The cafe headquarters of empire St Ali is like a specialty coffee warehouse party that just keeps on pumping.
St Ali, tucked away in its own South Melbourne laneway, is a storefront for a much bigger specialty coffee enterprise. Its tentacles reach from headquarters in Yarra Place to a big roastery in Port Melbourne that will eventually house a cafe; various Sensory Lab and Clement Coffee sites around Melbourne; and as far as Bondi Beach, Jakarta, and, once upon a time (until that tentacle was severed) even London.
But the South Melbourne cafe is the soul of the operation, a big, ragged warehouse space with battle-scarred tables that’s animated by the bottomless energy of owner Salvatore Malatesta, who you’ll find holding court here from time to time – he’ll be the sharp little guy at the big table wearing a hat.
There’s a new kitchen and flasher bathrooms, but the rest of the place looks like a semi-abandoned space where a bunch of specialty coffee geeks and cafe ravers have popped-up for a one-night stand that has been going on for more than a decade; that’s part of the charm, and you hope it never changes.
There’s a definite St Ali style of coffee, especially espresso: Colombian beans as likely as not, with aromas of nougat, marzipan and cherry, sweet almond nuttiness, clean fruit and rich chocolatey flavours, as seen in a short black of Colombia El Llanito.
Filter brews are mostly made on a Fetco batch-brewer for consistency and control, says Sensory Lab boss Ross Quail, though a Panama La Cabana gesha is an exception, coming as a carefully brewed V60 pourover with a nice floral aroma, some jammy, almost fig-like fruit when it cools and a nice chewy texture. It’s a good coffee, but not mind-blowing (how much gesha is?)
The food from the new kitchen includes dishes that never go away, no matter how much people eat them, like My Mexican Cousin (corn fritters with poached eggs, grilled haloumi, corn salsa) and Koo Koo Ca Choo (potato hash with mushroom ratatouille); some classic sandwiches (an open wagyu steak with horseradish mayo, or jerk chicken with fried plantains); and a bunch of healthy breakfast bowls full of granola or bircher or activated buckwheat and all that other good stuff.
With the kitchen sorted and the bathrooms up to code, work on the brew bar is next, apparently.
Where 12–18 Yarra Place, South Melbourne, phone (03) 9686 2990
When Daily 7am–6pm