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