Picture it. You’re on a crowded bus, headphones in, staring out the window and pretending you’re the lead in a sad music clip. Perhaps you’re on your way to work or to uni. You’re already thinking of excuses to bail out of your afternoon lecture when, suddenly, a pretty sandstone cottage catches your eye. Fantasies of trading it all in and opening a café flood your mind.
Thankfully, wife-and-husband duo, Jessica Matino-Ndibe and Charles Ndibe, along with business partner Aldo Cozzi, have done just that, so you can still make it to your afternoon class (and tutorial if you’re feeling particularly studious). In a not-so-quiet corner of Victoria Park sits Gardener’s Lodge, a small, heritage-listed cottage that once upon a time served as the home to Sydney University’s groundskeeper.
These days, it serves a more contemporary and culinary purpose; dishing up Italian classics with a vegan edge. Behind the sturdy stone exterior, clean white walls and rustic wood flooring give the cottage a welcoming gallery-cum-providore feel – and the hum of the crowd would suggest more than a few students have already fled the uni grounds for a caffeine hit (or in this case, a pastel pink strawberry latté with your choice of nut mylk).
Everything on this menu is entirely plant-based, without the holier-than-thou hysteria often associated with such endeavours. Dairy alternatives have been thoughtfully sourced from small producers all around Australia (YAY! In Melbourne, Sprout & Kernel in the Blue Mountains, and Nutty Bay up in Byron to name but a few) and they’re both seamlessly incorporated into dishes and proudly displayed on the counter to take home to enjoy.
You’ll recognise some typical café fare on the menu (we meet again, brekky roll), but a lyrical sounding melanzane on ciabatta hints at something a little more intriguing at play. There’s a distinct southern Italian thing happening here, and Inner West pizza fans and vegans alike will be pleased to know the man behind these recipes is Marco Matino, Jessica’s brother and the pizzaiolo at Newtown’s wildly popular Gigi Pizzeria.
You’re getting your two-and-five with just about everything on the menu, but surprisingly, the fresher, “cleaner” options aren’t necessarily the strengths. A throwback of a pumpkin salad with dairy-free feta, pine nuts and semi-dried tomatoes arrives slightly under-dressed, and zucchini fritters lack the requisite crunch and crispness that might otherwise make them sing.
Where Gardener’s Lodge really sticks the landing are the more carb-heavy undertakings. The lasagne is a showstopper: silky sheets of delicate pasta, impressively creamy béchamel and rich, tangy tomato sauce provide all the reassuring comforts you can expect. It’s one of those dishes you’ll daydream about, and it’s worth the price of admission alone. A cashew-based blue cheese and oyster mushroom panino packs an equally umami-rich punch, while a burnished and blistered calzone topped with crumbly vegan parmesan is so convincing, you won’t even miss the meat. Or the lactose, for that matter.