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Stagger Lee's

(As seen in GRAM magazine)

25 March 2014 saw the opening of Proud Mary owner Nolan Hirte's second venture, this time on Brunswick Street: Stagger Lee's.

Not quite open for two weeks yet, this place is already ridiculously busy, and has had the gossip mills churning for months - so it already has a lot to live up to. Its location, 276 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy (corner of Victoria Street, a hop-skip-and-jump south of the prominent Johnston Street intersection), has already won half the battle for the venture. Guaranteed foot traffic, some outdoor seating, a nice amount of natural light, proximity to all the action of Brunswick Street, and a window bench for people-watching ensure the place is set for the levels of popularity everyone expects it to enjoy.

Although there are many cafes to choose from along Brunswick Street, most are overpriced and lacklustre in standards, catering more for the shopping lunch crowd or afternoon-latte-sipping hipsters. Not many do a rip-roaring breakfast/coffee actually worth going back for.

Hirte and former Proud Mary Manager, Monica Chhay, have brought in Chris Hamburger (apt name for a chef, no?) - formerly of Twenty and Six Espresso, The Aylesbury and St Ali North -  to run the kitchen, and his food is not for the faint-hearted. Like at Proud Mary, strong and rich flavours dominate the short menu. There is a sweet-laden pumpkin loaf, a 'Mexican' dish complete with tortillas, salsa and fried eggs, a rich mushroom and polenta dish not dissimilar to one I've enjoyed before at Proud Mary, the 'Mama's Stack' containing potato, cabbage and corned beef with egg -- even the porridge is accompanied by whacks of flavour in the form of salted butter, brown sugar and vanilla poached rhubarb.

While my peanut-allergic, non-egg-eating boyfriend stuck to a safe ham and tomato croissant for breakfast this morning (which looked very nice, as croissants go), I decided to try the Big Boi's Breakfast (but only after the waiter assured me it could also be consumed by Big Gals): saffron white bean ragu, smoked ham hock, house morcilla, poached egg, herb and garlic crumb, and toast.

Initially, when it was brought out, I didn't think it was mine - it looked like baked beans (as in, the usual tomato sauce kind, not what I had envisaged as a 'saffron ragu' of beans) dotted with pieces black pudding (which I had not equated to 'morcilla', having never heard of that term for it). I don't mind baked beans or black pudding; I had just not anticipated either in the dish from its menu description.

In any case, I ate it and quite enjoyed it. I wasn't blown away by it, as I have been previously by most of the dishes at Proud Mary. There was an awful lot of bean ragu, and the good bits (crumbly black pudding, chunks of smoked ham hock, and crunchy croutons) seemed sparse in amongst it. I hardly noticed the one poached egg; the strong flavours of everything else kind of made it redundant in the dish. The accompanying toast was delicious: well-toasted, but not burnt, buttered to perfection (I LOVE cafes that aren't afraid to butter your toast for you!), and ideal for mopping up excess sauce. Given the choice, I probably wouldn't order the Big Boi again, but I'm glad I tried it. Next time, I'd like to sample the Steel City Oat Porridge, Pumpkin and Walnut, or Mama's Stack.

Unlike its predecessor, Stagger Lee's boasts a liquor licence, and although evening beverages are not on offer *just* yet, wine, beer and ciders are already available during current trading hours (7am-4pm, Monday to Friday, and 8am-4pm weekends). Other drink options include a "Bucket of Blood" (Bloody Mary), juices, smoothies, shakes (at $10 a pop, they seem pricey, but do have interesting flavours), a range of teas, and of course, The Coffee.

Sticking to single origins and filter coffees only (Proud Mary's, by contrast, offers both singles and blends), Stagger Lee's was always going to kick arse in the coffee department. Cold drips are dotted around the cafe, a different origin filtering through each, identifiable by their masking tape labels. On our visit, there were several grinders sitting opposite the huge shiny white coffee machine (which was resplendent with its fluoro blue lighting effect - does that make it go faster?!), but the grinder mostly in use today was roaringly loud. It may grind a bean or two nicely, but it didn't much contribute to the ambience.

Service was charming and efficient, but a few dishes at our communal tables were mixed up - small blunders are to be expected in the first few weeks of trade - and dealt with promptly. Guests were seated promptly, or given fair estimates of waiting times. People seemed to be moving in and out all the time -- it seems a pretty smooth operation so far, for the newest newbie in town.

I remember the cafe's site in its former incarnation as an 'old man' espresso bar: red brick, dark, lots of wood, with grey-sports-coated and tan-golf-capped older European men sipping espressos at its edges and staring moodily at the world going by. I never went in because it screamed of depression. Its new occupants have swept out the dark, old vibe and kept a few of the venue's 1970s-style charms as part of an overall eclectic design.

Wood-panelled ceiling and painted brick behind the counter have stayed; other walls now have pleasingly varied textures, whilst maintaining the warm, hard surface consistency throughout (looks great; not so sure about the effects on acoustics though). Furniture is typically chunky wood tables and short metal stools. There are sprigs of native flowers, filament-exposed hanging lightbulbs, brown glass bottles for water, mini glass milk jars of raw sugar, and splashes of colour in the form of bright aqua crockery. The overall effect is pleasant chaos.

And the name? Stagger Lee's is apparently the title of an oft-interpreted song about the murder of an American gangster. As the follow-up act to Proud Mary, I wonder if we are in store for an American folklore onslaught, in the form of multiple funky cafes serving gung-ho coffee and gutsy food. Another day in Melbourne, another slice of Americana. If this one hangs around, I'd be cool with that.

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