Chef Simon Ward and front of house Dennis Ferreira. You may not necessarily know their names yet but the name Vue De Monde might just strike that bell. In the continuing trend of fine dining chefs downsizing, the ex-VDM duo has set up an ostensibly nondescript cafe in Fitzroy by the name of Hammer and Tong 412. For the time being, the following edict stands: this is my favourite cafe. Anywhere. Yes, the venerable Kepos Street Kitchen takes out the crown of my favourite cafe in Sydney, but Hammer and Tong takes out the national championships. We’re talking about fine dining-esque food, with the best produce, but at cafe prices. It only gets better from here.
Date Last Visited: 7/6/14
Address: Rear 412 Brunswick St Fitzroy, VIC 3065
Recommended Dish(es): every dish in this post
Thankfully, Hammer and Tong caught our attention when The Lady spotted an innocent soft shell crab burger on Instagram, and suggested that we check this place out as one of our cafe explorer adventures. Not being too sold on the idea of a mere soft shell crab burger, I reluctantly, but curiously agreed.
It’s a bit difficult to find, so be on the lookout for the (admittedly communist) sign that points you in the right direction. What I noticed straight away as above-the-fold is the service. When we walked in, we were warmly greeted, and then when the waitress was preparing our table, another staff member offered us water to drink at the counter when this prep was happening. This is pretty awesome, and made us feel much appreciated.
Not that the wait was particularly long or anything – it was barely 15 seconds later when we were shown our spot. Speaking of which, this post is based on two visits, as we vowed to always visit Hammer and Tong each time we were back in Melbourne. Twice, and counting! The cafe is neither big nor small, seating around 50-60 people comfortably, with two sections to it (the second part is through that corridor in the above picture). I’ve sat at both areas – plenty of ambient light in both.
Whether it be the placebo effect, or because there’s some underlying objective difference, Melbourne coffee is just…better. Not all the time, but often enough that I tip my hat to the Victorian capital for their mastery of the humble coffee bean. Hammer and Tong coffee does the brew just fine by me.
Besides, a warm cap on a cold Melbourne morning is going to feel better than the same in a warmer Sydney climate. Hey, maybe that’s the difference 😛
In any case, the brew is fairly smooth, with a good kick if a double shot is added (how I take it). I probably can’t even taste single shot coffees any more…
In a rare circumstance, The Lady takes a fancy to the mango, passionfruit & pineapple juice. As far as pulped fruit goes, this is some sweet, sweet goodness with a bit of a tangy edge from the pineapple. Super refreshing.
Here is when Hammer and Tong really begins to uhhh, clobber in the lesson on why it’s the best cafe I’ve ever had the fortune of visiting. Yep, it’s the food. First lesson: yabbie tail omelette. Yeah, sure, you could do your standard 2-3 egg omelette, it being runny enough without being raw, and tasty enough without it being too salty/creamy. OR you could do all of that with a yabbie tail omelette. The focus on using seriously delectable produce only starts here, and manifests itself in an omelette that tastes so good, it actually begins to encroach on territory that only Glass Brasserie has traditionally held.
Yes, it’s important to get fundamentals right, but if you can do that and then add something on top of that – well, that’s the icing we all love. Yabbie meat? Now that’s as class as it’s delicious.
If there is to be a weak dish in Hammer and Tong’s lineup that I’ve tried, the corn & zucchini fritters would have to be it. Then again, calling this dish the weakest of the bunch is doing it a disservice. A superhero’s sidekick can still pack plenty of punch, if you will excuse that analogy.
There are only two downers with this dish – one is that the poached eggs don’t stay poached for long. I would suggest immediate consumption, as it hardens quite quickly.
Secondly, the fritters weren’t as crunchy as I’d have liked them to be. They still are crunchy, there’s just enough wetness that makes it a point to raise.
Still, I ate the dish in record time, because ain’t nobody got time to nitpick.
