Street showdown – Essex St, West Footscray

Brother Nancy (182 Essex St)
vs
West 48 (48 Essex St)

First it was Footscray with its myriad Asian eateries. Now the cool crowd has moved further west in search of the latest cafe brunch buzz.

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WEFO (West Footscray) real estate is going gangbusters and, not surprisingly, brunch cafes are popping up like meerkats in the West.

In our first Street Showdown Melbourne Brunch Scene pits two new WEFO stars through their paces to find who is Lord of Essex Street when it comes to brunch.

FOOD

Brother Nancy chef Jordi Boyer may not make the most photogenic food but what it lacks in sex appeal, it oozes in flavour.

As mentioned before, the brekky menu is somewhat slim but that’s ok – just as long as what they do is done well. We went for the Savoury Crepe ($10.50) and Chapin Breakfast ($16) and were not disappointed. Both of these boasted a noticeable Central American twist, a legacy from Boyer’s eight-month stint in Guatemala. Dodging this place based on the modest photography below would be a mistake. Yes, bland would aptly describe both dishes’ appearance but take into account the clandestine maneuvers required in stealth reviewing and our absence of a quality camera. Take our word – the food was scrumptious. A salty nirvana for the tastebuds.

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Ok, moving onto West 48, where the bar is set quite high when it comes to food. Well, presentation, at least. We can only assume they were fussing over presentation during the 30 mins we were waiting for it to come. (You need to consider the chefs are working in a shoebox kitchen). I ordered the Fritters with a poached egg ($20), while the others built their own around scrambled eggs and other sides (about $20). Let me say the portion sizes are quite generous and, while on the steep end of price compared to Brother Nancy, it is good value. Everything was spot on but the highlight was the jalepeno-infused salsa-smoked salmon-feta combo that came with the fritters – a combination worth making the trip to Essex St for.

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DRINK

Right, down to business. West 48 probably had the lead until the OJ (below) arrived. I won’t be publishing the price of it here. I’d hate to impact their business like that. The price is just one issue. Let’s deal with the other. This photo was taken seconds after it was placed in front of me. No explanation they were running low leaving me to assume this is how it’s meant to be served. Gobsmacked. Words fail me. Akin to theft. You can see the OJ in question below. Notice its smarmy grin as it sits arrogantly with its ‘I’m so cool’ straw peering out. I’m still thirsty. Do you think I was charged for half (being generous saying it’s half) an OJ? No.

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They made up some ground with the Red Rooibos tea. We have Rooibos at home – but not like this! West 48 serve All Press coffee – and do a good job.

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Down the street Brother Nancy is also having a go at slippery slope that is the OJ game. Their offering, Parker’s, claims to be the ‘best orange juice you will ever taste’… fighting words. Clearly the folks at Parker’s have never been to Charlton for some of mum’s finest freshly-squeezed OJ circa 1990. At least we didn’t have to re-mortgage the house for a sip and there were more than two mouthfuls. Brother Nancy serves Proud Mary beans. I had a long black and enjoyed it immensely.

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VIBE

This was a contest of light vs dark. The pics (again) don’t do justice to the light in both places. Brother Nancy is a well-lit and bright space characterised by fresh white walls and simple decor whereas West 48 is an edgy-looking space with industrial light fittings and trendy benches. Both places were buzzing – locals come here because they clearly feel comfortable here. It speaks to them.

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STAFF

Brother Nancy wins this category. Maybe it’s because they’ve only been open for five weeks but the staff here were far more attentive, caring and had more personality. The food didn’t even take that long but our lovely waitress was still apologetic, unlike West 48 staff who dumped and ran despite the 30-min wait. West 48 staff certainly weren’t offensive – in fact I think they do remarkably well to maintain such a chipper mood when they have nowhere to hide (three chefs are operating in a 3m x 2m space behind the counter).

