If asked to name the top factors likely to impede a cafe’s progress in the competitive Sydney food scene, I’m sure many people would include a) a mainstream coffee brand that Sydneysiders can’t feel good about touting on their takeaway cups and b) alternatives to sourdough bread (sourdough is one trend we still haven’t quite gotten over – turkish toast anyone?). But I’d like to propose c) a non phonetic name. It is extremely difficult to express your love for a new cafe when you can’t actually pronounce the name (you ‘n’ i? you-weenee? you-ny? the mind boggles…) Even the small amount of social anxiety that I have typically kicks in at that point, and I quietly mutter something starting with a ‘y’ then change the subject. Luckily for Youeni, they have the first two boxes covered (single origin coffee: tick. house-baked sourdough: tick), so I think they can get away with the name issue.
Youeni is the second cafe in Sydney’s East for Chris Starke. Hot on the heels of his success with Youeni Provides (Darlinghurst), he opened Youeni Foodstore a stone’s throw away in a small alcove just off Bourke Street. The space appears a little unfriendly at first, an industrial-feeling nook that also houses a lighting supplier, interiors shop, and a lot of concrete. You might find yourself questioning your pre-coffee/food capacity for cafe choices (“should we just go back to bourke street bakery?”). Once you get a little closer, though, and you notice the crates and shelves bursting with fresh produce, the blankets to keep your toes toasty in winter, and the warm dark wooden benches, you’ll feel your brow relax a little. When you see the staff pouring fresh salted caramel into house-baked tart cases from behind the counter, you’ll know you’ve made the right decision.
The last time I came to Youeni was a sunny Saturday morning, the kind that brings Sydneysiders out from the deepest corners of their darkened terraces, hangovers in tow, demanding coffee and eggs (‘their’ way) on the double. On these sort of mornings, it’s cafes like Youeni, with their wholefood/organic/ produce-driven approach, who really deliver what it is we are all craving: recovery. I myself was in the midst of recovering from one too many wines at 121 BC the evening before (apparently, even if it’s biodynamic and sourced from italy, sampling every type of wine on the menu will still give you a headache the next day). All I could think about as I scoped Bourke Street for a park was a coffee, and something very virtuous. Green, preferably. Full of fibre. With healing properties.
Approaching Youeni, I’m miffed to see a crowd of people gathered in the small space, covering not only the concrete grounds and communal table in front of the cafe but also the small number of wooden-benched tables right next to the tiny kitchen and counter. Until I realise they’re there for the first stage of the Youth Food Movement’s ride-on-lunch. I might not be able to ride a bicycle, but I love the premise of young people riding around our beautiful city eating and starting a conversation about real food. They leave shortly after I arrive, and I settle comfortably into a wooden bench close to the kitchen to wait for my brunching companion. Within minutes, I give in and order a coffee (there’s only so long a girl can resist a barista, especially in a Saturday morning state). When it arrives minutes later, I practically inhale it. The single origin blend at Youeni ($3.50) is mild but complex, and produces a smooth and easy-drinking coffee. This I could happily consume for the rest of my life. I make sure a latte is ready and waiting for him when he arrives, which he drinks at a comparably rapid pace (although his excuse of waking up at 6am for work is somehow much more justifiable than mine).
The menu is kept short and sweet, based on the inclusion of dishes that showcase seasonal produce and house-made ingredients (butter, bread, pastry, eclairs, the list goes on). At breakfast, the main contenders are scrambled eggs with kale and mushrooms (a bargain at $12), banana and ricotta on sourdough with honey ($8), and toast with white anchovies, tomatoes and chorizo ($15). However, mention must also be made of the house-baked bread with churned butter and dead sea salt ($7) and the croque monsieur ($10).
As usual, we become consumed in conversation and forget to peruse the menu, even when prompted. Our waiter has to return three or four times before we actually read it and commit to a breakfast option. But not once does he show signs of frustration, and nor is he irritatingly persistent – he simply drops past occasionally and reads my face for signs of certainty. He’s just making sure we get good service. I settle on the banana and ricotta toast, and my companion on the scrambled eggs. This worries me a little, as I’ve had the eggs before and I know they’re amazing (food envy can really kill a good brunch date). But I’m in a sweet mood, and I want to try something new.
Our food comes out relatively quickly, balanced delicately on Youeni’s characteristically retro brown stoneware crockery. The eggs are delicious – creamy, fluffy and (much to my companion’s surprise) perfectly seasoned. They are accompanied by delicate fried mushrooms, a slice of sourdough dripping in salty house-cultured butter, and a mountain of nutritious kale. If there was ever a poster dish for what I’d like to term ‘the kale comeback of 2012’, it would be this one. Not only is it the perfect accompaniment to the eggs and mushrooms, but it has been carefully wilted in a pool of salty buttery goodness.
My banana and ricotta on toast is a neat little number, served on a single piece of bread and drizzled with a generous amount of honey. It isn’t groundbreaking, and the house-baked bread is a little dry without the generous coating of butter afforded by the other dishes here, but it’s still pleasant. And my body just about sings at me for consuming something other than wine.
Having now lingered for over an hour, I suddenly remember that my oh-so-convenient parking space was definitely only for an hour. But we aren’t ready to leave. Just at this moment, the waiter wanders over to ask if we want anything else. Our eyes both flick over to our neighbour’s table, where there is a jug full of bright purple, vitamin-filled, fresh juice. Sold. A hop, skip, and a jump to my car and back, and I’m back to savouring the Saturday morning bliss of Youeni. The juice is an earthy blend of beetroot, apple and ginger ($5.50 a jug). It’s deliciously refreshing and not too sweet, with hints of sour apple shining through strongly. Now my body is definitely back to reality.
Youeni is a cool place run by cool people. And they’re ‘cool’ in the best sense of the world – people who are passionate about and good at what they do, and interested in enriching other people’s lives through it. If that sounds a little too high and mighty for a cafe, you obviously haven’t been to Youeni yet. Oh, and just for the record, it is “you ‘n’ i” (I asked sheepishly last time I was there, just to save you the confusion.)
Best bits: scrambled eggs with kale and mushrooms, coffee, house-baked sweet treats and cultured butter, seasonal jugs of juice, passionate and genuine staff.
Worst bits: definitely not adverse-weather-proof, finding a parking spot.
A little bit like… bread and circus, the grounds of alexandria, youeni provides.
Shop 3/8 Hill Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010