Crumbed coddled egg with anchovy and black pudding.
A new place of food worship opened in industrial Brunswick East in July. Her name was Pope Joan.
Joan’s followers appeared rapidly. Bloggers filled their screens and food lovers lined up for seats. In its first few weeks, the café groaned with their devotion.
None of it was any wonder, given that the smart, fashionable space is owned by chef Matt Wilkinson (ex-Circa) and hotel manager Ben Foster (ex-Kent Hotel).
Catchy, clever café names such as theirs have almost transcended the need for an industrial warehouse fit-out to qualify for Melbourne cultural kudos. And deliverance almost always comes during a road trip. “There’s a bit of anti-Catholic sentiment,” says Foster. “But really, we just liked the name.”
Pope Joan is a legendary (and possibly fictitious) female pope who lived as Pope John during the Middle Ages. The truth to her identity is said to have been discovered when she gave birth to an illegitimate son.
Foster and Wilkinson, who met through mutual friends a few years ago, were looking for something new. Wilkinson felt his reign at Circa was ready to end and Foster, who had been at the Kent Hotel for 15 years, had always wanted his own café.
The space they found almost two years ago (Pope Joan was 18 months in planning) is next door to a steelworks. It was two adjoining houses (one had been used as a café), and the driveway between them is now the slick decked area.
A bar in the second house is awaiting council consent. It will be named the Bishop of Ostia (after Pope Joan’s illegitimate son, given the role within the church, which was, ironically, to consecrate the Pope).
Wilkinson’s kitchen garden is the linchpin that gives this otherwise sophisticated café its appealing earthiness. He proudly acknowledges his suppliers and doggedly follows the seasons.
The menu features an all-day section that includes refined cereal-based dishes and toast; think oats, grains and seeds with rhubarb and vanilla yoghurt, rice pudding with mango, toasted fruit bread with top-label butter and jam, or house-baked banana bread with strawberry cream.
There’s an excellent “eggs” offering, too (the café uses Green eggs) that includes pseudo-basics such as toast soldiers with bacon bits, herbed salt, poached eggs, asparagus and herbs, or a souffled nettle, sorrel and Meredith feta omelet.
The crumbed coddled egg, anchovy and black-pudding salad is a house specialty. Three generous slices of the dark, brooding pudding sit beside a nest of lettuce and fresh herbs holding a golden-crumbed egg. The blood sausage, by Paxton Pork, is rightly rich and unexpectedly elegant. A simple anchovy dressing (a blend of anchovies, oil and apple cider vinegar) brings all the elements together.
Also high on the must-try egg list is the Kedegree – a rice-based dish dotted with smoked fish, fresh peas and pieces of boiled egg. The creamy, turmeric-coloured rice has a slightly overcooked risotto texture and plays foil to the sharp, salty smoked fish and the firm young peas.
A changing daily salad and pasta offering is spirited and diverse. A mixed-grain salad, comprising red and white quinoa, red onion and a stunning, saucy, caramelly, spicy kasundi features a scattering of baby herbs and a generous quenelle of whipped Meredith goat’s curd.
A cured hapuka, chickpea, mint and coriander salad with harissa yoghurt is another fabulous offering. The harissa yoghurt is a fresh, vivid foil to the salty fish, and the chickpeas, coriander and mint with slices of radish add a pleasant crispness.
House-baked cakes change daily, there’s a rotating list of carefully selected Victorian wines and staff who seem to have retained some of that “new-place” earnestness. I hope it never fades.
Pope Joan, 77-79 Nicholson Street, Brunswick East
Phone \ 9388 8858
Chef \ Matthew Wilkinson
Prices \ Breakfast $6-18; lunch $8-$16
Open \ Daily 7.30am-3.30pm
To really appreciate this upmarket café package, you’ve got to begin in its rustic backyard. Bluestone-bordered plots, clearly in their infancy, spruik the kitchen-garden concept behind this produce-driven establishment. Salad vegetables and herbs absorb the spring weather, awaiting their moment with the menu. Around them, patrons on homely, recycled and tongue-in-cheek furniture – from old school desks to timber benches and marble-topped milk crates – do the same. Slatted timber covers an inviting deck area that melds the outdoors with the in and leads back to the business end of the café; a crisp white-walled space with concrete floors, polished almost to mirror finish, and agrarian-inspired timber furniture. An ornate rusted iron central light fitting, one of those jigsaw-puzzle-look timber moose heads and a communal table holding pots of garden produce complete the monastic portrait.