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PRICE

Again, if you are a value hunter (aka tight-arse) Brother Nancy takes the prize here with its outstanding value-for-money food menu. We had change from $40 for food and drink. West 48 hit us up for $76 for the three of us, which still isn’t too bad – especially if you’re used to south-side prices.

 

THE WINNER IS…

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Could Brother Nancy be the inaugural winner of 2014 Surprise Packet of the West* ?

Cheap, quality brunch served with a smile. West 48 must consider itself unlucky. It would win most  Street Showdowns against weaker opposition.

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Three Bags Full, Abbotsford

56 Nicholson Street Abbotsford | 9421 2732
We went: Sat 17 May | Verdict: 23 / 25

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http://www.threebagsfullcafe.com.au/

In a nutshell: slick operation in superb-an Melbourne brunch pocket. Queues out the door on weekends.

Food: the folks at Three Bags Full pride themselves on “keeping it simple”. Their recipe alchemy is all about imaginative dishes where the flavours of every ingredient complement each other beautifully.

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Our evidence: pulled pork shoulder brioche ($13), one of the specials – the Zucchini French Toast ($17) – and the Veggie Brekky ($19). I had the pork brioche. It seems I’m on a mission to try every pulled pork bun in Melbourne. This one is up there. Simple, creamy slaw complements the pork really well, and they give you a small side of pickles that you can add yourself. The lemon wedge was also a nice touch.

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The Zucchini French Toast was quite a heavy dish. The relish was “delicious”, the poached eggs “perfect” but overall, “the dish was just a bit much”. The Veggie Brekky was “a bit pedestrian”, said my mate. “It would have been nice to see them do something a bit special with it. I could have done that at home.” 3.5/5

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 Coffee: Not as many single origin options as neighbouring cafe Admiral Cheng Ho, but that doesn’t mean these guys don’t take it seriously. Quite the contrary. As you can see from the pictures below, my pour-over filter brew arrived on a wooden tray and in what looked like an medieval glass medicine container. Accompanying it was what I thought was a small glass of Jamison whisky with ice (never too early, especially before a bucks day!)… Alas, it was a palette cleanser. That’s right, the wank-o-metre just exploded. I needed to know what it was. “It’s called cascara,” our waiter said. “It’s the berry of the coffee that has been processed and we’ve infused it with sparkling water.”

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The coffee in the brown jar is a single origin from Ninety Plus Gesha Estates from Ethiopia. What makes it special is it has been ‘dry processed’ (sometimes called ‘natural’ coffee), meaning the beans were dried inside the fruit rather than after the fruit has been removed, as is the case with wet-processed or washed coffees. The taste, like most African single origins, was very fruity/citrus without being bitter. Very smooth. A nice drop. And extended tasting notes to boot. This bad boy meant to set me back a tenner, but I was only charged $8 (for some reason). 5/5

Vibe: Good vibe but it can get so busy that it’s hard to hear the person next to you. If you don’t like crowds or congestion, best avoid. 4.5/5

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Service: Service with a smile. Good coffee knowledge. Staff look like they want to be there and enjoy working there. 5/5

Ka-ching: $86 for the four of us, which included a $10 coffee and an extra chai. 5/5

Three Bags Full on Urbanspoon

Admiral Cheng-Ho, Abbotsford

325 Johnston Street Abbotsford | 9534 7250
We went: Sun 27th April 2014 | Verdict: 22 / 25

Mon to Fri 7:00 am – 4:00 pm | Sat to Sun 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
www.admiralchengho.com.au

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In a nutshell: these guys care a lot about flavour combinations and coffee and do a mean vegan brunch. If finesse and skill are two of your brunch criteria then look no further.

We ate:

– The Admiral

– Umami mushrooms

Food: Those who know Balaclava’s Monk Bodhi Dharma won’t be surprised by Marwin Shaw’s latest venture Admiral Cheng-Ho. The food menu, while not extensive, is thoughtful and tasty. My brother is vegan, which makes ordering sometimes a bit tricky but to look at a menu and not have to alter the choices is a blessing. Nearly all the options here are either vegan, vego or gluten free.

