“Who are you?” enquires the Caterpillar in Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, Sir,” Alice confesses in a perplexing tone. “Because I’m not myself, you know?” The Caterpillar inhales scented smoke from his hookah before heaving it from his lungs in a barrel towards Alice. “I do not know”, he declares. “Who are you?”
It’s a roundabout of riddles when Alice speaks to the Caterpillar, almost like the start of my visit to The Hatter & The Hare in Melbourne’s east. Once my meal – suitably named Caterpillar’s Riddle – arrives in front of me, the mystery evaporates and curiosity is cured; just like the Caterpillar’s hookah halos. One riddle is solved (which we’ll get to), but a couple more linger like ‘how on earth does a ‘160-seat foodie haven’ come to arrive in the industrial suburb of Bayswater? And, ‘how is The Hatter & The Hare packed by early lunchtime on a sunny winter’s afternoon and I have to wait patiently for a table to open up?’, or even ‘how does a smattering of vegan options magically appear as I turn the pages of the café’s clipboard menu?’
The Hatter & The Hare is only a couple of kilometres from my home. Yet, it’s like barrelling down the rabbit hole and being spat out into a tea party inspired wonderland of colourful furnishings matched with gloriously crafted food across two kitchens (the main kitchen in the back and open patisserie out front). The Hatter & The Hare is fashioned by pastel-painted colours, gorgeous trimmings and seating; even the quaint lime-coloured fold-up table my husband and I are seated at (complete with slat chairs) is positioned snugly by the tall and sprawling window flooded in sunlight. I’m in full view of the outdoor patio where brunching guests paw over weekend papers, and veggies in potting boxes soar with green shrubs and herbs. It’s cosy and communal here, in this winter wonderland.
Now, back to the curiously tasty food. Aside from carefully crafted and gleaming high-tea sweet treats in the front cabinet that greet and schmooze guests as they arrive (ample Mad Hatter’s tea party fare, let me tell you!), there’s a mid-winter menu to bring unexpected flavours and warmth to the table. I am coaxed by a heading marked ‘Eat Me’ and I find exactly what my winter appetite is calling out for. I read over the description to the vegan dish Caterpillar’s Riddle but there’s no gluten-free abbreviation in sight. So, I wonder: ‘Are you gluten free, too? Because you read like you are!’ Not long before my question seeps to the surface of my mind, the table is visited by a friendly waitress who can help me make sense of the riddle. “Let me check for you,” she offers with a grin and initiative. Moments pass and she’s back. “Yes, it is!”
After a while from ordering, Caterpillar’s Riddle emerges from the depths of the kitchen and onto the tabletop, gleaming in the sun. From the first spoonful of rich and hearty mushroom broth, I know this is a dish that will sing to my winter comfort-food heart. The broth is the moat where fluorescent green peas float like buoys, feeding the slab of root vegetable polenta standing solid in the middle of the rotund bowl-plate and towered by more roasted parsnip spears and sautéed mushroom rounds, garnished by green and purple beetroot leaves and sprouts, and crispy, spindly enoki mushrooms. The colours bounce off the walls and surrounds, as if the colour green is the ribbon that ties everything at The Hatter & The Hare together – from the fresh walls and outside dining area, to the shiny pastries waiting to be devoured in their the cabinets and plants dotted around the dining space. I’m revived after I polish off this comforting dish, accentuating the culinary adventures to uncover here. Though, enough room needs to be left in the tum-tum to try a sweet afterwards.
Thankfully, The Hatter & The Hare has a few vegan cakes to choose from (think brownies, gorgeously iced carrot cake and dainty cupcakes), but there’s only one choice that’s also gluten-free. Not all is lost and one choice is all that’s needed to sample the fruits of the patisserie’s labours. My cherry ripe paddle pop is served to the table on its own saucer, complete with a glistening golden dessert spoon aside a warming cup of matcha latte with soy milk. Once the dessert spoon cracks the paddle pop’s chocolate casing open, there’s a blushing coconut filling found to feast on in between sips of matcha. For the finale, the glacé cherry sitting humbly on top is nibbled on as the last dregs of matcha are gulped down, finishing off this lazy lunch on a sweet high.
Riddles aside, The Hatter & The Hare is hosting its hearty and tasty food drenched in exquisite, sometimes unexpected, flavours, together with brilliant attention to customer service, not to mention baked sweets and sweet drinks to swoon over. These are all the makings for a fanciful tea party-like lunch that can be experienced in downtown Bayswater on a sunny day, in the hope that you stay as long as you willfully wish.
During Lewis Carroll’s infamous tea party, Alice asks White Rabbit: “How long does forever last?” to which he replies: “Sometimes, just one second.” Your mission as part of your invitation to try The Hatter & The Hare is to make forever last that little bit longer than one second. It’s oh-so-easy to do.
Looking for a fanciful foodie wonderland adventure with vegan options? Visit The Hatter & The Hare at 1/21 Scoresby Road Bayswater, Victoria Australia 3134. Phone: +613 9720 5230.
Hours: 7.00am to 4.00pm Monday to Friday, 8.00am to 4.00pm Saturday and Sunday. Kitchens close at 3.00pm and drinks station closes at 3.45pm.
Parking is limited so be sure to park at the Bayswater Hotel across the road and wander over. Or, take a train to Bayswater station (only a short walk away).
The Hatter & The Hare only accepts bookings for functions so get in early to secure a table, particularly on weekends.