Life On Mars

“Life On Mars” by David Bowie is one of my very favourite songs, and seeing him perform it live back in 2003 is one of only two instances where I’ve burst out crying at a gig.* So, to hear that a cafe in Hawthorn had named themselves in homage to the song immediately gave it weight in my mind. One would imagine that you wouldn’t name your cafe after such a song unless you had the foodie chops to match it with!

On the Tuesday morning I finally wandered in to Life On Mars to check it out, a laid-back vibe predominated, as I took my seat at the front communal table and took in the dark-wood finishes, the chairs hanging from the walls, and the constant stream of suits filing in to grab their mid-morning coffee.

Speaking of coffee, I started off with a mocha while I perused over the menu. It was nicely satisfying with warm, earthy notes, but the chocolate powder had not been properly mixed with the coffee and there were little secret powder bubbles hidden within sips that caught me unawares. I mean, I know if most coffee snobs had their way all the mocha drinkers in town would be rounded up and shot, but still, is it too much to ask to have the chocolate and coffee nicely blended?

The breakfast menu is heavily sweets-stacked, with multiple types of fancy cereal bowls, featuring everything from bircher to quinoa, culminating in pancakes which involved fairy floss. Dessert for breakfast! I am actually quite regretful that I decided I should be sensible and go with savoury instead of these decadent pancakes, especially when I realised after ordering that it was actually Shrove Tuesday. Pancake fail!

So, what savoury had I decided to be sensible with? The poached eggs with herbed mushrooms and hollandaise on two slices of sourdough (what do you mean hollandaise isn’t sensible, what mad world are you living in?). When the massive serving reached me promptly at my table, it was quite striking, but I was immediately wary of one thing – the colour of the hollandaise was not the bright, vibrant yellow that I have come to expect of the sauce. It was instead a very pale yellow, and giving it a sniff brought forth a pretty noticeable waft of vinegar. Oh oh.

A taste confirmed my suspicions – very sour, very vinegary. Such an instant disappointment, there really is nothing more deflating than poor hollandaise.

But maybe other aspects to the dish would be able to make up for the hollandaise. I immediately went to pop the two poached eggs, as dribbling egg yolk all over the other components is always fun. One was perfectly poached, oozing bright orange yolk everywhere. The other was hard boiled. I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve been served a hard poached egg, I was a bit shocked.

Luckily, the mushrooms went a long way in salvaging this dish for me. They were very impressive looking mushrooms – a mix of shiitake, enoki and a variety of button – threaded through with a variety of herbs (‘herbed’ meaning more than lots of just one herb = so many points in favour!), all charred from pan-frying yet glistening with moisture. And lest you think like I did that you only get the mushrooms ringing the toast like a moat, think again – lift up the first piece of toast and you find a generous cache of mushrooms hiding between the slices. A genius surprise!

The mushrooms really were gorgeous, and lifted the dish as a whole for me. Only snag with the mushies is that they were rather moist and served with quite a bit of their pan-juice, meaning that the bottom slice of sourdough got soggy very quickly. A minor quibble though, especially in the face of the more egregious eggs.

Despite all the negative aspects I have described, I really don’t feel like I can completely write off Life On Mars yet. The elements in the dish I had that worked were crazy delicious and really quite clever touches. And considering that there were so many sweets on offer, that could be where their menu’s strength lies, and I may have been on surer ground going with those decadent sounding pancakes than with the eggs. So if anybody wants to join me on a future second visit where we attempt to stuff ourselves with sugar-laced dishes to see if they show Life On Mars in a more complete, hopefully positive light, I’m all ears!

Life On Mars

842 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn

Ph: 9078 8663

*The other was completely breaking down during Arcade Fire’s Big Day Out set in 2008. Why would you unleash the emotional king-hit that is “No Cars Go” three songs in, WHY?!

Miss Chu: South Yarra Edition

Despite the fact that I’ve eaten from Miss Chu’s Exhibition Street location in the city quite a few times since it opened, I’ve never felt particularly compelled to blog about it. This is for the reason that even though I’ve always really enjoyed the food, the vibe of the restaurant itself has always left me stone cold. From frequently being ignored as a solo diner by waitstaff who always seem to be more focused on prepping or talking among themselves, to being overcrowded in the furniture-stuffed small space, to that slightly paranoid feeling that everyone else around you is in the venue purely to be seen, Miss Chu as a place has always made me feel uncomfortable. Indeed, the times I’ve enjoyed Miss Chu the most has been those times when I’ve been with friends in the city and we’ve ordered Miss Chu’s to deliver: that way I was able to focus on the delicately flavoured, well put together food without feeling that I was far too uncool to be allowed to experience it.

So when I discovered that the second Melbourne Miss Chu location was to be opened around the corner from one of my workplaces, I was all kinds of conflicted. Because even though I was excited to get delicious rice paper rolls is a location convenient for me, I was worried that the same problems that I’d experienced at Exhibition Street would also be prevalent at South Yarra.