My brother and I had The Admiral (zucchini fritters on sauteed kale with seasonal vegetables and tangy beetroot relish. It’s topped with basil cashew cream and wild fennel) which was admirable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a bland dish (zucchini fritters) dressed up to sing so beautifully. All the flavour combinations of sweet (beetroot relish), sour (sauteed kale), savoury (fritters) and salty (cashew cream) just came together in harmony and worked their magic. By the end of this dish, I was scratching the plate to get all the relish off. Sorry about that!

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The wife and friend J had the Umami mushrooms which was described by my wife as being “one of the best mushroom dishes I’ve ever had”. High praise, indeed. (She does need to get out more and we’re working on that). Usually mushrooms are overpowering but because they came with other strong elements like the goat’s cheese and pumpkin bread they all balanced each other out.

One thing to bear in mind when coming here is: THERE ARE NO EGGS! Shock horror, a brunch menu sans eggs. Get over it. This might be a difficult thing to overcome for some people. 4.5/5

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Coffee: a “first” occurred for me at Admiral Cheng-Ho. I eat brunch out every week (read: wanker) and have been confronted by some expensive coffee in my time but never has the price been north of $10. Admiral Cheng-Ho, unashamedly, has coffee options that range from $4 for a basic flat white to $12 for a single-origin pour over filter from Panama. “We have the biggest range of single origin coffee in Melbourne,” the waiter says as I pay the bill. I could easily have chickened out and ordered a ‘safe’ latte however, “when in Rome”… So, I took the plunge and ordered the Panama Rojas Geisha. The tasting notes told me to expect “floral, delicate orange blossom and honeydew melon, lemon zest and a soft mouth feel”. It was certainly acidic and citrusy. It arrived in a stemless Reidel glass, the steam fogging up the inside and creating a coffee fog. The taste was complex and changed as it cooled. The aroma and taste told me from the outset it was to be sipped, not gulped. I was still going long after the others had finished their “regular” coffees. If you are tossing up about getting a “fancy” coffee, look at it this way: you go to a winery to try wine, a brewery to try beer, a restaurant to sample the talent of a chef. This place prides itself on coffee and a pour-over filter will best exemplify a bean’s true character. Worth $10? Umm, I know plenty of places that do it for less. 5/5

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Vibe: this place is small, seating about 40 people at capacity. Like us, you may have to wait for a seat. To say this place is “cool” would be an understatement. Some may say it is pretentious with walls adorned with vintage clocks and tall vases on oak tables and coffee grinders lined up behind the counter like lolly dispensers at the show. But I like it. Scrap that, love it. Being from Ascot Vale, we seldom get across town to rub shoulders with our grungy cousins east of Brunswick Street. Lucky I had my moustache well groomed that day. 4/5

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Price: $105 for four of us (meals and coffees). 4.5/5

Service: Because this place is so cramped, I feel as though the default setting for staff is a bit “on edge”. Could be me, though. after waiting outside for a table, we were politely ushered in and shown a table. Coffee orders were swiftly taken and nearly all of them were delivered pronto. (The chai that my wife ordered did not arrive until after the meals and needed a little prompting. No apology for the delay, either). I had a little chat to the waiter when paying the bill and she seemed nice. I guess one test of how good a place is is is how happy are the staff to work there? I’d say a 7/10 would sum up the feeling of most staff there from what I could see. 4/5

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Final word: love trying different types of coffee? Love vegan food done with love? Don’t mind a brunch menu with no eggs? Then look no further than Admiral Cheng-Ho.

Admiral Cheng-Ho on Urbanspoon

Grandpa Joe, Ascot Vale

197 Union Road Ascot Vale | 9078 0595
We went: Friday April 18 2014 (Good Friday) | Verdict: 18/25

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In a nutshell: small, busy trendy cafe on happening Union Road. Good coffee and cool vibe. Unfortunately food and service was a little lacking on the day we visited.

