Vegies with a View

Soulmama, Shop 10-12,10 Jacka Boulevard St Kilda, 9593 6470, 9525 3338

It can be tough for brave restaurants bringing new concepts to Melbourne. A cafe asking diners to pay only what they thought the meal was worth raised suspicion while a Southgate restaurateur's experiments with charging for breakfast by the minute rather than by the dish were shortlived.

Now along comes Soulmama, a vegetarian canteen on the St Kilda foreshore where there is table service for drinks but you fetch your own cutlery, water and tucker. The concept is an extension of the bainmarie service of places such as Hawthorn's Nelayan or Glenhuntly's Indo Sari, where quick turnover ensures ever-changing choice.

The difference is that here you'll first need to nab a waitress who'll give you a meal ticket with your table number on it. You hand this over when ordering food so they can run you a bill. It's a bit confusing at first.

Soulmama is the brainchild of Paul Mathis, best known for launching funky, large-scale cafes including Automatic and Blue Train. Once again he's picked a stunning location, sprawling across the first-floor corner of the St Kilda Sea Baths development with enough open-air decking to double the capacity to a hefty 250. There are 180-degree views of the water and the foreshore. The interior, designed by Wayne Finschi, is casual, with simple wooden furniture and carpet tiles lifted by chic little touches such as dry stone feature walls of small stacked granite cobbles, angled marble slabs replacing basins in the bathrooms and a fencedoff lounge area with an open fire.

The style reaches the food counter, with the option of having each of your choices served in smart, individual white square bowls spread on a stylishly aged wooden tray - you pay by the bowl or by the plate size. Even the bainmaries are lined with those river pebbles much loved by Backyard Blitz gardeners. Hot food is served in a rainbow of Le Creuset pots and pans rather than stainless steel troughs. On one side the hot stuff, on the other salads.

The service is perky and Soulmama has one of the most extensive drinks lists in town, from cocktails and organic beer or wine to a range of green and Indian ayurvedic teas. Perhaps most surprising - given that we can't think of anyone else who's done it in coffeeobsessed Melbourne - is the choice of brands: Gravity, Genovese or Fuel.

It's a very impressive package. What a shame, then, that the downside on this visit was the food. The handwritten cards by each dish read well enough; casseroles such as mushroom, miso, red bean and eggplant or a sweetish stew of Moroccan chickpeas. But the puree of Jerusalem artichoke tastes more of potato and the arancini are average. All dishes come with couscous or rice.

Better are little pigeon'' pies of turtle bean and mushroom, and the salads. It's a smart move to combine beetroot with coriander, spiced pear with radicchio and Milawa blue cheese, or smoky quarters of artichoke with green lentils and onions, but it is let down by faults such as browning cheese and dry, chalky lentils. However, others have been more impressed by the food here.

Consistently good food was behind Blue Train being one of the best large-scale cafes in the Western world. At Soulmama the view, the room and the service are all better, but they deserve food to match. Knowing what a smart operator Mathis is, surely that is only a matter of time - and a visit or two to Wild Rice, Blaze or Lakshmi Vilas.


: Shop 10-12,10 Jacka Boulevard St Kilda, 9593 6470, 9525 3338


: Mon-Thurs 11am-11pm; Fri-Sun 8am-11pm


: small plate $9, medium plate $13, large plate $17, two bowls $10, three bowls $14, four bowls $18


: AE BC MC V eftpos

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