Cafe 21 – The Mall

Cafe 21 in the Smith Street Mall is one of those unassuming places that you could walk past every day and never feel tempted to walk inside. Like a small number of other places I have reviewed, it is what I would term as a ‘thunderegg’ cafe. Presumably, and unimaginably, named for its street address, Cafe 21 is encased within dark tint windows, non-descript black on brown signage, and as the door slides open the narrow entrance inside reveals nothing more than a cluttered waiting area and what appears to be a cakes cabinet and order counter. It is with mixed feelings I have attempted to explore inside several times before. Two long streams of waiting patrons, one stream at the order counter, and one stream in the waiting area, suggested to me that this was a really popular place, and at the same time suggesting that Cafe 21 was seriously understaffed.

I got as far as the open door and never ventured further. Until recently.

Imagine my surprise when – on this particular Saturday morning – I found that when you continue past the narrow entrance and beyond the order counter, the cafe opens into a generous, if not bland 1970’s kitsch inspired, seating area. I was getting happier.

Cafe 21 presents and operates as a typical Darwin cafe. Collect the menu at the order counter on the way through and find yourself an undersized table cluttered with salt and pepper shakers, sugar sachets and serviette dispensers, and then return to the counter to order and pay – hoping the table is taken while away. Collect a filthy, cracked and torn plastic number on a chrome stand and add that to the cluttered table top. And wait.

I have read mixed reports on the wait times at Cafe 21, and likewise staff attitudes, however on this occasion I only had to wait a short amount of time before my Eggs Benedict, with the promise of ham on the bone (should that be ‘off the bone’?), was served by the happiest of servers and room was found somewhere on the table.

Usually my first try out of a new cafe is to try a simple egg dish, if I can. I always ask for the hollandaise sauce to be served on the side so that I can add as much – or as little – as I want so as to not drown out the flavour of the eggs, and in this instance, the ham and muffin. The aroma from the simple serving was awesome. The soft poached eggs were wobbling on a generous helping of slightly warmed ham that had – true to promise – been cut from leg ham. Interestingly, when the supermarket delicatessen sells ‘ham off the bone’ as square slab slices, and the cafe also somewhat resembles a delicatessen, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The muffin was fresh and lightly toasted, and a quick throw of fresh dill topped off the eggs. The menu also promised house made hollandaise, and my goodness, did it taste good! It was the first hollandaise that I had sampled within 18 months that didn’t make me recoil from an initial hit of vinegar. I may be wrong, but I would guess that the acidulant on this occasion was simply lemon juice. Every ingredient shone by itself. And when combined, the meal was truly spectacular. The cleaned plate was then promptly collected by the same happy server, rather than being left on the table until departed.

Honestly, the food presented and the table service was totally incongruous with the bland surroundings. A tactic to allow good service to shine and fresh, tasty food pop off the plate? Who knows…

Sadly, the skinny flat white coffee that accompanied the meal didn’t shine so bright. It was – at the best – mediocre. Another shot of coffee would have made it better. This is rather unfortunate as signage on the salad bar counter made a big deal about Cafe 21 having their own signature coffee blend. I certainly was expecting something better.

Another surprise was the overall meal cost. Located in a prime commercial location, I was expecting higher than average pricing, however I am pleased to say that the menu pricing was on par with some of the more reasonably priced cafes around town – something I could not have predicted.

Put simply, the experience can be summed up as a generously sized meal made with fresh, top notch quality ingredients, at a reasonable price and served with a smile and without fuss. All of this within an unassuming shop front that you would easily walk past.

As Dr. Frank N. Furter once said; ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’.

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