We ate:

– ham and egg pizza
– potato hash

Food: when it finally arrived, the ham and egg pizza was everything you would want in a brunch pizza. The base was clearly homemade and, while on the crunchy side, was delicious. The tomato sauce blended beautifully with the cherry tomatoes, and grilled cheese. Unfortunately the egg was like a plastic film attached to the pizza’s top but I can overlook this given the quality of the rest of it.

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The wife at the potato hash which I also sampled. The hashbrown was the star of the dish the rest was a bit tasteless. “It needed a bit more seasoning,” she said. I said, “there’s the salt, stop complaining.” What impressed us most was the kitchen’s ability to tweak the dish — we asked for no poached eggs and no coleslaw. This was no problem. It does say “vegetarian and gluten free options available” but not all places deliver on their promises. GPJ does.

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The menu is not overly adventurous. I was curious about the wasabi cured salmon but wasn’t brave enough for raw fish at 10am. The honey-glazed bacon also looked good. Everything at GPJ is very reasonably priced. 3/5

Coffee: no pour-over option but they did have aeropress and cold drip filter options. I ordered a single origin aeropress filter from Ethiopia, which was tasty and hit the spot. Actually, the aeropress at Reverence was inferior to this! It came in a 250ml clear jug and the cups were cool too. The wife had a chai soy latte, which was also good. Impressively, they have cold drip coffee in trendy little bottles available for take-away. Perfect for those warmer days or when the coffee at work tastes like dirty bath water. Two thumbs up there. Coffee brand is 5 Senses. 4/5

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Vibe: I don’t really like the vibe here but my wife does and that’s important because she has good taste most of time. I can definitely see what GPJ is trying to do. (I know how wanky-patronising that sounds but I review brunch places which by its very nature is the epitome of just that). They seem to be going for the old, laid-back, retro feel with the record player and wall art and hodge-podge of mixed furniture. Some people like that. I usually do too. The reason I don’t think it really works is because it’s so new and in my head I know all this stuff hasn’t been here for ages, like in an old place, but has just been placed there for trendy cosmetic appeal. “That’s no big deal,” my wife says. She could be right. But I write the words. Outdoor dining is better than inside, IMO. However, not when it’s cold and windy, which it was when we went. Inside, there isn’t much room (it’s bigger than Little Bird, but smaller than Reverence). There were heaps of people ordering take-away coffee on Good Friday, which generated a healthy buzz. 3/5

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Price: about $50. Really good value. 5/5

Service: a bit of a let down. Yes, it was Good Friday and they were crazy busy. But as I have said before on MBS, the sign of a good brunch place is how well they can deal with the mania. OK, drink orders were taken swiftly: tick. Took a while to arrive but it took even longer for our food orders to be taken. Then, perhaps because I ordered the pizza, food arrived about 30mins later. By then the leg of the table looked appetising. Staff were polite without being warm. 3/5

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Grandpa Joe on Urbanspoon

Seven Seeds, Carlton

106-114 Berkeley Street Carlton | 9347 8664
We went: Sat April 12 | Verdict: 23 / 25
http://sevenseeds.com.au/

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In a nutshell: meeting the lofty needs of Melbourne’s fussiest coffee connoisseurs and brunch addicts alike.

We ate:
– barbecue pulled pork brioche
– eggs benedict
– black and green olive tapenade on toasted sourdough with eggs
– poached eggs with bacon

Food: if you’re after honest lunch fare then look no further than the barbecue pulled pork brioche. Too often while scouring the suburbs for Melbourne’s best brunch have I been left with food envy after another member of the brunch team has trumped my order. Not this time. Pulled pork can be hit and miss but done well, it’s a winner every time. This is an uncomplicated dish: brioche, pork, and coleslaw make up the bun. The side consists of curly shoestring fries with house-made aioli. It was close to the perfect dish if you’re after something on the lunch side of brunch.

