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?!

Kimchi Lunchbox

When I heard that there was a cheap-and-cheerful Korean place on Glenferrie Road that churns out everyone’s favourite Korean dishes for $10 and under a pop, it would be an understatement to say that my curiosity was piqued. I needed to get that stuff in my face YESTERDAY. Luckily Amelia is always down for cheap food adventures, so we set off to investigate after a Sunday afternoon movie session.

Kimchi Lunchbox is clearly designed to be an ‘eat quick and do not linger’ kind of place. You order at a counter, collect your cutlery and napkins from the same counter and your drinks from a fridge, then sit at simple tables and chairs to await your food. You won’t be waiting long, the kitchen pumps out food with almost obscene speed.

Not only is the food quick but, word of warning, the servings here are the size of SPACE, so bring very eager and hungry tummies with you. Amelia’s teriyaki chicken lunchbox came with not only ample amounts of stewy chicken, but a mountain of white rice, a smaller mountain range of marinated beanshoots, spicy cabbage kimchi, beancurd strips and a piece of both orange and cantaloupe. While she wasn’t terribly fussed with the accompanying piles of vegetables, Amelia was very keen on the teriyaki chicken itself, and was slightly aggrieved that it was such a massive serving that she couldn’t eat it all.

I of course had to go with the vegetarian bibimbap, what with bibimbap being my most favourite dish in the history of ever. This one featured white rice, beanshoot kimchi, shredded zucchini, fat slices of shiitake mushroom, and a fried egg. The rice ended up being a bit too moist, and didn’t properly crisp up against the hot bowl as bibimbap should, but it was still a tasty and adequate version.

Kimchi Lunchbox won’t immediately become your very favourite Korean restaurant around town, but they will fill a hole for when you just need to get some bibimbap into you without completely cleaning out your change pocket. There’s enough vegetarian variety spread throughout the menu that I’m certainly interested enough to go back and see whether their versions of Korean savoury pancakes and jabchae are to my liking.

Kimchi Lunchbox

650-652 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn

Ph: 9818 1233

Axil Coffee Roasters

I do like the excuse to go food exploring in suburbs that I normally rarely visit. So the decision of our brunching group to move our focus from cafes around Melbourne Uni to cafes around Swinburne (wise move, since most of us don’t even go to Melbourne anymore!) was very much welcomed by me, as Hawthorn is a bit of a dark shadow on the map of my foodie knowledge.

Axil Coffee Roasters sits solidly on busy Burwood Road. It is a big, deep space, surfaces all decked out in a palette of dark greens and blacks, with splashes of exposed wood and vertical racks filled with pot plants (some of whom seemed to be struggling in the hot weather). The clientele is eclectic, with the requisite number of students, business folk and even some of Hawthorn’s genteel older guard. Axil clearly ticks a lot of bases for people.

The main base is, obviously, coffee. There’s a crazy amount of bean choices, drip coffee, filter thingies, and probably a whole heap of other crazy coffee options that are completely wasted on me. Overwhelmed by all this coffee new-fanglery, I retreated to the tea menu to see of there was anything to spark my interest. There’s a small selection of teas by Victorian tea company Larsen and Thompson, and I decided to go with the most interesting and unusual option, the white peony tea. While it didn’t have the light orange colouring promised by the menu notes, it had been properly brewed before reaching my table, meaning there were no tea leaves left to stew in the pot and sour the second cup. It was a subtle blend, starting off very quiet yet building up flavour with each sip. It wasn’t quite as floral as I’d expected (though floral notes are definitely present, beware floral loathers), but all in all a very satisfying brew worth trying.

Food-wise, it was a bit hard to single myself down to one dish, but I ended up going with the savoury French toast with spinach, sauteed wild mushrooms and truffled pecorino cheese, plus I added a side of haloumi that came with a lemon wedge. This was a good solid meal, everything was cooked well, the bread of the toast wasn’t soggy and was liberally coated in egg, and I was pleased to see that wild mushrooms meant a variety of mushrooms. I couldn’t help feeling though that, without the inclusion of the haloumi, it was all a touch bland. My suspicions were confirmed by Alison, who had ordered the same without haloumi, and opined that the dish as a whole lacked something. Perhaps next time I’ll order the corn fritters instead, Jess and Kim both had these and they looked colourfully fabulous.

It’s sometimes interesting to see how staff in a place react when things go wrong, rather than experiencing service where everything goes right. Towards the end of our eating, and just when some of us were getting a second beverage, a harried waiter came up to us and apologetically requested whether we would mind moving to a table outside. None of us were quite sure at this stage exactly why we were being asked to move, but we are nothing if not amiable folks and all pottered out to go sit in the sun. Once we were settled the harried waiter returned and explained that someone had taken a booking and not informed the other staff. He was very sorry that we’d had to move (we weren’t! We were in the sunshine!), and insisted on striking the price for all the drinks we’d had. We protested, but he won out, and in the end he not only didn’t charge for drinks but rounded down our bill as well. Crisis well averted, young man, and very happy customers you made in us!

Axil was for the most part an enjoyable place to spend a afternoon eating and chatting happily with friends. I might need to try a few more items on the menu to be entirely sold on the food options, but the beverages are good, the service more than obliging, and it’s just a nice spot to hang out.

Axil Coffee Roasters

322 Burwood Road, Hawthorn

Ph: 9819 0091