Vibrant, multicultural Footscray – which already boasts some of the best Vietnamese and Ethiopian restaurants in the city, plus an unrivalled burger joint – has stepped up its food and drink game big time. In 2017-18, we got a pizza joint spearheaded by two Andrew McConnell alumni, a slick bar pouring craft beers and wine, and a café that goes beyond the usual brunch suspects.
Diego Portilla Carreño (ex-Lake House and Annie Smithers Bistrot) and his wife, Bec Howell, opened Small Graces in late 2017. Carreño’s fine-dining pedigree is front and centre in the inventive, wholesome brunch dishes made using ingredients ethically sourced from Victorian farmers. The café has an intimate community vibe that’s so symbolic of the west: think vintage furniture, an inviting cushion-laden banquette, lots of greenery, a stack of books to entertain wriggly kids, and an outdoor area big enough for your pets.
The menu is constructed around what’s in season, and everything on it – down to the sriracha, peanut butter, and ferments and pickles – is housemade. Part of the café’s strong focus on sustainability means dishes are veg-heavy and where meat is used, less popular cuts are favoured (bacon is replaced by pork neck in the Eggs Benedict-ish, for instance). Most dishes are (or can be made) gluten free, but if you’re partial to carbs, you’re in luck – their bread supplier is the excellent Sourdough Kitchen in nearby Seddon.
Egg options include the signature Eggs and Greens, with offcuts of broccoli and kale cooked in shiro miso and topped with silky hollandaise and crispy shallots. Carreño’s Latin roots are seen in the hearty Huevos Pericos: eggs scrambled with lots of spring onion, tomato and the classic Colombian spice combo of cumin and annatto – delivering a peppery, nutty flavour – come with two piping-hot arepas (corn patties oozing with cheddar cheese) and cooling avocado.
But what sets Small Graces apart is the extensive list of pimped-up sides from which you can assemble a tapas-style meal to sate a hunger of any size. Go for slabs of nicely squeaky halloumi topped with walnuts, dusted with baharat and drizzled with honey, or heirloom tomatoes, their acidity offset by earthy, sweet basil and tangy sumac. The spuds roasted with garlic and rosemary are crunch perfection and go so well with the Tassie salmon accented by juniper, orange spice and smoked crème fraîche. After takeaway? A display cabinet showcases Ottolenghi-like salads, toasties and sweet treats all sans refined sugar and gluten.
This is another pleasing notch in Footscray’s ever-evolving food and drink belt. But as you order your turmeric and cocoa latte from a flower-shirt-clad hipster and contemplate the graffiti-splashed exterior of the Little Saigon Market across the road (ravaged by fire in 2016, it will be returned to its former glory but capped with two apartment towers), niggling thoughts of where the wild beast of gentrification is taking us sets in. Maybe it’s that globally inspired menu; maybe it’s the two Vietnamese youths and their dogs next to us – but we have a feeling that Small Graces is the kind of new addition that respects everything Footscray stands for. Perhaps (for now) we can have the best of both worlds.