9 | 2.5 | 2.5 | 2
- Exceptional casual dining and cafe food, but not as you know it
- A Soft Shell Crab Burger worth travelling interstate for
Aesop in the bathroom!
- Small, so expect to wait
- Soft Shell Crab Burger
- Lavender Yoghurt Custard, Strawberry & Pineapple Gel, Berries, Lychee with Basil Cress
TL;DR – Hammer & Tong 412 is one of the best cafes in Melbourne, and my personal favourite cafe in the world. Fine dining-esque food (creativity, technique and produce) in a casual atmosphere and at cafe prices.
I never really liked breakfast. At least I thought I didn’t. I never saw the appeal of bread, yoghurt or sausages. Yes there’s the eggporn, but eggs are as sexy to the eyes as they are boring in the mouth. Eggs alone simply cannot make a good dish.
So while the rest of Sydney is lining up at their favourite cafes for a weekend brunch, I can be found eating the lunch menu at one of my regular dinner restaurants like Moon Park.
But for my 5th visit to Melbourne, I succumbed to the great things said about Melbourne cafes and begrudgingly tried Hammer & Tong 412. I’m so glad I did because I will always remember my first bite of the first dish I ever had at Hammer & Tong 412, their famous soft shell crab burger.
That was the moment when it hit me like a fat kid discovering donuts – It’s not that I didn’t like breakfast or cafes; I just didn’t like Sydney cafes.
More importantly, it made me discover another love; not just for breakfast and cafes, but for Melbourne. I have always liked Melbourne, but Hammer & Tong 412 is a large part of why I love Melbourne. Daresay, it will make you fall in love with Melbourne too.
I don’t always drink coffee. But when I do, it’s at Hammer & Tong 412, my favourite cafe in the world.
Hammer and Tong 412 is captained by two Vue de Monde expats, chef Simon Ward and front-of-house manager Dennis Ferreira, and it shows. Cafe food gets an innovative kick in the pants, from a team who traded fine dining for fun brunch, but left none of their skills behind.
All this sounds clichéd, with many fine dining chefs joining the foray into casual dining, but it’s more true here than any other restaurant.
My favourite soft shell crab burger in the world. This, perhaps, may even be one of the best burgers I’ve had period.
Paramount Coffee Project, Bowery Lane, Burger Liquor Lobster. Do yourselves a favour; fly down to Melbourne, go to Hammer & Tong 412 and school yourself on how to make a soft shell crab burger.
Comparisons will naturally be drawn to other famous Melbourne soft shell crab burgers, such as Top Paddock. Top Paddock’s rendition is good in its own right but differs from Hammer & Tong 412 in that the focus is on the soft shell crab itself.
While most of the soft shell crab we eat arrive frozen in 1kg bags from Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand, Top Paddock’s soft shell crab is a home-grown Queensland mud crab. As a result, their soft shell crab is unlike any other, unbelievably meaty and juicy; easily the best soft shell crab I’ve ever had.
Hammer & Tong 412, on the other hand, focuses on the burger as a whole. There is nothing remarkable about the soft shell crab itself, crispy and generous in serving is all you can really ask for. Though the bun looks unproportionally substantial, it was deceptively light, paving way for its skillfully balanced contents. The shredded cabbage slaw brings an acidity and lightness that counters the creamy, almost buttery sriracha mayo. Coriander as a finishing touch adds a freshness that is often lacking in fried foods and burgers.
All this leaves you with a balanced burger, with every component adding to the star of the show without ever losing the star itself, the soft shell crab. It’s almost like a banh mi; despite often having over 10 ingredients, you can still taste every individual ingredient and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Salt & Pepper French Toast, Fried Duck Egg, Maple, Chorizo, Smoked Oreo Crumbs, Duck Egg & Salted Caramel Ice Cream – $21 (7.75/10)
If you told me I could eat ice cream for breakfast, I’m sure breakfast would have been my favourite meal!
There were flashes of brilliance, such as the combination of chorizo bits and salted caramel ice cream. Also, on paper, there are some seriously awesome flavour combinations at play here. Salt and pepper, maple and chorizo, salted caramel. But sometimes, there can be too much of a good thing. Maybe they would benefit from simplifying the dish.
What was most lacking though was texture. Yes the smoked oreo crumbs and chorizo bits provided a bit of much needed texture (as well as devilishly good pops of flavour), but when you have 3 soft ingredients, such as ice cream, egg and bread, making up the body of the dish, inevitably you’ll end up craving for more texture.
That’s not to say it was a bad dish, far from it. There are better things to order on the menu, but this is unique and worth trying.
Lavender Yoghurt Custard, Strawberry & Pineapple Gel, Berries, Lychee with Basil Cress – $19 (9/10)
Easily the most beautiful cafe-plated dish I’ve ever seen. So here’s another shot.
This ain’t no ordinary fruit yoghurt.
The yoghurt was good – creamy, smooth, subtle in flavour but not bland. What made this dish great, however, was the interplay between the fresh and dehydrated fruits that added an extra dimension of concentrated flavour and crunch. Being healthy might not be that hard after all.
I know I had low expectations on my first visit, but I was blown away by the creativity, the care, and the way they sweat the details. Hammer & Tong 412 has taken casual dining and done it exceptionally well, redefining the cafe experience in the process. Having been back a few times and having tried other cafes in Melbourne, it still stands as my favourite cafe in the world.
So from that day onwards, rain, hail or shine, I would always find time for Hammer & Tong 412 whenever I’m in Melbourne. And you should too.
So fellow foodies, what’s your favourite cafe in the world?