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3 of 3 Quirky Cafes: Willow & Spoon

I’ve found it – the third cafe in my perfect trifecta of quirky Brisbane cafes – and just in time too, because I leave for Shanghai tomorrow – these last three weeks have flown by and it’s hard to believe I’ll be packing my bags tonight.
If you missed the first two of the trifecta, you can read about the incredible cakes and friendly sisters at Sisco, and the extraordinary coffee and 70s decor at Shucked.
Willow & Spoon reminds me at every turn of exactly what I’ll be missing in twenty-four hours’ time – a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, top notch cooking with bright fresh flavours, and most importantly, a chat and a smile to brighten your day and send you on your way feeling well-fed and happy. Shouldn’t that be what all cafes aspire to? Apparently this philosophy is alive and well in Brisbane but yet to hit the shores of China, although I live in hope. 
Willow & Spoon is not what you might expect to find in suburban Alderley. Sitting in a row of old shopfronts, the cheery red walls and friendly lounge on the footpath welcome you in to an interior that looks uncannily like the weatherboard house I grew up in, although we kept our bouclé lounge suite (yes, it was called a suite) inside the house at all times. There’s a checkered red and white linoleum floor, an old white kitchen dresser with leadlight glass doors, and a cabinet housing a collection of Australian souvenir spoons. Owners Tracey Mooney and Keith Nunns want the place to feel just like home, and as they sit you down with a smile you feel instantly relaxed, and quite peckish.

It’s an incredibly gorgeous sunny Brisbane day, so we decide to walk through the cafe’s front room to the back of the house, and here’s where I get an intense case of deja vu looking at the car parked in the driveway underneath the house and the grassy garden with Hill’s Hoist. It is really just like the house I lived in at the age of seven.
But there’s where the similarities with my childhood home end, because we never ate dishes like those served at Willow & Spoon. Chef Adam Starr has taken a mind bursting to the brim with imaginative ideas and translated them into a menu full of dishes you can’t wait to taste. I haven’t been this excited about reading a breakfast menu in years.
We begin with Forbidden Fruit and the Garden of Eden – never was a bowl of muesli and fruit more enticingly named! A whole apple poached with spices is filled with creamy mousse, joined on the plate by fresh edible flowers and fruits all resting on a bed of oats roasted in Manuka honey with dried figs and walnuts. Quite superb.
We follow with Sleeping Beauty – a herby original take on Eggs Benedict with poached eggs wobbling on wilted spinach and a square of mushroom and tarragon ‘muffin’. The eggs, topped with fresh garden pea sauce, are runny and golden-yolky, served alongside sweet roast tomato honey. How can I ever go back to regular Eggs Benedict after a tasting this?
The menu treasures go on and on – The Harlequin – rich smoked cod with house-made brioche, avocado, tomato and green onion salsa and an artichoke veloute is creamy and soft, and next time I want to try Pigs in Zen – pork jowl braised in an asian master stock with enoki mushrooms, quinoa and cucumber with parsnip puree, or The Diabolical Pact – banana, date and roasted green chili loaf with kalamata labna, ricotta and confit of pineapple. 
The dishes could run the risk of overly unusual flavour combinations, but all are thoughtfully, carefully and cleverly executed by Starr and are, simply, totally more-ish. Is there another breakfast menu in Brisbane with this much imagination or care in execution? And it doesn’t stop with the adult menu – children are equally well placed with a plate of Dinosaur Eggs or fresh fruit and mango sorbet.

As I move on to my second coffee, children from nearby tables are running in the open space of the grassy garden, and customers are arriving for morning cake and coffee. I bet they all leave with a smile on their faces, as I did. 
 Shop 2, 28 Samford Road
Alderley, Brisbane
Open Tuesday to Friday 7am to 3pm, Saturday 7.30am to 2pm, Sunday 7.30am to 1pm
Ph +617 3113 3810

