Ah, Alexandria. How you have changed… The Alexandria of my 90s and noughties was an outlet shopping destination, to which mum would bravely venture in our trusty white Tarago, three little blonde girls in tow, wide-eyed and already well-versed in the ways of “bargain shopping”. Maybe it was just my happy-meal oriented stage of life (my most adventurous was a variation on the dipping sauce for my ‘chicken’ nuggets), but I don’t seem to recall many lunch destinations aside from McDonalds and the occasional industrial-looking cafe (not industrial chic in terms of exposed brickwork and designer stools; but cold aluminum tables and chairs with turkish pesto melts).
Now, it’s lauded as the new Surry Hills, or the new Glebe, or the new wherever it is we are flocking to these days. And one of the places leading the shift is the Grounds. An ambitious undertaking, its establishment saw the transformation of an industrial estate into a city playground – complete with roastery, ‘laboratory’ (no, I’m not sure what that means either), cafe, gardens and now even a weekend produce market.
Today marks the first day of the new market, complete with a fur and cowboy hat-toting, guitar-strumming, indie-folk ensemble. In spite of my cynicism, I have to admit it works. The gardens are inviting and relaxing, and the market is a little bit like a miniature Eveleigh (the ultimate weekly fresh food market at Carriageworks). There are kids playing and it’s refreshing to see Sydneysiders enjoying some green space (even if they are all sporting their Prada sunglasses and polished mid-heel boots to do so). The markets are an assault to the senses – someone is churning out fresh cheese next to a BBQ with a tantalising fry-up of fresh bacon and egg rolls alongside wooden barrels bursting with the bright greens and purples of fresh kale and beetroot.
The Grounds is a clever setup – anticipating the crowds, they offer the option of ordering takeaway to eat in the gardens. It’s marvellously pleasant outside, but we have come for the full experience. I am fortunate enough to have a friend that was willing to arrive early and put our names down long before we arrive just after 1pm. She’s been negotiating with the maitre-d, who is apologising profusely that our table isn’t yet ready as promised. Eventually, he decides we can have the private dining room since our table is still occupied by a group overstaying their welcome. I’m amazed – we are not high-maintenance, nor are we high-profile. No one has made a fuss about the wait. This is just good customer service.
We wander through the cafe to the dining room. It’s beautiful inside, an immense space that is all high ceilings, wooden features and big barnyard tables. The glass counter is amply stocked with delicious-looking sweet treats and beautiful waitstaff. By the time we sit down, we are well and truly hungry. The menu reads very well – simple, reasonably priced and focused on fresh ingredients, with plenty of variety. For lunch, we can choose between salads, sandwiches, and more substantial options of a burger, roasted spatchcock, lamb pappardelle, confit trout and pot pie. I am in the mood for salad over a sandwich, especially since they are all served with bread (best of both worlds, and so Paris). There are four salads, and I’d eat any of them. We settle on a classic Caprese ($15) and the Roast Beef ($16) to share. Around the table, the girls order a Slow Cooked Lamb Salad ($16), and two Beef/Winter Vegetable Pot Pies ($16 each).
We are a more eclectic bunch with our drinks: a hot chocolate, two ginger beers, a latte, and the pièce-de-résistance, an iced chai latte. To her credit, a barista soon appears to confess she’s never made an iced chai latte (neither have most baristas in Australia) and listen to my friend’s description of the coveted NYC drink. It arrives in a cute little jar with a green straw, bursting with icecubes. The satisfied sigh tells us that it tastes just like they do in the Big Apple. Success! The ginger beers are served in the same jars with coloured straws, which makes them taste all-the-more delicious, even if they are (I suspect) simply bottled ginger beers. The hot chocolate is an impressive wooden board of warmed chocolate, a teacup and saucer, and warm milk in a miniature glass bottle. It gets an impressed and food-envious “ooh” from the whole table.
Our food arrives promptly and all at once. The buffalo mozzarella in the Caprese salad is divine, all moist and soft and perfectly mild. The salad is a reminder of how something so simple can be so amazing. They have used a mixture of heirloom tomatoes, which are sweet as summer itself. The dressing is sweet, salty, oily and vinegary in all the right proportions.
The Beef Salad is similarly delicious; the beef roasted to medium-rare and
perfectly tender, accompanied by a salty mixture of shaved pecorino, capers and marinated red peppers. The sweetness of the peppers offsets the bitterness of the rocket and the saltiness of the other ingredients. Again, the dressing is perfectly balanced. Both salads are also very generously proportioned, filling a large bowl (and not all leaves either), and accompanied by a piece of sourdough. Our request for a side of butter (of course!) is quickly appeased.
The Lamb Salad looks good, and its owner seems satisfied, although I note that it’s very chickpea dense. Unfortunately, the pie is not such a hit. It’s accompanied by a miniature mesculun salad and has a cute puff pastry hat. But it’s just too big and not quite… interesting enough? Funny how something so simple can be so… simple. The beef is well cooked, but the flavours aren’t dynamic enough, the cheese on top is an unusual addition, and it’s missing something. The red wine and thyme don’t come through enough. It’s definitely big enough to share between two, though.
Overall, the service is excellent, the portions generous and the ambiance lively and fun. In spite of the busyness, they don’t hurry us through. I’ll definitely be back. Especially if I don’t have to wait in that mega-queue that’s starting to extend to Waterloo and back… It certainly beats a McHappy Meal!
Best Bits: the maitre-d, the Roast Beef and Caprese salads, live cheese-making in the gardens, kids enjoying green space.
Worst Bits: the uninspiring Beef Pot Pie, the queues, the yummy mummies.
The Grounds of Alexandria
2 Huntley Street
Alexandria NSW 2015.
Phone: (02) 9699 2225