Having been what could only be termed a ‘highly strung’ child, I’ve been relieved to find that quite a few of my irrational little phobias seem to have dissipated with age. I still recall a traumatic adventure to Movie World, in which planets aligned to combine a number of these fears (people dressed up as cartoon characters, cable cars, faux volcanoes) into a should-have-been-fun nightmare. I’m sure my parents, who were paying for the experience, were even more dismayed at my distress. But despite the passage of time, one thing that still gives me a little bit of a chill is gnomes. Staring at you with their short stature and their beady little eyes, stroking their long white beards.
Au contraire, the people of Gnome must hold these little creatures in a special place in their hearts. In spite of the gnomes lurking here and there, it’s a warm, comfortable and cosy little space. And I stress the word little. Tucked into a terrace on Crown Street, Gnome packs small round tables and banquette seating as well as a kitchen and till into a modest front room. The decor is reminiscent of your grandfather’s study or cellar, with dark wood, world maps lining the walls, chalkboard menus, wine bottles, and globe lights dangling from the ceiling. Outdoor seating affords the perfect opportunity to watch chic Surry Hills locals sauntering up and down with empty Messina cups and bags of gourmet olives and San Pellegrino from Thomas Dux and Maloneys.
My partner in crime and I arrive on a wet and windy Wednesday, starving after a morning of trawling Bondi Junction for new clothes. It’s the perfect day to be rugged up in toggle coats and gumboots in a cafe on Crown Street, and we aren’t alone. Still, a waitress comes straight over to take drinks orders from us and quickly brings a delicious latté ($3.50) over to us for sustenance as we peruse the menu. As always at Gnome, the coffee is smooth and interesting, offering layers of caramelly complexity.
It gives us the confidence to make an uncharacteristically quick decision on the food, settling on sharing half the daily savoury tart ($14) and half the ocean trout sandwich with marscapone ($10). I’m mainly surprised by how quickly we make a decision because Gnome’s real strength is the diversity of their menu. Breakfast, available all day, flits from burnt fig or bircher muesli with fresh fruit and yoghurt, to an ‘eggs benny breakfast roll’ on brioche, scrambled eggs, bacon and capsicum relish on baguettes and polenta with mushrooms and scrambled eggs. Lunch options range from classic chicken and mayonnaise or meatball baguettes to a four cheese toastie, a range of salads and gourmet boards served with crostini and baguette.
When our meals come out, it’s clear we have made two great decisions here. The tart flavour today is goat’s cheese, capsicum and baby spinach. It’s not quite a quiche, not quite a pastry-based tart, meaning it has a lovely balance between egg, filling and pastry. The goat’s cheese is mild and the capsicum perfectly sweet. The little side salad is well-dressed and it’s a generous serving size.
The trout sandwich is on a delightfully fluffy soy and linseed sourdough with more height than I’ve seen in a slice of bread since the days of high-tin Vienna loaves. It’s been spread with a thick layer of dill-filled mascarpone with chunks of salty capers. The ocean trout is sandwiched between a layer of watercress and another layer of salad leaves. Together, it is a testament to the power of a simple sandwich, done well.
On my other visits, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the calibre of the chicken baguette and the poached chicken salad. These are dishes you’ll find on lots of menus in Sydney, but you won’t find them done as well everywhere else as you will here. Well done, Gnome. This is classic Sydney cafe fare, done well. I hope you’ll stick around, gnomes and all.
Gnome Espresso and Winebar
536 Crown Street Surry Hills
(02) 9332 3191
Best Bits: a classic menu that nails variety and value for money, the daily savoury tart
Worst Bits: popularity, so you may get hurried on as soon as you finish your meal, plus limited space for groups.
Coffee: custom house blend, rotates between top roasters (like Coffee Alchemy)
Price Point: $
Good for: the quintessential Surry Hills brunch experience.
What you should know… they also serve wine, which is perfect for lunch (or brunch even, if you’re having a rough day). Also, visit Paper 2 stationary afterwards to stock up on unique cards and wrapping paper.