with melon, a dry-aged NY strip steak and the tarte tatin would give me a better sense of the classic experience that the café is known for.

Of course, sometimes the meal is more about the banter at the table, and what’s on the plate is merely a supporting actor. That was the case today. Plus, I’m still ‘new’ at being back in my native city, so it was great to meet a, well, fellow Australian journalist and get a sense of what’s happening within the publishing scene here.


And with a sought-after table next to the window, it was a nice way to spend lunch with a new friend. If, like Julia, I lived within walking distance of Fairway, I would’ve made the most of the location, and wrapped up my meal by doing a bit of a perve and shop of all the inspiring produce just down the stairs. I’m still waiting for my own Fairway to open up in Hoboken.

Fairway Café Steakhouse, 2127 Broadway (btw 74th and 75th sts), NYC,
Fairway Café on Urbanspoon