Brunch is the holy grail of Melburnians, but are we suffering from smashed avo and eggs benedict fatigue? Are too many cafés carbon copies of each other both in aesthetics (read: exposed plumbing, low lighting) and food options? Maybe. It’s certainly nice to find a café doing something that seems so simple but stands out in our hyper-brunch times.
Rat the Café isn’t the hangout for your pet rat. Nor is it decorated in pictures of rats, à la Fleabag’s guinea pig café. Instead on a quiet backstreet in Thornbury opposite a primary school is a neighbourhood spot focusing on coffee, thoughtful dishes, and doing its bit for our fragile planet.
‘Rat’ is an acronym for ‘root and tip’, and owner/chef Callum MacBain adopts a waste-free approach to building his menu by looking to parts of an ingredient that would usually be thrown away for inspiration. Most of the raw materials used are either organic or biodynamic, and suppliers are chosen based on whether they value minimal intervention processes.
The menu changes frequently depending on what’s most abundant and readily available – and is a celebration of doing a few things really, really well. There’s the obligatory toast, a muesli dish, a breakfast sandwich, an egg dish, a bean dish and a sweet dish. And that’s it. You can count the number of options on one hand, but wowee is each a thing of delicious beauty.
When we arrive on a weekend mid-morning, the light, airy space dotted with pot plants made from recycled plastic (the sustainability focus extends to the décor) hums with quiet activity. Plonked on faux leather chairs behind simple chipboard tables made from offcuts, young creative types, older locals and visitors from further afield bite into crunchy sourdough toast from Wild Life Bakery smeared with cultured butter and jam stewed using apricots from the tree in the café’s garden, or tuck into bircher muesli with house-made yoghurt and in-season nashi.
We start brunch like a true Melburnian: with a silky flat white. Beans come from Friends Coffee Roaster, the brainchild of the ex-head roaster at Small Batch, who now roasts his single origins out of Bureaux, a collective space in Abbotsford. You can get your coffee with the full spectrum of milks (full fat, light, soy, almond and oat) sourced from local organic producers like Schulz in Timboon. There are also teas from Assembly and Kuura, and drinking chocolate made from 60% Dominican Republic cocoa.
Nursing a hangover? Even if you aren’t, order the breakfast sandwich. Sourdough encases a creamy, salty, tangy, oozy and totally addictive combo of a fried egg from free-range specialists Honest Eggs, Swiss cheese, house-made sauerkraut, Polish dill pickle and a ‘special sauce’, built on a base of ketchup and house-made mayo laced with pickle brine and whatever else the chef fancies adding. Get the optional streaky bacon from Meatsmith and prepare to get teary. Meanwhile, the poached eggs showcase the chef’s ingenuity: toast is crowned with a zippy house-made salsa verde, two poached eggs and a pretty mound of mulberry-coloured Crapaudine beet tops. Creamed Swiss chard nestles on the side and sumac adds a zesty edge. By the time you visit, though, the egg dish will be something totally different.
In the French toast, made from yesterday’s bread, sourdough slices are eggy but not soggy. Drizzled with caramel whey (leftover from yoghurt production), it comes with a generous dollop of buoyant salted dulce de leche (whipped from the milk baristas steam but don’t use) and a smattering of roasted strawberries and pistachios. It tastes like sweet and sticky childhood Saturday mornings, albeit a grown-up, refined version. Like all dishes, it has Insta-worthy looks, but that doesn’t stop it from being environmentally conscious, wholesome and good for you. Now, this is the kind of brunch we’d eat any day of the week.