West Melbourne… the land that time forgot. Or as the Epicure put it so recently: Who knew West Melbourne was a place? Well it is a place, but a place so primordial, they don’t have audible traffic signals for crossing the road. I’m so used to hearing that familiar clickety clack signal telling me it’s time to cross the road, that without it, I usually only work out half way through that I should have crossed the road already. I miss it due to the fact that I have been gazing up and down the roads looking for any sign of a culinary oasis in this barren desert. Surely there’s something out there… no place could be as forgotten or overlooked as this suburb. As one friend, who came out for a meeting said… affectionately and hesitatingly… it’s kind of the Beirut end of Melbourne. Am I allowed to say that? I’m quoting him… (so he can take the fall)… but he’s not far wrong.
Anyhoo… right on the corner of my new work location (at least 3 days out of 5) – there is this unlikely looking café. Unlikely because it is decaled with cacti and cowboys – and has the highly incongruous name of Café Romulus. Highlighted to me as the best place to get coffee – I decided to try it out for lunch a couple of times and report back.
The coffee is good – they use Supreme and they do it well. So, it has become the local haunt for that obligatory morning hit. They also do some great muffins, and if you time it just right – you can get them fresh and warm out of the oven.
On the lunch side of things they offer a very limited menu. There’s a list of about 4 or 5 different sandwiches, a salad or two, and a couple of specials. Not a lot, especially if you’re used to a broader offering. And the trouble is – I’m not really into sandwiches, so that seriously restricts my options. However, what I can say is that they offer funky and seasonal food that is all about freshness. Every morning, they visit the Queen Victoria Market to pick up their supplies – and their specials are often inspired by what they find.
Avocado and smoked salmon on toasted rye
My first lunch there was from the specials board – you can’t really go wrong with avocado, salmon and rye – one of my all-time favourite combos. This dish looked really small – but was absolutely the right size for lunch. It had a generous serve of cucumber salad which provided a really fresh and cool crunch, and was lovingly sprinkled with chives. The zesty juice of some lime on the side was the perfect dressing – and the warm toast with aioli, avocado, smoked salmon and cucumber salad hit the spot.
I have to admit though… as I was sitting there with my smoked salmon, a plate of the other special on offer went past me and I got a serious case of plate envy. It was a generous plate of homemade mushroom ravioli, bound in a light cream sauce that looked like nothing on earth. I hope they bring that special back again soon… I’m hanging for it!!
Poached chicken sandwich with celery, chives, tarragon, parsley, and aioli on rye
This was an enjoyable sandwich – and I have to say the concept is truly inspired. But there were a couple of technical drawbacks in practice. The delicate herbs were fantastic, so it was a pity that a lack of seasoning let the sandwich down overall. In another faux pas, the aioli was smeared on the bread, while the chicken and herbs were bound by some olive oil – which had the effect of making the sandwich a bit slick. Why not just bind the ingredients with the aioli – rather than adding in another layer of fats?
Despite these small drawbacks – I will admit it was a delightfully refreshing combination for a sandwich, with the celery providing a fresh crunch, and the tarragon, chives and parsley giving a great balance of herby goodness.
Café Romulus is a truly groovy eatery in the lesser known reaches of West Melbourne, where the word ‘gourmet’ is often abused. It’s a bit of a life saver in this part of Melbourne where bain-maries dominate, and deep fryers and pie warmers jockey for second position. It would be great if they could offer a wider range of hot dishes (especially now that winter is upon us), because I often find myself walking past them into the dangerous, unforgiving territories of the greasy spoon – just because I want something warm. What they do prepare – they prepare well and with love… if you happen to wander down this way, pop in – they deserve the custom. And more customers might just mean a wider menu… you never know your luck in downtown Beirut!