It's quite well known amongst my friends that I don't like going out for breakfast, especially in the (largely) overpriced breakfast market of my home town of Perth. Having worked in a cafe during my uni years, the place would be positively heaving with morning customers on weekends. I couldn't help but marvel at the prices people paid for food from a largely unimaginative and pedestrian menu, including paying $6 for two pieces of toast made from bread they could have literally bought from Brumby's and toasted at home. Considering you can get a whole banh mi for $5, it just doesn't make any logical sense. I understand some people don't like to cook first thing in the morning, but considering I can whip up eggs on toast in under 10 minutes or something more complicated like Eggs Benedict in 45 minutes (including making hollandaise from scratch), I'd rather cook breakfast at home unless it means going out for something that is altogether more imaginative.
While we're on holidays, Alissa and I are more likely to venture out for a breakfast meal, though I still maintain my conviction that it has to be worth it. With all the critical buzz - The Good Food Guide's Breakfast Spot of the Year and consistently sitting at the top spot of Urbanspoon Melbourne's Talk of the Town list - Brunswick St's Hammer and Tong was high on our list of breakfast joints to check out while in Melbourne.
Apparently left much the same as it was before Hammer and Tong took over from previous tenant The Brix, the restaurant has a casual but stylish layout, with a wide front counter,...
... a plethora of indoor plants and large windows to let the sunshine in and for patrons to watch the world go by. The difference is that the owners are a pair of ex-staff from Shannon Bennett's incredible and highly acclaimed Vue de Monde, with Hammer and Tong's kitchen headed up by Head Chef Simon Ward and managed by Dennis Ferreira. Bringing that kind of experience to food they refer to as 'classic but with a twist', the menu is filled with dishes so well thought out by Ward that it was a serious challenge to pick which dishes we wanted to eat. Examples included Lavender Yoghurt Custard, Strawberry & Pineapple Gel, Berries, Lychee w Basil Cress; Breakfast Ramen (with a very David Chang bacon dashi); their signature Soft Shell Crab Burger; and Rye and Shallot Bagel w Smoked Rainbow Trout, Kale, Pickled Carrot, Poached Egg and Nori-Hollandaise. And those were the dishes we didn't order. With a host of cheffy touches, this was clearly not your ordinary lazy breakfast fry up.
As tempted as I was by the thought of Breakfast Ramen, the truffle pig in me simply could not go past Hammer and Tong's play on Egg and Soldiers: Duck Egg, Oyster Mushrooms, Truffle Butter, Snow Pea Tendrils and Fontina Briont Soldiers. Wow. Not counting that time Alissa and I ate the 1 Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan's dim sum for breakfast in Hong Kong, this would have to be just about the best breakfast dish I've had the pleasure of eating. The Oyster Mushrooms were bursting with intense mushroom flavour, and the Fontina Briont Soldiers were long rectangular strips of brioche covered in melted cheese that helped soak up the rich duck egg yolk. The most valuable player was the Truffle Butter sauce, and it imparted the entire dish with the distinct flavour and aroma of my old friend the black truffle. Topped off with snow pea sprouts to give an otherwise rich and heavy dish some freshness, this was a dish worth returning for. Repeatedly.
Alissa was initially a bit disappointed with the Corn and Zucchini Fritters, Cumin Spiced Avocado and Tahini Mousse, Manchego, Chilli Tomato Relish & Poach Egg. Since it was not quite your typical corn and zucchini fritter dish and she'd forgotten about some of the components, she began to question what it was that made her want to order this dish - especially when she saw the Rye and Shallot Bagel ordered by a woman at a nearby table. It was only upon lifting the pile of salad leaves that she remembered why she ordered this dish; buried underneath was a generous pile of grated manchego cheese. With this element revealed, the savoury Spanish/Middle Eastern flavours of the dish were in perfect harmony; the uniqueness of the spicy, creamy, buttery and umami blend of the Avocado and Tahini Mousse, the tangy kick of the Chilli Tomato Relish and the distinctive sheeps' milk flavour of the manchego supported the perfectly cooked poached egg and the crunchiness of the fritters, with the salad leaves providing a clean freshness to the proceedings.
Feeling sad that our meal was over and that we hadn't come here earlier in our trip, Alissa and I decided to greedily order the Double Smoked Ham and Gruyere Bechamel Croissant to share. Again a near best in class performance by the Hammer and Tong kitchen, the croissant itself was a delicious combination of soft, sweet, flaky and crispy all at once. The smokiness of the generous (but in proportion) serve of double smoked ham allowed its flavour to shine through, but the real masterstroke was the gruyere bechamel which formed long strings of cheese with every bite in a manner similar to fondue. Alissa had been to Paris before we got together, and I asked her how it compared.
Her response; "Paris was a blur of cheese and bread, but this was one of the best savoury croissants I've had... that I can remember".
The Verdict: Excellent +
I came to Hammer and Tong with extremely high expectations, and they definitely exceeded them. This is exactly the kind of food I'm always looking for for breakfast but seldom find; cheffy but not stuffy options with considered flavour combinations at reasonable prices - and they do good coffee too. Their menu does feature a $7.50 toast and jam, but considering each of the dishes we had were available for under $20 (with the croissant costing $8), the skill and quality to price point otherwise feels very fair, and you'd be a fool to just go with toast and jam when there are so many wonderful things on offer. Our biggest regret of the whole trip was that we hadn't come here earlier, as I think we would have tried to have breakfast at Hammer and Tong everyday.
Believe the hype; these guys are the real deal.