2 of 3 Quirky Cafes: Shucked

Here’s my second of three great and quirky Brisbane cafes for your delight!  
This one, Shucked – named for shucked coffee beans – is like walking into your cool best friend’s living room and unexpectedly finding a bunch of top barrista coffee nerds hanging out there, nonchalantly whizzing up cups of coffee with a perfect crema every two minutes. Totally relaxed. 
Shucked is tucked into a lane in the previously coffee-poor suburb of Newstead, rendering the original hole-in-the-wall outlet an instant success and necessitating expansion into a larger, lighter, high-ceilinged brick space. Owners Naomi Mawson and Mark Ferguson opened a year ago, with the aim of creating a cafe with ‘great coffee, great food and great service’ similar to their favourite haunts in Melbourne, and now find themselves running one of Brisbane’s best and most popular coffee stops.
The place has an instantly laid back feel, furnished with a high long communal table graced with mismatched wooden stools and a delicate glass cold-filtered coffee apparatus that drips away slowly all day, filling the pot below with smooth, clean-flavoured black coffee. There are couches too, for lounging, and smaller tables if you don’t feel like being communal.
I love the walls – lined with contrasting panels of original rolls of 70s wallpaper (shipped all the way from New York), in geometrics, florals and mustard tones, and I really get a kick out of the pheasant, poodle and red cat salt and pepper shakers, and the lace doileys, all secondhand finds that make Shucked totally original and take me straight back to my seventies childhood.
And the coffee – a unique blend from local coffee roasters Blackstar – is smooth, full-bodied and packed with flavour. I’m no coffee expert but this coffee is great, and a second cup is practically a given as soon as you take your first sip. They even stock legendary Aeropress coffee presses, and I am now the proud owner of an amazing device I’ll be taking back to China to brighten up my otherwise dark coffee days in Shanghai.
Even more excitingly, the Mawson’s have just appointed a new chef who is adding some amazing dishes to their breakfast and lunch menu – smoked trout with shaved fennel and pear salad, sardines on toast with beetroot mash and fennel flowers, along with sweet favourites like melting moments and the triumphant warm banana and walnut cake served with a shot glass of maple syrup and espresso ricotta. 
Shucked is just a great addition to Brisbane’s coffee scene, and well worth a trip to Newstead’s little back streets to spend an enjoyable hour or two sipping top quality. You’ll feel instantly 15% cooler the minute you walk in the door. Guaranteed. 

Shucked

9 Creswell Street, Newstead
Brisbane

Open seven days for breakfast and lunch
Weekdays from 6am, weekends from 7am

Ph +617 32574567

1 of 3 Quirky Cafes: Sisco

I flew out of Shanghai with the words of a good friend in my ear: 
“Enjoy the coffee” she said, as she wished me well on my way back to Australia for a flying visit. It’s no secret that, as much as I miss dumplings and noodles while I’m away from China, what I miss even more in Shanghai is good cake and coffee. Preferably together. 
What my friend was jealous of, and rightly so, were the dozens upon dozens of cups of good coffee I was planning to fit in between shifts at the hospital (where I hope to earn enough money to pay for that crazy Chinese campervan scheme of mine), in the hope of stockpiling enough coffee experiences to see me through the lean Chinese coffee-filled months ahead, without developing a caffeine-induced arrhythmia in the process. 
Since arriving in Brisbane the weather has been uncommonly unfriendly with non-stop rain and grey skies, but for me it’s the perfect excuse to sit inside one of the inner city’s many gorgeous cafes sipping coffee expertly made by the hands of an experienced barrista, rather than a twenty year old Starbuck’s apprentice named Cyanide.
Time away from the place has made me realise that one of Brisbane’s essential charms, for those lucky enough to live here, is the city’s culture of very individual, independent cafes, spurning the insipid global coffee chains for a charming combination of quirk, personality, excellent coffee, freshly baked cakes and great service. Brisbane is overflowing with them.
I’m starting with Sisco, in the inner city suburb of Spring Hill, and this week will bring you two more of my new favourite coffee and cake spots.
Sisco sits in a narrow old wooden shopfront on the sunny side of the street in inner city Spring Hill, and is one of the friendliest places in town. 
My waitress, who has an impressive tattoo of The Tiger Who Came To Tea on her arm, takes my coffee order (flat white, no melamine) and tells me the apple doughnut cakes are really good today, served with double cream. The combination of the words ‘apple/doughnut/cake/double cream’ seem inseparable with the word ‘good’ in my head, so I order one.

