Au79 is the symbol (and atomic number) for gold on the periodic table, and it's the name of Abbotsford's new cafe. When you name your cafe after such a covetable metal, you're making quite the statement — and the team behind this ambitious eatery have certainly gone for gold in every aspect of its production. It makes sense; owners Maggie Li and Julia Hou have a trail of café experience between them, with a pedigree that includes Addict Food and Coffee, Sir Charles, Liar Liar and Prospect Espresso.
Au79 is bigger than Ben Hur. You walk in the door and it just goes back and back, and then it goes back some more. Previously an auto mechanic's garage, the 200-seat space has been radically transformed by Mim Design and now feels more like a large-scale conservatory or botanical garden fern house — it's loft and bright and filled with greenery. Despite its size, it isn't overly loud and conversation doesn't compete with the excellent playlist coming from the well-placed Sonos sound system.
Executive chef Stephen Hogan worked closely with his kitchen crew to create a menu that reflects his imaginative approach to food. Hogan likes to take techniques and dishes we might be familiar with and then adds a twist; his dishes get eyebrow-raising responses. Au79's take on okonomiyaki (those Japanese savoury pancakes) strays from traditional renditions and presents more like an oversized vegetable fritter, but the addition of eggplant katsu gives the dish its own modern charm, as does the umami of the yuzu mayo ($18). Other dishes include Belgian waffle balls, roasted cauliflower smash and smoked bonito croquettes with charred corn salsa.
The kitchen clearly subscribes to the more is more philosophy, stacking its Au79 burger ($20) to the point where we were left to wonder — as many a Melburnian must wonder these days — how do you actually get your mouth around these multi-storeyed gastronomic edifices? The answer is messily, but, nonetheless, the mac and cheese 'cake' is a tasty complement to the wagyu beef patty.
In addition to the kitchen there's also a bakery and patisserie run by ex-Rustica head baker Isaac Kane, and a roastery that looks after all their Au79 coffee. So you know that the cakes, tarts and breads are made in-house, as is the 24K house blend of beans from Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala.
The team behind AU79 has clearly planned every detail of this mini village cafe. Neighbourhood cafes — and, more pertinently, good neighbourhood cafes — require an essential gold ingredient to survive, and that is damn good hospitality (with all that that the term encompasses). From a true welcome as you walk in, through to the setting, the produce and the food, Au79 has that substance in spades.
Images: Jo Rittey.