Biting the bullet, Muffin and I decided to visit for lunch after we had seen a film at the Como. I was interested to see how Muffin would react to the food and space, given that she had never had Miss Chu’s before.

The South Yarra space is still a bit furniture-crammed, but it’s much more brightly lit and cheery than Exhibition Street’s dark cavern. I particularly liked the strings of light fittings with blue and white patterned porcelain bowls that had been converted into lampshades, an idea taken from the Exhibition Street store and refined in a much more striking way.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in ordering – you order using little take out sheets where you tick the boxes next to what you want, which is simple enough, but when I took it to the counter it took quite a while for any of the numerous staff to acknowledge me, then once a waiter had noticed me there was drama with the till – it seemed like no one present was terribly familiar with how to use it – then the wrong bill was tallied up and my correct docket had to be re-found. This isn’t intended as a slight against the staff, they were very apologetic and much friendlier than any I’d encountered at Exhibition Street, it just seems that this might be a case where the many staff are trained to fulfill certain roles on the floor and in the kitchen and aren’t briefed on things that fall outside of those roles. Which probably works marvelously well when the joint is pumping but, you know, less well when there’s not much happening.

Anyway, onto food. We got the two types of vegie rice paper rolls, the vegetarian with egg omelette, avocado and balsamic caramelised onion, and the vegan option with tofu, mushrooms and spinach. I’ve always really loved the egg omelette roll, despite the fact that the caramelised onions never really make their presence known, it’s still a lovely fresh burst of a thing to bite into. The vegan option is much the same, just lacking the same touch of umami possessed by the egg ones (umami is one of those pretentious, over-used food blogger words that I should avoid using, isn’t it? I just feel like I use ‘savoury’ too much in place of it. Eh, bygones). What really makes the rice paper rolls exciting is the little bottle of, by all accounts house made, chilli sauce served with them. This stuff is liquid crack – it’s not terribly hot, but is more subtle with loads of spice and sweetness and I just want to slather it over everything.

I can’t go without dumplings, so I had to make sure some English spinach and tofu steamed dumplings hit the table. They had lovely thin and delicate wrappers that were steamed into a smooth gelatinous consistency, and come swimming in a gingery soy sauce. Gingery anything always goes down well with me, and it made up for the fact that the filling itself wasn’t amazingly flavoursome.

Next were the vegetarian net spring rolls. Or LITTLE CRISPY TUBES OF AWESOME. The net pastry means that you get a huge dose of crispy, which is just how I like my fried things. Do be aware though that you only get four in a serving, they’re not terribly big and you will be struck with the desire to want more almost immediately.

Wanting a cooling beverage, I decided to order a coconut water, which I’ve never had before. Annoying diet food trend side, it was quite refreshing, and I did like the fact that it contained softened curls of coconut flesh as well.

So my conclusion by this point was this: despite various annoyances with the set up of the place, the food is genuinely pretty good. The flavours have clearly been softened slightly for the desired clientele (so if you’re looking for a proper Vietnamese chilli punch, look elsewhere), but is still tasty enough to mostly be worth the bother. Muffin had been very pleased too with the food, and came away with a very positive first impression.

And then as we were leaving, I spotted the delivery scooters lined up out along the footpath in front of the restaurant. In particular, the large slogans emblazoned on the scooters proclaiming “You ling, we bling!”


Did I miss the memo saying that it was totally cool now to use racist caricature language in marketing?  I mean, we’re talking about a venue and a brand that has set itself up to be as cool and on-trend as humanly possible, and presents a menu of “authentic”-branded Vietnamese food that, and let’s be blunt, is deliberately designed to appeal to young white people. This smacks pretty forcefully of being straight up hipster racism.

Upon further research it appears that this is a pretty standard part of Miss Chu’s marketing strategy. For instance, on the Miss Chu website, the button to click in order to like them on Facebook says “Me likey!” GROSS. GROSS GROSS GROSS.

I sent several ranty emails to my friend Jen (who is well accustomed to receiving numerous frothing, CAPSLOCK-heavy email cries of despair from me) about this whole thing and asked her whether I was over-reacting. Her response started with “Well, considering the business is helmed by a Laotian-Vietnamese woman, maybe they’re being self-consciously ironic and re-appropriating racist phrasing?” but quickly plunged into doubt the more she researched, to finally culminate in her own rage-filled email: “Oh, it gets worse – I just tried to order Miss Chu’s delivered and the website came up with the message ‘WE NO DELIVER WHERE YOU LIVE.’ Whyyyyy, Hayley, whyyyyyy.” Why indeed.

Look, I was willing to forgive a whole avalanche of pretentiousness in order to get some good food, but tacitly endorsing horridly cutesy, ‘ironic’ racist sloganeering for the sake of a few delicious rice paper rolls? Yeah, that’s not something that I’m okay with. Adios, Miss Chu.

Miss Chu

276 Toorak Road, South Yarra

Ph: 9041 5848

Update: My friend Joe alerted me via Twitter of yet another example of grossness on their website.

