Melbourne is dotted with more cafés than you can possibly visit in one trip, so we had a slight dilemma when a friend from overseas came to visit. The trip was a short one and we wanted to take her to a place which best captured the character of Melbourne city. In the end, we settled on The Hardware Sociéte (THS) – a nifty little place tucked away at the end of Hardware Street. As far as cafés go, this one has street cred. Open for breakfast and lunch, THS is almost always packed to the rafters. It is a mixed crowd. Hugely popular with the dapper young hippies, this place is also well known amongst more mature professionals in suits. It is quite evident why THS has garnered a loyal following from their fans. They serve good honest food at ridiculously affordable prices. Importantly, their service staff are friendly and always at hand to offer recommendations to the undecided customers.
It seems to me that all the best places in Melbourne are hidden in lane ways, and so our friend had to do a little bit of treasure hunting before arriving at this gem. But that’s alright, because everyone knows that treasure hunting helps to work up an appetite. It was a little cold that day, so the three of us opted to sit inside. As we walked past the front glass cabinet, we tried our hardest to ignore the various pastries like almond croissants, canelés, tea cakes and bread-and-butter puddings on offer. The interior of THS exudes a warmth and cosiness reminiscent of visiting your best friend’s house. It is homely and the coat hanger rack looks like a splash of yellow paint dripping down, which is kind of cute and funky all rolled into one. Our waiter beamed and presented us with the lunch menu which starts from 12pm. As he poured us glasses of water, he explained the special of the day before leaving us to make our decision. A couple of dishes caught our eyes and we quickly negotiated to share three different ones. We were keen to try the special of the day which was roasted duck breast served with pomme frites, carrots and celeric purée, and we also ordered the sirloin steak and pork belly. The aroma of fresh cups of coffee was too hard to resist, and so we ordered the mocha as well as two 54% callebaut hot chocolates.
We were delighted to see our drinks served in round yellow, green and pink cups on wide saucers. The hot chocolates came served in cute little milk jugs so that you can alter the strength or intensity of the drink to your liking. For our friend who ordered the mocha, there was a puddle of coffee with a chocolatey brown hue at the bottom, and she happily spooned brown sugar into it before stirring in the hot chocolate. In contrast, there was a little ball of dark chocolate ganache found at the bottom of our cups. We heaped in two teaspoons of brown sugar before pouring in the hot chocolate and downed the creamy mixture. Instant smiles flashed all around the table. Decadently rich, both drinks were a perfect start to our meal as we slowly sipped in the sugary goodness, swapped stories and giggled. Time passes quite fast when you are in good company, and before long, three beautiful plates of food were presented in front of us.
The roasted duck breast was the special of the day and quite frankly, we would not mind one bit if it became a permanent fixture on the lunch menu. Pink, juicy flesh under a layer of tanned skin, the meat was succulent and just the slightest bit gamey. THS provided house made pomme frites so thin that I initially mistook them for thin strips of deep fried onions. The biggest meat eater of our group also surprised herself and found a love for the celeriac mash which absorbed up the meaty juices of the duck and surrounding rich droplets of gravy. However, she remained unconvinced on the carrots. Rabbit food, she called it. I think those would be incredibly lucky bunnies is they get to snack on THS carrots.
I was the lucky girl who ordered the pork belly which came buried like treasure under a small mountain of vibrant green baby rocket and diced red squares (I think they were capsicum). I’m not fond of rocket because of its bitterness but my friend loves its peppery taste. So we swapped her carrots for my rocket. Thin peels of crunchy poached prawn was thrown into the salad mix which added a delicious seafood sweetness to the healthy greens. There was also a serve of whole baked apple on the side with spiced crumbles decorating the top. But the star of the show is undoubtedly the rectangular piece of pork belly. I did not find the skin to be as crackling as I would have preferred, it was slightly chewy perhaps due to the greens were sitting on top of it. Still, it tasted wonderful and I think they rubbed some spice on the skin to set it apart from other kinds of pork bellies. The moist layers of fat and meat meant that the pork was pull apart tender with smokey flavours that permeate your taste buds. THS has created a playful twist to the traditional pork and apple sauce combination. The juicy saltiness of the pork went down incredibly well with a sweet cube of apple. I would definitely order this again.
The sirloin steak turned out to be a little disappointing. It’s deliciousness was most likely eclipsed by the excellence of both the duck breast and pork belly. I’m not saying that it was a terrible dish, just that it wasn’t as memorable as the first two. The beef was cooked somewhere between medium rare and well done and it came served with a rotund of mashed potato which had a crispy coating. There were a few small white pieces of either marrow or tallow which we found quite fishy and thought that it didn’t go well with the dish.
By the end of our meal, the allure of the hazelnut and raspberry bread and butter pudding became near impossible to resist, so we ordered one serve to share. This is pure comfort food which is best eaten on Winter’s day. Warm, fluffy, and just plain awesome, it capped off a wonderful meal amongst friends who don’t get to meet often. THS is a brilliant place to bring friends to and show them the soul food of Melbourne. A quick glance at their breakfast menu and our minds were set on returning. After all, how can you say no to fried brioche?