Lale (tulip in Turkish) cafe restaurant (Facebook and Instagram) is the new occupant of 15 Johnston St next to the petrol station. More on that below, but first I want to talk about the food. I’ve walked past on my way to work in Carlton and noted its opening and menu, which includes a traditional Turkish breakfast platter.
I was tempted, having previously had a homemade version. And tested, because the serve was enormous – easily enough for two – and at $20 it was almost too good to be true. I almost finished it. Behold the magnificence: a platter of sweet and savoury things, Turkish bread, and scrambled eggs with sujuk and some spinach gozleme on the side. The eggs were perfectly cooked and the sujuk gave them lots of flavour. The gozleme is house made and delicious. This is a great combination and makes a good sized meal on its own.
But then there was the platter to deal with: savoury items included pastirma and another meat I did not know, acuka (not ajvar I think, and possibly homemade) cheeses, tomato, cucumber and olives. The sweet things included rosehip and sour cherry jams, honey with butter, pekmez (grape mollasses) mixed with tahini, and halva.
One of the things I appreciate most about Fitzroy is the diversity of food businesses. Should I be in the mood on the weekend I can brunch on Vietnamese pho (Pho La Que), French crepes (Rue de Creperie), croque monsieur (Shifty Chevre) or croissants (Lune), Russian blintzes (Babka), Turkish menemen (Gutz) or Sri Lankan hoppers (Pavlov’s Duck).
I don’t want Fitzroy to become a hipster cafe theme park, where slickly designed minimalist cafes serving modern Anglo / European fare are the only choice. I also like the homely less sophisticated places, and those that offer different foods.
Turkish food is in fashion in Melbourne at the moment, from stylish cafe (Babajan) to fine dining (Tulum). But there are also less sophisticated places that make great food, such as Chorba in the Coburg mall and Gutz on Brunswick St, which do excellent menemen and other Turkish breakfasts. I previously forgot to mention Goz City in the CBD, but they are particularly relevant here.
There’s often a gap between what a food business initially offers and what its customers want. If a business can see this and adapt it is more likely to survive. Some local examples are Mile End bagels changing their opening hours to match demand, or Palinka changing their menu from monstrously sized schnitzels that only a few gluttons like me were ordering to smaller share plates.
On the blackboard out the front Lale promotes the gozleme for $8 or $10 with coffee. This is a good counter to a bagel and coffee at Mile End bagels across the road, which is their nearest competitor. Younger customers may not be attracted to a more traditional looking cafe or restaurant, but Goz City has positioned gozleme as a fashionable food comparable to bagels, and Lale could do the same if it made it their specialty.
Finally, some thoughts on the location. It’s a trap, the site of repeated cafe failures. Based on my first sighting of their amateurish handwritten sign, I could not even bring myself to enter the Sri Lankan restaurant that was Lale’s predecessor, as I could tell from that alone that it would fail, and I did not want to discover great food, get attached, then say goodbye.
I really want Lale to succeed, because they are warm and genuinely welcoming hosts who make excellent food. They offer something unique in Fitzroy (I believe) in fresh hand-made gozleme, and this may be crucial to their success. While I was there a couple with young children left well fed and happy, and people came in for gozlemes and coffees. And free cakes.
I was given a sample of a black forest style cake with cherries, a piece of excellent baklava and Turkish delight to take home for free. The people at Lale are doing everything they can to succeed. We locals can help by not overlooking them due to the location and giving them a go based on the promise of their food.