Red Door Corner Store II: Crumpin’ Crumpets

A new year, a new Women of Letters, and a new Women of Letters venue! Having moved from the Thornbury Theatre to the glorious disabled-access friendly Regal Ballroom, our WoL trip this month meant that we were moving our pre-brunch from Thornbury to Northcote. But with the vegan and gluten free requiring Maddy in our party, would we be able to find a cafe to cater for her hungry needs?

After doing some extensive research, I decided that it was high time to pay Red Door Corner Store another visit. Not only is their food comforting and delicious, but by the look of their website it seemed as if they would be able to cater handsomely for Maddy’s needs.

Being a bright sunny day, we snaffled ourselves a table in the courtyard out the back, which occupies a pleasing prospect bursting with flowers and overhanging trees, with a spread of astro-turf under foot.

Since I had passed over them last time, I figured this was the perfect chance to finally try the renowned coconut crumpets served with jam, honey and Myrtleford butter. Two huge rounds of crumpet appeared on a wooden board, just lightly golden in colour yet piping hot, surrounded by pots of condiments. I made sure to divide up the crumpets so that I could enjoy equal quantities of condiments because, you know, anal-retentive.

While the promised coconut flavour wasn’t really at the forefront, these were still really decent crumpets. Big and fat without, moist and spongy within, all that I require from a homemade crumpet. The condiments was where the dish really kicked up a gear – there was a mixed fruit jam (most probably a mix of plum and berries) that was sweet, rich, and threaded through with nice fat chunks of fruit; a lovely floral-noted honey, thick and sweet; and best of all, the perfect round of Myrtleford butter. You don’t want to know how much butter I eat (the fact I don’t eat meat is probably the only reason my cholesterol isn’t through the roof), but Myrtleford butter is something else – rich, creamy yet with a hint of salt, obscenely yellow, it’s like the Godzilla of butters, stomping in all over every other flavour and roaring “Bow before me, King of Butters, and DESPAIR!.” I want to live in a vat of it.

Maddy had a few options to mull over, thankfully, and the staff were lovely in happily checking with the kitchen to see what she could eat. She ended up building her own brekkie toast with homemade gluten-free bread, fresh avocado, roasted tomato and the house baked beans (apparently always made with oil, not butter). We had been particularly taken with the note on the menu that Red Door’s gluten-free bread supplier’s products are frequently mistaken for their gluten-packed brethren, something of a miracle when it comes to gluten-free breads. Maddy’s delighted cry of “It tastes like real bread!” upon her first bite proved it was not just idle boasting. The plate was wholly devoured, leaving a very satisfied Maddy.

Muffin went with Red Door’s baked eggs. I shamefully did not take much note of them, other than noting that the dish was slicked with a very good, thick looking tomato-based sauce, with little islands of white egg floating about.

Once again, Red Door proved that they are one of the most reliable brunch providers north-side, and will happily cater for those with dietary needs with dishes of equal high standard to everything else on their menu. Good to see!

Red Door Corner Store

70 Mitchell Street, Northcote

Ph: 9489 8040

Savoury Tofu Pancakes

Egads, a recipe! I know, I am just as shocked as you are. But I made these little babies for a vegan Chinese New Year potluck hosted by Steph from Vegan About Town, and they were successful enough for a few people to ask for the recipe, which is always flattering, so here goes!

The original recipe I used can be found at the bottom of this post at Alien’s Day Out, but I tweaked it a little mainly due to some of the proportions being a bit vague, and also for the fact that my first batter mix stuck immediately to the bottom of my fry pan, causing me to frantically throw around flour until it righted itself. FLOUR FIXES EVERYTHING, KIDS!

Savoury Tofu Pancakes

You will need:

  • 1 block firm tofu (I used a packet that clocked in at 900g worth, which I’ve just realised is an obscene amount of tofu and most probably my pan-sticking culprit. Feel free to downscale)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 carrot
  • 3 spring onions
  • 1/2 green capsicum
  • 1/2 red capsicum
  • 1/2 cup corn kernels
  • 1 cup plain flour (upgraded from original recipe’s 2/3 cup, feel free to adjust further if your batter ends up too wet to stick together)
  • 1 tsp cornflour
  • peanut oil for frying, with a few drops of sesame oil added if you’re feeling cheeky

1. Chop up the onion, carrot, and both capsicum halves into wee cubes, then slice up the spring onions into rounds.

2. Drain the tofu, then crumble up in a bowl. Add all the other ingredients and mix to combine.

3. Fry them babies! Add the oil to a frying pan and heat up over medium heat. Take small spoonfuls of batter and add to the pan, flattening them into little discs. They’re ready when they’re golden brown on each side.

This makes, well, I didn’t count, but a lot of little pancakes! I also just had the thought that if you really wanted to ramp up the savoury factor you could add a teaspoon or two of Massel’s “chicken” stock powder, because that stuff is powdered gold and makes everything extra delicious.

Also for other Chinese New Year inspired vegan treats, be sure to check out Catherine’s recipe for Golden Snake Bread – one of the most amazingly delicious breads I’ve ever tasted!