It’s likely Melburnians are ready to call an end to our love affair with smashed avocado. It’s everywhere, and has been for a long time. But what if it wasn’t smashed? What if it was thinly sliced, spread out like a fan on a slice of light, slightly sweet mealie bread (South African cornbread), topped with wattleseed dukkah and served with a spicy fruit chutney? That’s how it’s done at Tennyson, where African cuisine meets native Australian ingredients in a double shopfront just a short walk from Elwood beach.

The cultural component isn’t overwhelming. Tennyson is not an African cafe. “Melbourne is a melting pot,” says Zimbabwe-born Nesbert Kagonda, who co-owns the cafe with his two friend’s fathers, Rory Walker and Danny Pitham. “Cultural pluralism means we live side by side and need to work together. That’s what I wanted to see on the menu.”

Kagonda worked with chef Lubna Bahashwan (ex-Pillar of Salt), visiting local markets in Prahran, South Melbourne and Springvale to see if there were any culinary triggers from his childhood. “I remembered plantain and papaya, but I couldn’t see a lot of the things I remembered,” Kagonda says. “So I asked mum and dad for some recipes.”

Guava overnight oats with pickled plum and coconut is inspired by Kagonda’s childhood, when his mother would make a porridge dish using guavas from his back garden at home. Another dish redolent of his African roots is baked eggs with chakalaka, a spicy South African tomato, bean and vegetable relish, which comes with marinated feta and flatbread. There’s also a Jamaican fried chicken burger with pineapple and fiery hot sauce, and a vegan rice bowl with sweet potato, capsicum, eggplant, ochre and tempeh.

Formerly Altomonte Speciality Coffee, the 30-seat cafe features exposed-brick walls; pale green leather banquettes; a wooden-topped, white tiled bar; and a plethora of hanging and wall-mounted plants. But it isn’t the decor that sets Tennyson apart from other eateries in the area. In addition to the pan-African menu, Kagonda is obsessed with coffee. On holiday in Chiang Mai, Thailand, he came across the pioneering – and Instagram famous – Graph Cafe, known for its inventive coffee concoctions. He tried the Monochrome, a combination of espresso, vanilla, activated charcoal and milk, and was hooked.

Back in Melbourne a year later, Kagonda began collaborating with Graph, bringing their cold-brew coffee to Melbourne and putting a plan in place to host each other’s baristas for short stints to experience the coffee culture of other cities.

The team here uses single-origin Ethiopian beans from Hallelujah Coffee, a one-man band (Lucas Spronson) operating out of Moorabbin. There are six cold brews, including the No. 18 (coffee with orange and lime) and the signature Lost Garden, which looks like a cocktail with its mousse-like crema topped with shards of dried rose petals. The coffee is infused with rose water and rose syrup to produce a silky, clean and floral flavour. Spronson supplies a blend from Colombia, Nicaragua and Brazil for hot coffee.

Tennyson is also open at night on weekends offering small share plates and a wine list that focuses on small batch, low-intervention drops.

156–158 Tennyson Street, Elwood
(03) 9041 3399

Mon to Thu 6.30am–4pm
Fri 6.30am–9pm
Sat 7am–9pm
Sun 7am–4pm

This article was first published on March 18, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.