Housed in what used to be an old telephone exchange, and is now another block of skyscraper apartments, Operator 25 is a newish cafe on the ground floor. A little sign against the brick facade is visible as you approach, not with an easily legible name, but with a fork and knife icon on it, a wordless symbol for food or restaurant here. Only when you’re much closer can you see the letters forming Operator 25 along the side. You might also see bunches of people hanging around outside, waiting their turn to be called in to a table. Given that they don’t take bookings on weekends, you are likely to also have to join that throng.
It is cleverly themed, in keeping with its history, with many phone-related puns on the walls. With the wires looping across the ceiling, you could imagine being inside a telephone exchange. Some natural light comes in the door and windows, but it is also well-lighted by downlights above and the lightbox signs on the walls. The wooden tables and brick walls gave it a rustic feel, if modern-rustic makes sense. There are a few seating options, but most are largeish tables that sit about six, at about bar counter-height. The low-backed high chairs accompanying them though, I am less convinced are a great idea, because it means that you literally can’t sit back and relax.
Despite it being busy (likely a regular weekend occurrence), the waitstaff were lovely. We had an initial 20 or so minute wait, but they had taken our names down soon after we had appeared at the door, and when we were shown to our seats, we were soon brought menus and water. They did have to come back a couple of times to check the progress of our decision-making, as we were initially distracted by catching up on news from friends, but they did so without rushing us or ignoring us for too long.
The menu carries on with the telephony theme, with sections headed Wake Up Call (lighter all day menu options), Music To Your Ears (more substantial all day menu options), All The Buzz (caffeinated and other drinks), and Last Call (alcoholic drinks). They had recently changed the menu when we visited, which was a bit disappointing, as the matcha crumpets with poached pears, macerated berries, kaya cream, mango and lychee pearls were no longer on the menu. There were a few other interesting options though.
The iced kaya matcha latte looked too interesting a flavour combination to pass up. Disappointingly, it was very weak in flavour. The green colouring was all that really told you there was matcha in it. There certainly was no hint of pandan, coconut, or any other kaya taste. I’m also not sure why the iced version costs a dollar more than the warm version.
The flat white was thought to be a bit bitter.
In place of the matcha crumpets on the menu was a matcha friand, with grilled pears, berry sauce, chantilly cream, macadamia, dark chocolate, and freeze dried raspberry. The friand itself was dense and moist, and tasted more of matcha than the latte did. The sourness of the berry sauce didn’t go with it though, nor did the sour freeze dried raspberry bits. The grilled pears, still on the hard side and not really sweet, were a distractor on the plate. While they added mass to what was there, they didn’t add flavour or provide a contrasting texture. Similarly, the chantilly cream (already sliding off the friand when brought to the table) was another element that didn’t gel. The friand didn’t need cream, and it didn’t taste of anything. That dark chocolate and macadamia soil was the one other tasty part of the dish. Crunchy and slightly sweet, it provided texture. This was such a letdown of a dish.
The cured kingfish and coconut crumbed prawn on sushi rice with tare sauce and wasabi mousse came out chef-ily plated. It was quite tasty, and had a familiar flavour..largely because it was essentially sushi re-presented. Not even daringly re-imagined, because apart from making the wasabi into a mousse instead of a more solid blob, it was essentially what you could get at a sushi train if you put a few nigiri together, except with proportionally more rice. The coconut crumbed prawn had a crunchy outer coat, and the cured kingfish was tender, but it felt like a copycat dish, and expensive for what it was. Kingfish have gained popularity in restaurants over the last couple of years likely due to increased availability and promotion from the the local sustainable fishing industry, and increased customer willingness to try different preparations of food. As a result, it isn’t as rare or exclusive an ingredient as it once might have been.
The cold soba noodle salad was another take on a Japanese dish. It was a dish of only vegetarian components, and the opinion of those at our table who had it was that the soba noodles were too gluggy. (This had nothing to do with my taking photos, as even when the bowl I wasn’t photographing was eaten right away, the feedback was the same.) Once again, it is hard to see the justification for expensive prices on an Asian dish that isn’t done well when you can get a better version at other eateries for significantly less. Particularly given that in this case, the key ingredients were noodles, beans, tofu, and mushrooms, which aren’t particularly pricey in themselves.
The one dish that was thought to be delicious at the table was the tapioca and potato fritters with kaiserfleisch.
The waitstaff were the main positive thing here. They were proficient, friendly, and cheerful.
Overall, Operator 25 has potential to be good, but the food is a let down. While it wasn’t abysmal, only one out of the group of us really enjoyed their food. To survive in the competitive food environment of Melbourne, they are going to have to do better than rely on playing off a novel theme.
Price point: $17 to $23 for items more substantial for toast or a smoothie bowl.
Address: 25 Wills Street, CBD, Melbourne
Phone: 03 9670 3278
Website: Operator 25