Brother Alec

Having been terribly lax in my Women of Letters attendance throughout most of the year (the tickets go so quickly! And I am LAZY!), I was fortunately rescued from feminist purgatory by Maddy, who has ninja-like ticket purchasing skills and secured for us seats to their last show for the year.

Of course, one of the best parts of going to WoL is organising a fortifying brunch beforehand, so that one has plenty of energy to laugh and cry like babes for three hours. Having seen it recently featured on Where’s the Beef as their own pre-WoL lunch adventure, I thought that Brother Alec would be the perfect place to try out.

The cafe itself is very unassuming, but full of friendly little touches, from birthday messages to regulars scrawled on the windows, to the waitstaff themselves, who are some of the most unpretentiously cheery service staff I’ve encountered in quite a long while. The menu is filled with dishes that tempt and tease with their descriptions, and there were plentiful vegetarian options. It all combines into a place you really wish was your local; indeed, when the waitress mistook Maddy for another patron who had recently moved to the area, Maddy exclaimed “Oh, I wish I’d moved here so I could come every day!”

After seeing the photo of it in Where’s the Beef’s review, I tried but ultimately couldn’t go past the breakfast roll with spicy spinach, tomato relish, a thin, thin, thin egg omelette, and basil mayo. For an unapologetic spinach fanatic such as myself, it was a decadently enjoyable brunch snack indeed, with a gigantically thick filling of springy green spinach that had been slightly wilted and brushed with some kind of buttery spice concoction. The egg is nowhere near the star of the dish, so if you’re looking for an eggy fix, look elsewhere. The actual real star was the basil mayo, which was sinfully flavour-packed, I wanted to smuggle away a jar and put it on EVERYTHING.

To test a cafe’s true friendly, accommodating mettle, you should attend with a friend who is both vegan and gluten intolerant. Maddy was most pleased that the waitress not only happily allowed her to convert the fried potatoes dish into a vegan and gluten free one (including subbing in gluten free bread), but also suggested extra vegan ingredients to plump up the dish. THAT is service in these dietary requirement heavy times, my friends! Other cafes, take note.

No tea or coffee accompanied our dishes, but I did have a nice refreshing glass of freshly squeezed orange juice that really hit the spot on a warm day.

As you can tell from my tone, I was pretty damn happy with everything at Brother Alec. In fact, the only shame about WoL moving to a bigger venue next year is that the Regal Ballroom might be a touch too far out of the way to fit in a Brother Alec visit beforehand. Nevermind, as WoL opened up my foodie knowledge of Thornbury, so shall it do the same for Northcote.

Brother Alec

719 High Street, Thornbury

Ph: 9416 9428

www.facebook.com/brotheralec

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Lowlands

Attending Women of Letters is fast becoming a very good excuse for exploring the culinary options around Thornbury. And the merest attempts at research uncovers the fact that there are many interesting-looking places to choose from up around there! So with Muffin, my mother and Muffin’s sister Bec in tow, we made our way up to the farthermost reaches of High Street to have a gander at Lowlands.

It was an utterly stinking hot mess of a day, and as a result when we arrived all of the indoor seating was taken up with people inching as close as they could to the one industrial-sized electric fan. But we were blessed with fortune, as Lowlands has an outdoor seating area out the back in their picturesque kitchen garden that is under cover.

On such a hot day, it seemed only sensible to order a glass of rose lemonade. It was beautifully presented, a cheery light green fizz of bubbles with a sprinkling of red rose petals on top. Ridiculously refreshing, and it reached an agreeable balance between the tart lemon and the sweet rose syrup. Mum ended up having two glasses!

Once I’d been distracted from all the kitchen garden plants which seemed to be in full summer bloom (so many rambling nasturtiums!), I turned my attention to the food options. If I see a cooking term that I’m unfamiliar with on a menu, odds are I have to order that item in order to sate my curiosity and ignorance. So I had to make sure that I experienced the shirred eggs once I saw them. What could shirring mean?

My mother (who is a far better culinary expert than I am) explained that shirring involves cracking eggs into little, generally ceramic, containers, then putting those containers in a pan filled with water and then baking them in the oven, using basically the same method you would use with a steamed pudding. Exciting cooking revelations!

The vegetarian shirred eggs were served with two slices of bread sitting on a pool of cherry tomato relish (agreeably sweet, I’m not normally one for relish but this one I scooped up as much as I could), with three big, fat, juicy pieces of haloumi skewered with rosemary sprigs. The shirred eggs themselves had a consistency just a touch stiffer than poached eggs, but the yolks were still runny enough that I could spread them all over the bread. But of course the real winner was the haloumi skewers, because haloumi is ALWAYS the winner, these are the facts.

Muffin had other variety of shirred eggs on offer, with pea and broad bean mash, fat pieces of chorizo, and an array of greens that we hazarded could possibly have been kale. It was a good and hearty plate that was by all accounts a riot of exciting flavours; Muffin made particular comment on the pea and broad bean mash being quite delicious.