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The good wife was full of praise for the olive tapenade on toasted sourdough with eggs. No surprise, really, as the bread is sourced from Dench Bakers in Fitzroy, one of Melbourne’s best. There were two types of tapenade: light and dark. She said the green tapenade (light) was the highlight. Eggs were perfectly done, sunny side up.

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Our friends ordered the eggs benedict and poached eggs with bacon. Mate who chose the eggs benny said: “the eggs were cooked very well but the prosciutto as the meat wasn’t ideal. I guess the hollandaise sauce was good but I was that hungover, I’m not the best to judge.” Everything was fine with the safe option, poached eggs with bacon. The menu, overall, is good without being exceptional. Most of the choices are fairly reliable brunch options. Not too risky. Food rating: 4/5

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Coffee: followers of this blog know I’m currently on the ‘pour over filter coffee’ train. As you’d expect, Seven Seeds has it. Unlike Auction Rooms, my coffee came with no tasting notes, just a word from the waitress that it was from Columbia. I have to say this made for an inferior experience as I love the little card that featured a map and information about the product that came with the coffee at Auction Rooms and Wide Open Road. I find it a bit odd that such a large coffee roaster that has coffee at the heart of its mission statement would not go that extra step. But then you ask, was the coffee any good? Yes, it was. Then that’s all that matters, right? Maybe. Perhaps the crew at Seven Seeds want to encourage the ‘everyday coffee drinker’ to take the plunge and order a filter pour over and not be bombarded with information. The brew itself was fruity with a sweet aftertaste. I’d happily order it again. Other coffees ordered included a soy latte, cappuccino and a flat white, which were all superb. Coffee rating: 4.5/5

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Vibe: this well-lit converted warehouse space is very Melbourne. If you’re ever in doubt about Seven Seeds’ commitment to coffee, you simply need to look at the layout of this place. One whole room, which you can see into, is taken up by giant coffee roasting machines. You can’t get in there but the room serves as a reminder of what’s important to Seven Seeds. Yes, they do food, but coffee is king. The vibe of a place is made up of several factors: the crowd it attracts, the numbers, architecture and interior decorating and the general feeling in the space. There was a general buzz that filled me with a general excitement as I chatted with friends over good coffee and food. Isn’t that what eating brunch with mates is all about? Vibe rating: 5/5

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Price: $80 for four pax. Value rating: 4.5/5

Service: the place was packed so we were herded into a ‘holding area’ where we could mingle with other table candidates and look enviously at those already seated. This was not as unpleasant as it seems. The wait was surprisingly brief and after 10 mins or so we were ordering coffees and getting stuck into the Saturday Age quiz. The staff here have a general way about them that says ‘I’ve got this’ despite it being quite frantic. This breeds confidence and a relaxed vibe. Our waiter looked a bit like Baz Luhrmann, too. Service rating: 5/5

Seven Seeds on Urbanspoon

Auction Rooms, North Melbourne

103-107 Errol St North Melbourne | 9326 7749
We went: Thurs April 10 2014 | Verdict: 22.5 / 25
http://www.auctionroomscafe.com.au/

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In a nutshell: think Auction Rooms, think the Taj Mahal of Melbourne brunch scene. Lives up to its billing, in every department, every time. Pricey, but worth every cent.

We ate:
– spiced chickpea stew with braised lamb and a poached egg
– poached eggs with sides of crispy ham and potato stacks and sausage

Food: the menu has changed since we were here last. We were told by the waitress that it changes seasonally. A couple of Google searches revealed they have recently changed head chefs, too. Russian-born, California-raised Boris Portnoy, who recently worked at the acclaimed Meadowood restaurant in California, has joined Auction Rooms with the aim of “marrying fine dining with the needs of cafe customers”, according to goodfood.com.au. As I picked at my chickpea stew, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I turned to my wife and asked, “What is this?” Was it Indian? Was it brunch? Is it necessary to categorise anymore? It was chickpeas in a spicy sauce with lemon yoghurt, a poached egg with delicious pieces of braised lamb dispersed throughout. I eat out for brunch quite a bit however rarely am I full at the end of a meal. I was full and satisfied after my meal. The bread, while being a little dense, could be pulled apart and used to make little parcels filled with meat, egg, sauce and yogurt, which were tasty.