And what comes next is a kind of heavenly cake epiphany. 
Imagine, if you will, all the things you love about a cinnamon doughnut – the crisp outside, the scent of cinnamon and yeast, the grainy sugar crystals that stick to your lips and the corners of your mouth, and the warm soft inside. Now think of all the things you love about your grandmother’s apple sponge cake – soft sweet pieces of apple in a light crumb cake. Now top that, in your imagination, with a dollop of thick fresh double cream. Pretty damn good, huh?
There are other incredible home-made temptations to eat with your coffee, like the strawberry, rosewater, and pistachio syrup cake, or the lemon curd tarts topped with strawberries, or the pink and white striped coconut ice (a nostalgic Australian childhood classic). The cakes change daily and are always fresh, interesting and delicious (chocolate beetroot cake comes to mind).
I believe Sisco also make a mean breakfast and tasty lunches, and next time I’m there before morning tea time I’m going to order the poached tamarillos with french toast and chocolate ricotta.

The quirk and passion behind Sisco comes from sister owners Kelly (pictured) and Vicky Jones, who dreamed of opening the sort of cafe they and their friends would love to eat at, then just went ahead and did it. Love their attitude! Vicky is the mistress of the menu and comes up with cake masterpieces daily, and Kelly runs front of house, taming the queue of customers lining up at the street-side coffee window for their daily fix.

The pair seem to know every customer by name, favourite coffee, and preferred seat, and Sisco is exactly the sort of place where I dream of becoming a regular, with the sisters sitting me down by the window and seconds later delivering me a creamy flat white, and an enormous slab of the daily cake special with double cream.

Sisco Cafe
500 Boundary Street Spring Hill
Open Monday to Friday 7-3
Saturday and Sunday 7-2
for breakfast, coffee and lunch
Ph +61 7 3839 4995

Roll up, Roll up, The EKKA is in Town!

What the hell is an EKKA? Only the biggest, noisiest, country fair in the city! I’m sitting writing this, the last of my posts from Australia, waiting for a midnight flight to Shanghai, looking at these photos of sunshine, blue sky and the bright, bright colours of Australia. I have mixed feelings about going back to the heavy polluted skies of China, but here I go. It’s been a wonderful long holiday, long enough to see family and friends not just once but many times, making it all the more bittersweet to leave.
According to the younger members of my family the highlight of our trip was, without a doubt, People’s Day at the Ekka. The Brisbane Exhibition began life as an agricultural show, a small country fair for the best producers in the state to compete and show the prowess of their bulls, dairy cows, and chickens. Along the way it’s become a crazy bright neon lights novelty show with fairground rides, sideshow alley, fireworks, stunt cars and two hundred ways to part with your cash!
Only in Australia would the government consider an agricultural fair so important they declare a public holiday for everyone, but that’s exactly what happens on the second Wednesday in August each year for People’s Day, a kind of Ekka endurance test of absolutely Chinese proportions. If you love Brisbane, if you love your fellow Brisbane-ites, and the more of them the better, then you’ll love People’s Day. Thousands of people cram the gates from early morning to night, as we all jostle each other from the wood-chop to the sheep dog trials, to sideshow alley, and we all queue impatiently for strawberry icecreams, dagwood dogs, toffee apples, fairy floss, hot chips and coffee. We love each other slightly less by the end of the day…..
For kids, the most exciting part of their Ekka experience is the Showbag Pavilion, a shrine to the cheap, tacky, sweet and sticky. Showbags were originally small bags of free merchandise samples, given away to punters. Now you have to pay for them, and produce samples have given way to confectionary and cheap plastic toys, but kids love it, and for five dollars they can get enough gum, chocolate and brightly coloured stuff to keep them enaptured for hours. We had planned our showbag purchases from the online Ekka Guide back in Shanghai, I mean, it was that seriously anticipated.

After the melee in the Showbag Pavilion it’s time to get back out into the neon craziness of Sideshow Alley and drop some serious cash on bumper cars, the ferris wheel, and twenty vertiginous rides like The Hangover, The Claw, Disco Cars, and The Crazy Coaster. Don’t eat first.

Then before you know it, night has fallen and it’s nearly time to go home. They’re calling my flight now…..see you back in Shanghai!