Bec had the eggplant couscous salad, which had the advantage of looking both delicious and full of health. I was particularly jealous of the big round of roti it was served with.

Mum, after much hmm-ing and haw-ing (well, we all did a bit of haw-ing, everything on the menu sounded all types of good), ended up going with the avocado toast that the menu promised it came “with 100% toast coverage.” And the menu was not lying! It did indeed come with masses of bright green avocado speckled with cracked pepper and salt crystals. I always think it’s a good sign when a cafe or restaurant does a simple dish really well, and if you can make something as simple as avocado on toast something to rave about, well, colour me impressed, Lowlands, colour me so.

The garden was still pleasant, but by this point the heat had become overwhelmingly oppressive, so we moved inside to some now-free tables to have a post-food beverage. Mum wanted to try a single-origin coffee, but sadly they’d sold out, so instead went for the ‘Candyman’ blend. Served as a short black, it had a good, thick crema on top. “Well, that’ll keep me going all afternoon,” she said once she’d knocked it back, eyes instantly dilating.

I went with a Chai latte for this second round. I was not as heavily spiced as some other chais I’ve had, but it was nice and smooth, with admirably abundant froth. Would make a very nice before bed beverage, as Bec observed.

Muffin and Bec went with an iced tea each, with a base of green tea, served with mint and stonefruit. Muffin was particularly pleased with it as it wasn’t as sickeningly sweet as some iced teas have a tendency towards, and instead the over-riding flavour was that of the green tea. Another good beverage for a hot day.

Lowlands was an all-round highly pleasant experience, and considering we visited on a extreme-weather day that had the potential to make us all terribly crotchety, the fact that we all left relaxed, cheerful and raving to each other about the food and friendly ambiance should only embolden our recommendation. The staff were lovely and approachable, the surrounds simple yet cute, and I really want to go back and have a rose lemonade in that ace garden, perhaps on a not-so hot day so I can enjoy the flowers properly. Head up to the end of High Street and go enjoy yourselves, you deserve it.

Lowlands

923 High Street, Thornbury

Ph: 9480 1635

http://lowlandsespresso.blogspot.com/

Northern Soul

I am a total sucker for owls. Most birds in general send me into paroxysms of delight (quick bird-nerd squee: there were spotted pardalotes in my garden this spring! They are normally so hard to see! Yet there they were, hopping around our maples like tiny wee brown and orange lights, peeping away. So cute! End bird squee). But owls are my favourite. So seeing a cheery brown owl emblazoned on Northern Soul’s front window as Muffin and I strolled through the door immediately raised my hopes that this little place would deliver something special.

It is a small yet very neatly designed place, with gorgeous wallpaper and cheery staff. The menu is nice and varied, with so many veggie options that my head was quite comprehensibly spun.

You don’t win friends with salad, so the adage goes, but I would counter that you would totally win friends with Northern Soul’s udon salad. Udon noodles and an array of fresh crunchy greens and seeds (pine, pumpkin and a few others I failed to identify) are complimented with wasabi mayo. The ratio of solid ingredients to mayo was a tops one, nothing was too overly drenched, although if you’re expecting a hefty wasabi kick you will be dissatisfied, this is quite mild, which was okay with me. Deliciously pleasing!

Muffin had the vegan baked beans on pumpkin bread, with a side of cute tiny sauteed button mushrooms. She felt that the bread wasn’t as pumpkiny as she’d expected, but found nothing to fault in the beans, which were both hearty and tasty. The little mushrooms were bite-sized morsels of goodness, as one would expect from vegetables happily united together in butter.

The tea is provided by Leaf Herbal Tea; apparently Northern Soul is the only cafe in Melbourne that stocks this particular tea brand. I was certainly pretty impressed by my earl grey, which featured American bergamot (which, plant-nerd time, isn’t actually botanically related to regular bergamot, but is so strongly reminiscent of the flavour and scent of bergamot that settlers gave it the same name). I also had a lovely pot of chai tea which was popping with spices. I really want to explore this tea menu, it’s so heartening when places do tea properly!

We kept peering at the desserts cabinet that was just across from us, and could not help but be tempted by all the attractive little cakes. Muffin had a ‘daisy cake’, a little vanilla cupcake with slight coffee-ish flavoured icing with marshmallows on top.  I had been eying off the impressive-looking passionfruit meringue cupcakes since I arrived. Topped with a swirl of meringue, the cupcake itself was a bright rich yellow, strongly passionfruit flavoured and hid a golden treasure inside with a centre of passionfruit curd.  It’s always a treat when food tastes as good as it looks!

Northern Soul is pleasingly fabulous, and we weren’t the only ones discovering it; the little place filled up very quickly while we were eating (apparently it’s quite the drawcard for lunch before Women of Letters!). I’m certainly very keen to go back. Everything is nice and cheap, most dishes are under $10, so you can have yourself a good filling lunch without fuss. Although make sure you bring lots of cash as there aren’t any card facilities.

Northern Soul

843 High Street, Thornbury

Ph: 9480 2333

http://www.northernsoulcafe.com/