St Ali @ 12-18 Yarra Place, South Yarra
23 January 2011
A visit to St Ali has been on our agenda for quite some time. Back when St Ali was Mark Dundon owned and operated, it was my favourite coffee haunt; the fact that it also produced excellent food was a pleasant bonus. Now, with the prominent Salvatore Malatesta at the helm, St Ali has been transformed to offer a wider variety of food as a cafe by day and bold South East Asian inspired food as a restaurant by night. I was most intrigued to see whether, despite this change of direction, St Ali has managed to maintain its previous lofty standards - particularly in light of its burgeoning popularity which has undoubtedly been encouraged by the considerable media attention that it, and its current proprietor, receives.
For coffee, I ordered a Cup of Excellence Honduran single origin - the coffee of the day - as a double espresso. The shot was considerably longer than I would have preferred, but then my preference is for a triple ristretto poured through a naked portafilter - an altogether different beast. Still, the Honduran's inherent bright notes should, in my opinion, dictate a shorter extraction. Subjectively, it seems that the coffee at St Ali is a pale imitation of that produced by the cafe before Mark Dundon relinquished control and indeed of the coffee at any of his current establishments - Seven Seeds, Brother Baba Budan and De Clieu. While St Ali is promoted as one of Melbourne's premier coffee purveyors, for my particular tastes, it is clearly inferior to each of the previously mentioned Mark Dundon cafes – its popular acclaim is perhaps a testament to the power of media saturation.
My fond memories of St Ali also derive from its Morrocan lamb kofta - a dish of spiced lamb meatballs served with rich tomato sauce and toasted ciabatta - and its Lebanese lamb pizza - a flat bread sandwich of minced lamb with tart yoghurt, chilli and torn herbs. Alas, these dishes are no longer part of the St Ali menu.
The "ali baa baa" is the current incarnation of the Lebanese lamb pizza and, unfortunately, is a poor successor. Where the previous version was notable for its complexity of flavour, with the addictive spice mix combining splendidly with the attention-grabbing bursts of chilli and the appetising acidity of the rich yoghurt, the current version is one dimensional and bland. The sandwich is overpoweringly flavoured by tomato paste and the spices and chilli flakes that are listed as ingredients are completely imperceptible.
In contrast, the "lizatron" - a steak sandwich on a skewer - was relatively pleasant to eat. The scotch fillet steak was thin and slightly overcooked - possibly on the well done side of medium - and so was a little dry and tough. However, the accompanying mayonnaise and pesto worked well to provide both moisture and flavour and, overall, it was a fairly reasonably steak sandwich. Still, for $19 at a casual cafe establishment, one would expect nothing less.
While St Ali's popularity continues to spiral upwards, the cafe itself is, regrettably, a mere shadow of its former self. While it was previously a coffee centric institution, it has now tailored its offerings in order to appeal to a wider demographic - evidently with great success. While that part of the transformation has been successful, St Ali is no longer the coffee mecca that it used to be - Seven Seeds has long since taken up that mantle - and its food is now decent but forgettable. Where a pilgrimage to St Ali was once worthwhile, it is now hardly worth a detour.
Rating: 2.5/5 (Poor)