Having lived in Carlton for 7 years, we've seen the best and the worst of Italian restaurants. Some fabulous pizzas, some fluffy gnocchi, some heavy and regrettable gnocchi, a couple of yawn-worthy mushroom risottos, and one or two plates of simple, fresh pesto pasta. Comfort food when it's done well, and often shared with friends, but nothing vegan-friendly.
So I didn't pay attention to the first couple of Small Axe Kitchen reviews I saw online - what could this Sicilian restaurant be doing that would lure me away from Ray across the street? Their primary novelty is reported to be a dish of breakfast pasta that includes cured pork cheek. Welp, Veganopoulous set me straight. Small Axe Kitchen has all sorts of veg-friendly food for lunch and brunch.
Gluten-free folks have plenty to choose from, too! The menu's scattered with vs, vgns and gfs that make it easy to scan... although there's a risk of scanning right past the unmarked grilled brioche with pistachio granita, espresso mousse, torrone and blood orange jelly.
We made our first visit for brunch with a couple of twitter mates. All the vegos' eyes were drawn to one dish and Hayley made it hers - it's a bowl of soft polenta with broad beans, peas, nettle, mint and lemon ($17.50), which is vegan unless you request slow cooked egg ($3; Hayley did). I don't think she'll mind me telling you that she squeaked and guffawed and reveled in this dish - it's a real winner.
I requested the vegan option on the citrus salad ($13.50). It meant I missed out on a ricotta-based 'spelt pudding' but was still treated to beautiful discs of orange, blood orange and grapefruit, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, a spiced sugar syrup, and rosemary leaves suspended in more sugar. I filled up on a very good soy chai latte and had room for a late lunch.
Michael's plate looked like a mini-Ottolenghi feast of cute little smoked eggplant halves, almond hummus, tahini mayo, pita bread, pomegranate seeds and fresh greens ($18.50). It was sufficiently spectacular that he didn't look enviously at Hayley's plate until his was finished.
It's one of the reasons we were back exactly a week later (you can see Michael's soft polenta and broad beans in the background of the above photo). This time round I ordered the warm chestnut rice pudding ($15.50), which was a lovely comfort on an atrocious 13-degrees-and-hail spring day. On its own the vegan-friendly rice pudding is a bit watery, but it's perfectly balanced once you've got a bit of almond, fig or prune on the spoon.
Small Axe Kitchen is an unexpected vegan-friendly gem, expertly balancing comfort foods and fresh produce in dish after dish (... though I've got a hunch that grilled brioche might tip the ratio carbwards). I reckon their outdoor seating will be one of the most sought-after spots in Melbourne when the sun finally agrees to stick around.
We first read about Small Axe Kitchen on Veganopoulous - she's tried just about all the dishes we have. It has also received praise on blogs I'm So Hungree and Whatever Floats Your Bloat.
Small Axe Kitchen
281 Victoria St, Brunswick
Accessibility: There's a small step on entry (and perhaps a flatter entry through the garden side). Tables are densely packed with a clear corridor through the middle. Tables outside have small backless stools, high benches in the front room have tall backless stools, and tables in the back room have ordinary backed chairs (see photos above). We ordered at our table and paid at a low counter. We didn't visit the toilets.