This is it. This is the famed soft shell crab burger, putting Hammer and Tong on the radar. It’s one of the most innocuous dishes to award fame and fortune, yet it manages to do so. What’s all this about, then?
I will try not to use superlatives here, because “perfect” and “best I’ve ever had” are words that my brain is coercing my hands to type. That said, it’s tough to think of a lesser designation.
Balance is what this burger is all about. The pillowy soft brioche bun is delightfully sweet, with a fluffy texture that’s still got that bready mouthfeel that makes bread just so good. There is a slight, buttery crunch at the edges due to the toasting of the bun, which may not seem like a big deal, but you won’t think that when you eat it. It’s a big deal. The slaw balances out the relative dryness of the bread, giving it a savoury, tart-like kick, whilst maintaining a buttery yet crunchy texture that is ultimately feedback to the soft shell crab itself.
Best soft shell crab I’ve ever had? Yes. Easily. Hell, it’s actually one of the best burgers I’ve had period. Sydneysiders may be wondering how this compares to a local favourite – the Crab Po Boy at the Paramount Coffee Project (review pending). From a pride standpoint, I’m displeased to report that the burger from Hammer and Tong is superior to the one from PCP in the same way as the Sun is a smidgeon brighter than a street lamp. That’s a pretty massive exaggeration, but it does truly portrays how I feel about the two – this cafe is worth visiting at least once for this burger alone. When I had H&T’s I instantly thought “PCP has nothing, nothing on this guy”. I couldn’t help it! I’m afraid that now I’ve hyped it so much, expectations will rise accordingly, leading to a corresponding fall in satisfaction if a reader does go try out the burger. But, when you do try it – ask yourself, have you had a better soft shell crab burger? If you honestly have had one, I would dearly love to hear about it in the comments – a visit will be made!
The brilliant dishes keep on coming, with the next one more a piece of artwork than food – just look at how pretty the lavender yoghurt custard is? Aside from the gobsmacking presentation, what really sets this dish apart is that it never gets too heavy as you eat it. Generally, I find that I can only eat so much fruity yoghurt before I get overwhelmed with sweetness and sameness. Not so with this dish – it’s never too creamy or too sweet, but it’s never lacking in either department either.
The fruit is compressed and dehydrated, which is yet another gastronomic touch from the fine dining days. This is important, because the dish can no longer be thought of as a stock-standard yoghurt & fruit dish. Indeed, Hammer and Tong have more or less classed the whole thing up.
I would order it again, for sure.
The last dish I get my grubby hands on is the buttermilk lamb & goats cheese panna cotta. This is a more lunch/bistro-style dish that gets the same presentation treatment as the yoghurt dish. That is to say, magnifique!
I love lamb, so unsurprisingly like the proverbial moth, I fluttered to this beacon of lamb. I really dig how the goats cheese panna cotta essentially become the creamy flavouring for the lamb itself, while the crunchy onion rings and apple gel provide that supporting texture, as well as the zing.
It’s quite moreish, and I wished there was more lamb, but at the same time my stomach was about to explode. Oh, priorities *rolls eyes*. The only weak point? The lamb could be just a tad dry if eaten without any of the condiments on the plate. As with most fine dining, everything is generally eaten together.
DAMN IT, I succumbed. Hammer and Tong doesn’t actually make these (and unfortunately, I forgot the name of who did), but what they stock from other bakeries is just as good. I don’t eat sugary pastries very often, but I figured that while I’m in Melbourne, I may as well let it go and embrace the delish that is a pistachio jelly doughnut. So soft so fluffy on the outside, with a wholesome jelly-like cream at the centre, where the pistachio really does show through. Just dust off some of that sugar on top, and a great finish!
I have no real need to properly conclude here – the service is exceptional, and the food is above and beyond anything I’ve had at any other cafe. This is it. Sydney, time to play catch-up. As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three 😀 Awesome:
Not so Awesome:
- Minor nitpicks that are only noticeable due to the high standard of this cafe