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The poached eggs with sides of ham and potato stacks and sausage, also did not disappoint. The star of this feast were the ham and potato stacks. We would return just for these beauties. Sometimes basic ingredients creatively presented can have the most profound effect. Such was the case with this side. Eating them took me back to my youth when mum used to make scalloped potatoes with bacon bits. You can slice the stacks down the middle or eat them a layer at a time… if you’re patient enough. Food rating: 4/5

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Coffee: these guys take their coffee seriously and do it seriously well. Beans are sourced from Small Batch whose owner Andrew Kelly is also the owner of, you guessed it, Auction Rooms. Andrew is so serious about coffee that he regularly travels abroad to choose the coffee you drink in Auction Rooms (and other cafes that serve Small Batch). Having good coffee beans is one thing… serving it well is another. Not surprisingly, Auction Rooms have two of the best baristas in the game. Michael Sinclair and Devin Loong were Australian Specialty Coffee Association Brewers Cup winners and runners-up recently. Devin was working when we visited, perched behind his castle of beakers, tubes and kettles like a mad scientist plotting his next experiment. “It’s become like a science, the art of coffee making,” our waitress said while clearing our table. I had the “Geisha”, a unique low-yielding type of coffee that only grows in a handful of places around the world. This particular batch hailed from Colombia and was selected by Andrew Kelly himself. “It was the coffee the boys (Michael and Devin) won the award with,” the waitress explained. At $8, it’s not cheap, but neither is a glass of single-malt scotch, a decent beer or a glass of Champagne. When you consider there is at least two cups worth in the tall beaker of coffee you get, I’d say that’s actually good value for good coffee. When Andrew Kelly started really getting into coffee around 2008, he said he wanted to help people “see for themselves what coffee actually tastes like without all the milk and sugar.” The “Geisha” filter coffee is simply coffee and water made well. The result… I loved it. Citrus and chocolate notes without being at all bitter. Yum!

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Memories of a Geisha.

The wife had a soy flat white, which she said was “good actually. Good temperature, good flavour.” While Devin and Michael, the chief baristas do their “coffee science thing” on the station, an army of other coffee and bar staff manage the espresso machine and other drink orders. Worth noting too is there is a decent selection of alcoholic beverages available including craft beers, wines and bubbly. Coffee rating: 5/5

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Vibe: why Auction Rooms? It used to be a space where auctions took place in the WB Ellis Auction house — which was later converted into the cafe mecca it is now. Many of the fittings are original. We love it all. From the huge windows that fill the warehouse space with natural light to the variety of tables, from intimate tables for two to large sharing tables for groups. There’s an outdoor space that is well covered too. Just recently Auction Rooms has been serving its take-away coffees and some food from a building across the road. This, our waitress confirmed, has eased some of the congestion that has plagued the place due to its popularity. And, get this, they have $1 take-away filter coffee on Fridays. That’s better than Macca’s! Beware… plan your trip here or you’ll be seriously disappointed. Weekends are mad here, it is seriously humming and you can be waiting a while. Come mid-week, if you can. Vibe rating: 5/5

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Price: $55 for two. At least they took Amex. Exxy, I know. Worth it? Hmm… jury still out. Value rating: 3.5/5

Service: knowledgeable and friendly, we were well looked after. “The staff here look like they want to be here,” the wife said. She was spot on. Often when you eat brunch out there is the occasional stand-out but the whole team seemed bubbly and engaged. Devin, the barista, was even mingling with the regulars. Good to see. Service rating: 5/5

Auction Rooms on Urbanspoon