**Now renamed Vertue Coffee Roasters. See an updated review from a more recent visit here.
The Vertue of the Coffee Drink is about as Melbourne as it gets. It promulgates the goodness of coffee, it is hidden down a laneway, and it exudes underground cool. This was high on the list of places to visit in Melbourne, but actually finding it was a challenge. Even as a once-resident and armed with Google maps, we still wandered around the block a couple of times before finding our way there.
Suffice to say, like a secret club, you have to really want to find it, be prepared to explore, and be warned that there will be no signs to indicate whether you are on the right track or not. Even when you eventually get there, you will find it to be among the most unassuming of entrances.
Once through the door though, like going though the wardrobe into Narnia, you will find a whole different world. The first thing you come to is the microroastery area, where their coffees are made and you can get a blend to take home. With warm wood ceilings and gem-like copper and gold pendant lights, it makes for a stylish transition to the main seating and eating area.
The main area is a surprisingly light, expansive space. The ceiling is two stories above you, and skylights mean that even though there are no street-facing windows, the space is well lighted. The wood paneled walls are set off by white-painted and raw red brick sections. There are swathes of greenery above, from which tendrils hang down. The rustic themeing continues with light wood tabletops and seats that look like tree stumps. A posy of leaves sits in an amber bottle at each table.
We were shown to seats, and water and menus were soon brought to the table. Instrumental music, relaxing spa style, played in the background, just audible above the coffee roaster churning. The prawn cracker smell of coffee roasting wafted by.
There were a few tempting options on the food menus, but we were able to narrow it down to particularly interesting dishes quite quickly, as we generally don’t order salads, and try not to get burgers at places that aren’t dedicated burger joints. What you will want to pay at least as much attention to though, is the drink menu. They have options like the Barista breakfast, a coffee flight of an espresso, a 3/4 flat white, and a batch brew. If you need caffeination, you will certainly get it here. Before you order your coffee, it is also worth finding out what blends are available and what preparation options they recommend for it. Examples include filter, cold brew, pour over v60, and a long shot (which they explained as a filter style long shot made through the espresso machine). The possibilities are mind-boggling.
We settled on the comparatively boring option of flat whites, made with their Shapeshifter blend, a mix of Guatemalan and Ethiopian beans. The flat white with a extra shot was, unfortunately, a touch bitter.
The soy flat white, despite its blurry latte art, had nicely textured milk foam. It was pleasantly nutty and not bitter.
The Return of the Mac (good pun) was listed as having a house made mac and cheese croquette, slow braised ham hock, textures of beetroot, poached egg, and beetroot bearnaise. How could we not order that? The presentation of the dish on the plate was quite a work of art. The enthusiastically spattered beetroot puree was a striking exclamation on the asymmetric dish, which was raised at one end. They would have had fun plating up in the kitchen. The puree was smooth and lightly sweet. The ham hock was served as pulled meat, scattered across the croquette. The meat was smoky, a little sweet, and had little pops of heat from mustard seeds sprinkled through the mix. It was tender, without being soaked in sauce. The mac and cheese croquette, the hero of the dish, was actually moist and cheesy inside. The outer crust was golden and gently crunchy. Too often mac and cheese patties or croquettes turn out to be disappointingly overcooked, so that they are rock hard on the outside and dry on the inside. This one was a success. Balanced on the top of the heap was the poached egg, painted with beetroot bearnaise. The yolk, was, of course, runny. The beetroot bearnaise was creamy, but colour apart, wasn’t too different from a standard bearnaise. This dish was certainly a winner in terms of looks, textures, and flavours.
The Winter Mushroom had new season mushrooms, kale, poached egg, house baked corn bread, truffle foam, beetroot puree, and porcini powder. It had a more conservative appearance than the other dish, but still had a bright punch of colour from a swathe of the same beetroot puree across the plate. There were a few different mushrooms in the mix. They were cooked until they were tender, but still retained body and juiciness. The poached egg had a sunshine orange, runny yolk. The truffle foam blanketing it was airy, and had a good truffly aroma. The cornbread at the base of it all had a fine crumb. The outside was toasted so that it had a crunchy surface, but kept a soft crumbliness beneath that. Once the other sauces and the porcini powder were mixed in, it had a good umami mix. Where the other dish had stronger flavours, this was more subtle, but rich.
The Vertue of the Coffee Drink is a hidden gem that is worth the hunt down. It is a beautiful space, the food is good, there is a variety of coffee, and the staff were friendly with ready smiles.
Price point: $17 to $24 for dishes more substantial than toast or an acai bowl.
Value: Pretty good.
Address: 8 Raffa Place, Carlton
Phone: 03 8060 6987
Website: The Vertue of the Coffee Drink