Posted by Dani (@danisunario), Melbourne.
The recently opened Stagger Lee’s on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy was always destined for success. With big names from Proud Mary’s behind the team, Lee’s has managed to fill a pretty big void on the ever-withering café and shopping strip that was once, though only a few years ago, one of Melbourne’s most popular and happening destinations.
With it’s range of quality takeaway and eat-in options that cover all bases (think vegetarian, vegan + gluten free, sweet and savoury options, that are cheap, easy and fast), pulling away from the overpriced and often mediocre choices surrounding it, it is no surprise that less than two weeks after opening and on a Monday lunch, they would be bustling with a full service sitting and a line for takeaway coffees and lunches out the door.
Filled with young families, students, and young professionals, it seems that Stagger Lee’s is attempting a more accessible offering than sibling café, Proud’s, without sacrificing the quality and service that has become synonymous with their first location. The fit-out of the venue is industrial, with hints of a more commercial St Kilda-style café in the glass doors that open out onto street-side outdoor seating, and the mint green salt and pepper mills reminiscent of a 90’s American diner – perhaps a nod to the American gangsta namesake. By pulling away from marketing Stagger Lee’s as a ‘specialty coffee’ venue, they manage to draw in a wider and more varied crowd, further tackling the ailing vibe of Brunswick street, and disassociating damn good coffee with the ‘hipster’ attitude that the area is famed for. The cold drip set-up in the window will still draw in the coffee heads, while the outdoor seating will garner interest from foot traffic.
The menu covers all the usuals expected from a Melburnian brunch spread, but surprisingly doesn’t surrender to the burgeoning food trends that most cafes seem to be adopting. In fact, when we had a quick look at the menu online before arriving, we almost decided to go somewhere else. Much like the menu at Proud’s, Lee’s offerings don’t read particularly well, but as seasoned regulars and Proud Mary’s, we knew that though the menu may not be impressive on paper, the quality of food is always on point.
It does help that they have sought out Chris Hamburger of St. Ali, Aylesbury and Twenty & Six Espresso fame, to head up the kitchen. With three of the busiest breakfast/lunch kitchens under his belt, Hamburger is no stranger to busy, efficient service that don’t compromise on taste.
Though the floor service seemed rushed, and even a little confused when we first entered (perhaps, and understandably, the only sign that the venue has been open for less than two weeks), this was more than compensated for by the efficiency of the bar and kitchen staff, with our coffees arriving within the first ten minutes of being seated (especially excellent when having ordered two different filter coffees), and our food arriving within 15 minutes of ordering. I applaud the staff on the quick turnaround, particularly considering how busy they were at the time.
We ordered two meals, one each from the breakfast and lunch menu. My first choice was the ‘Shrooms ‘n’ Truffles’, largely due to a recent heavy craving for polenta, but the dish had unfortunately sold out. Instead, I compensated for the lack of polenta to satisfy my craving with the only other reasonable option: bacon-on-bacon – the Fat Bacon Toasty (15.5) of apple wood smoked bacon, English cheddar, HP sauce, truss tomatoes, pickled eggs with a side of bacon croquettes (6). Mostly because you can never have enough bacon, and also because, well, more bacon.
Oh, and did they share my bacon philosophy! The toasty arrived stacked generously with three layers of smoky + juicy bacon, sweet + ripe tomatoes, and warm, gooey, buttery English cheddar. As tasty as this combination was, and though I must congratulate the kitchen for their liberal spreading of HP sauce (the British influence from my Singaporean heritage froths all over the spicy, molasses-heavy sauce), in combination with the juices of the truss tomatoes and the lavish helping of gooey cheese, it was admittedly a little hard to eat. This wasn’t at all aided by the small, cluttered plate on which is was served, encouraging me to get all handsy with my toasty instead of being an adult and using my cutlery. Not that I minded – I’m just pretending to be an adult anyway, plus it gave me the opportunity to keep some snacks for later all up on my arm.
To be honest, all of that bacon-y, cheese-y goodness made the toasty a little greasy, but any attempt at recreating an oil slick was saved by accompaniments of the light, bitey, herb salad – a mixture of mint leaves, parsley, rocket + celery – and the pickled egg. The egg was easily one of the best I’ve had, with notes of bay leaf, clove, peppercorn, and something berry-like – perhaps juniper, on the front end, with a strong, yet not too overpowering hit of vinegar at the back. Both accompaniments melded beautifully with the otherwise overwhelming saltiness and greasiness expected in a bacon and cheese-heavy toasty, and cut through all of that richness without seeming too disconnected from the star of the dish.
As a side, the croquettes – served steaming hot – were as creamy, crunchy, salty, and smoky as I had hoped for, and the Panko breadcrumb outer reminded me of the delicious potato croquettes and deep-fried crumbed oysters I had sampled in Japan late last year. Much impressed.
‘Mama’s Stack’ (19) of shaved corned beef, pressed potato, black cabbage, poached egg, white onion and parsley sauce, was not disappointing, but at the same time and much unlike the toasty, was also not overwhelmingly good. Nothing extravagant here – the corned beef was good, the egg was poached well, the black cabbage was simple and well cooked, and the pressed potato (probably the stand-out of the dish), was just that: pressed potato. The white onion and parsley sauce tasted similar to a good, basic béchamel, with the significant lack of parsley leaves throughout the sauce causing a lack of flavour burst. Overall, though there weren’t any strong negatives on the dish, it seemed under-seasoned and just a little ‘eh’.
As a sibling café to one of Melbourne’s most well-known and well-established coffee roasters, Proud Mary, the expectations of their beverage offerings were set pretty high. Typically when such high standards are set, they usually fall fairly flat (a disappointing visit to Monk Bodhi Dharma’s for a Lotus N2 filter comes to mind), however, in this case, we were pleasantly surprised by the espresso.
We also ordered two filters. Our first choice, the Panama (10) was unavailable, so we chose the Colombian ‘Elkan Guzman’ , and on the waitstaff’s suggestion, the Sumatran ‘Wahana Estate’. Typically, we aren’t big fans of Indonesian coffees for their earthy, tobacco-like taste profiles, but seeing as it came recommended, we decided to give it a try.
The Sumatran (6) was unfortunately, just what we expected, with a full creamy mouthfeel, light currant sweetness and a zesty, clean finish. The Colombian (also 6) was a little more to our liking, though slightly dry with lime acidity and a creamy front. Both filters were a little undeveloped and rushed, and though definitely not the worst we’ve ever had, we would definitely suggest sticking to espresso coffees from their Synesso if you’re visiting during peak times.
Overall, we’d give Stagger Lee’s a 7.5 out of 10. Our visit was pretty freaking great – there were some definite hits – but there were also a few elements that needed some slight improvement. Considering how young Stagger Lee’s is, and comparing the café to the calibre of second openings for other successful Melbourne specialty coffee locations, there are only a few crinkles to iron out before I would give them an easy 10/10. Other cafes looking to branch out, take note: this is how you open a sibling venue!
Stagger Lee’s is open 7am – 4pm Monday to Friday, and 8am – 4pm on weekends.
Disclaimer: This was not a sponsored post. A Tale of Two Bougies has no affiliation with the owners/managers of this venue. All views expressed here are our own and are based on our personal experience at the time of our visit.