Devastation – Brisbane Floods

I know today I promised to write about Shanghai, but I’ve come back to Shanghai to find that my hometown of Brisbane, in Australia, is experiencing its worst ever natural disaster – a severe flood of enormous magnitude. Experts are saying the damage done is four times greater than that wreaked by hurricane Katrina in the USA. Australia, despite its beauty, is a harsh country, and in addition to recent severe droughts, Brisbane has been flooded badly twice before – the river that lies at the city’s heart overflowed its banks in 1893 and again in 1974. I was five years old then, and all I remember of it is the endless, endless rain, but my parents memories and warnings of that time have punctuated my life ever since.
 ‘Oh, you wouldn’t want to live there, it went under in ’74’ were the often repeated words from my mother whenever I looked at a house to rent, or later to buy. As a result, my house sits on a hill, far from the river’s side where I would love to live. Today, as the river reached its flooding peak, I’m extremely grateful for her advice.  
For the last month, it has done little else in Brisbane but rain. Tropical downpours are common enough in the summer months of December, January and February, but this rain was more relentless and persistent until gradually the ground all over Queensland became completely saturated, and all the dams filled to overflowing. The thin blue river, winding through every part of the city, has become a bloated fast-flowing brown torrent. Large parts of the state of Queensland, of which Brisbane is the capital, have been under flood in the last two weeks, with an area involved larger than France and Germany combined. Now that massive body of water has moved, and in combination with fresh heavy rain new areas have flooded, some devastatingly so. The little town of Grantham, not far from Brisbane, was literally swept away when an inland tidal wave of water, a flash flood, picked up houses and cars and washed them downstream. Fifteen people are dead and another sixty are still missing, in a flood area that now surpasses that of Texas and California combined. The scope of the devastation is terrifying, and the rebuilding and clean-up will take months, if not years.
House and car in Grantham, washed away.
At a time like this it’s terrible to be away from home, and to know that your friends are going through such a frightening event. I wish I was there to lend a hand, lend a bed, lend a shoulder. You are all constantly in my thoughts, and I wish for all of you to be safe.

These are my local shops back home, normally about 1.5km from the river.
Photos from the Brisbane Times
Information available at The Courier Mail, where donations to the Queensland Flood Appeal can also be given.

Chinatown

This is what Chinatown in Brisbane looks like. It’s not exactly downtown Shanghai, and there are very few Chinese people wandering around it, but it does have pretty much all the elements of a Chinese town as far as I can see. 
For a start, what looks like a pedestrian zone down the middle is actually a road leading in and out of the hulking great carpark to the left. Be careful, all you pedestrians! A car will come whizzing past at any minute, and there ain’t no zebra crossing there to save you.  Should you survive the walk across the carpark entrance, you will be enchanted by the understated feng shui elements adorning the site – a giant red and silver fish seems to be leaping out of the concrete outside the entrance to the Burlington Chinese Supermarket, and there is a lucky pond with a few lacklustre turtles in it underneath that giant red metal China Pavilion lookalike. 
I’m not sure if the pedestrian overpass from the carpark to the building opposite has any feng shui advantages, but it is really ugly and it sure looks like it was cobbled together without planning permission or adherence to building standards. Pretty Chinese then.
Inside the Burlington Supermarket I can buy roast duck, fresh tofu, dumpling wrappers and extra-fat pork mince. Last time I was in Brisbane I even managed to purchase a giant piece of pork skin, with a view to making xiaolongbao, and I believe it may still be languishing in the depths of my sister’s freezer, unused. Might want to check on that sis.
I did have some delicious xiaolongbao though, not far from Chinatown at The Bamboo Basket on Grey Street. This place is the first restaurant in Brisbane to serve these lovely little soup-filled dumplings, and they even have a street-side window where you can watch the dumping chef at work, much like the concept at Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung. I also tried their hong shao rou (red-cooked pork) – sticky and delicious, and a tasty cold cucumber dish. When the bill arrived I thought that we had eaten pretty well for 126 yuan (about $20), until I realised it was actually for $126. Bugger.
See you all back in Shanghai in a day or two! The food is cheaper there but the feng shui is even worse….

Xiaolongbao

Crispy delicious cucumber

Hong shao rou with a basket of steamed bread on the side