Address: 61 Surf Coast Highway, Torquay VIC 3228, Australia
Phone: +61 3 5264 7722
Review by: Good Food
Swell: 2ft; wind: SW; tide: 2.45pm/8.41pm; Temp: 16C. Surf conditions: crap. The front beach is deserted, a lone paddle-boarder aimlessly poking about on the flat expanse of Zeally Bay, while around at the surf beach a dozen wetsuiters bob disconsolately on the swell, waiting for a wave that never comes. Gulls skirt the lowering clouds, and the best thing to do is pull a hoodie over your head and go for a sandy meander ...
You will have had grey days like this in your Melbourne summer holiday, days when the beach is better for thoughtful walks than sunburnt frolics. And when you've exhausted the possibilities of beach strolls and the holiday house bookshelf (all that Elizabeth Gilbert and old Peter Carey and recent Ian McEwan), someone will pipe up: "How about a coffee?"
If you happen to be in Torquay or surrounds, the destination might be somewhere hidden in the strip-mall ugliness of the Surf Coast Highway (who hasn't stopped off there to pick up a couple of kid-size wetsuits on the way to Wye River, or replace a pair of Havaianas, pink, size 32, broken?).
Tucked down a walkway between Rip Curl headquarters and Billabong central is Sticks and Stones, a sea change project for owner (and accredited barista comp judge) Nick Michaelides that has stuck.
The menu here is just the kind of bruncher people love in town. There's avocado smash with Meredith goat's cheese on local Zeally Bay sourdough, red rice pudding with mango curd and passionfruit yoghurt, and cauliflower and sweet corn fritters with a fried egg and tangy tomato relish.
Ricotta hotcakes is a plate-size singularity, sectioned like a pizza and, like a pizza, scattered with various toppings – slices of fresh strawberry, crushed pistachio, fragments of praline; various blue and violet flowers add colour contrast. The hotcake is light and fluffy, with a pool of vanilla cream in the middle, and the blueberries are kind of sauteed into the bottom of it. It's a tasty breakfast that would go down well after an early surf.
If the weather is really bad, you can roll right into lunch. Beef cheeks braised in red wine and served on pita bread with roasted tomatoes and caramelised onions is a riff on the souvlaki, while spicy pork ribs served on coconut rice with citrus slaw looks to south-east Asia for inspiration.
The soft-shell crab burger comes out looking quite like a crustacean, with two big "claws" of deep fried crab meat poking out of a crabby-shaped brioche bun. It's served on a board with chunky sweet potato chips; the combination of a little too sweet and plenty deep fried might be too much for some, but for the hungry it's one of those burgers that leave you in need of a good hosing down: fall-apart drippy with garlic aioli and apple slaw. There is a knife and fork, but they will probably make matters worse.
Coffee is from Axil in Hawthorn and is as good as you'd expect from one of Melbourne's top specialty roasters, with an Ethiopia Sidamo Guji showing nice blueberry and chocolate flavours. Then came an El Salvador Siberia Chemex cold brew, served on a tasting board with a hot cup and a cold beaker: in the cup it was all rum and raisin, while in the cold beaker the flavours tended more to the savoury vegetal.
It was a bit of a taste experiment that doesn't seem to be on the menu. But if you find yourself here on one of those long grey days, you can always ask.