Alexandra Pyke was never that interested in vegan food. That is, until she realised it could also be tasty.
“I first got excited about plant-based food about nine years ago, when I visited a place called Cafe Gratitude in Los Angeles. I was just amazed at what you could do with an avocado and cashew cream – and you could also have a glass of wine there!” she laughs. “It really changed my perspective of what healthy eating was. It sort of generated a love of plant-based food, because you’re not sacrificing taste for flavour and you don’t have to limit yourself.”
For the past 11 years, Pyke has been living overseas, primarily in New York, where she was a partner in restaurants and cafes such as The Fat Radish (which helped pioneer a cool, downtown farm-to-table movement) and The Butcher’s Daughter (a popular, “sceney” health food cafe in Nolita). Pyke returned to Australia last year and wanted to open something similar.
“When I came back to Melbourne, it was the natural conclusion for me to create something that didn’t exist here,” she says. “I live on St Kilda Road and my office is on St Kilda Road, and I saw that there were a lot of people here but there wasn’t a lot of good food to eat — particularly fun, healthy food.”
The Alley, Pyke’s new cafe that opened at the beginning of April, is exactly that: equal parts fun, healthy and indulgent. Although the menu is all plant-based and vegan, the idea is to cater to anyone who wants to eat healthy, and to prove that eating plants and vegetables can be just as satisfying as eating meat.
Need proof? Here are some of the items you’ll find on The Alley’s menu.
Maple Bacon Burger
“The Maple Bacon Burger is probably our best-seller,” says Pyke. “In fact, it is our best-seller.” The patty of this all-vegan burger is made from portobello mushroom, sweet potato and adzuki beans. It’s then topped with a strip of coconut “bacon” – a personal favourite of Pyke’s. “We used to cook it all the time … and I would always make sure that there weren’t any leftovers.” All of this is assembled in a vegan brioche bun, which looks like it has an egg wash, but doesn’t. “Whether it’s plant-based or whether it’s meat, [this burger] proves that you honestly can’t tell the difference,” says Pyke.
MiSo Hungry Burger
One of the most important things to Pyke when she opened The Alley was that she didn’t want anything to be made off-site. The Mi_So Hungry Burger is a direct result of this mandate: quite simply, it is a thick and juicy slice of eggplant. Although it’s been crumbed, it’s otherwise made to be “enjoyed in its most natural form.” Like the Maple Bacon Burger, its eggplant sibling comes in a vegan brioche bun, and is additionally layered with two types of dressing: a cucumber and umeboshi slaw and a tomato-miso ketchup. It’s also stacked with lettuce, tomato, onion and vegan butter (“just like all of our burgers”).
Signature Macro Bowl
For Pyke, the macrobiotic bowl is one of the more personal items on the menu. “I learned all about macrobiotic eating from my business partner’s late father in New York,” says Pyke. “About all of its benefits to internal health, and just keeping everything in balance.” The macro bowl at The Alley is the same one that was a menu staple at The Fat Radish in Manhattan. There are many variations on a macro bowl based on principles of balancing a certain amount of beans, proteins and pickled or fermented vegetables. This one uses a quinoa base, piled with sautéed kale, roasted sweet potato, carrot ribbons, adzuki beans, sesame seeds, crunchy nori flakes, pickled vegetables and topped off with a turmeric-tahini dressing. They talk about eating the rainbow – this colourful bowl takes it literally.
Mexican Taco Bowl
This is Pyke’s go-to. The “chorizo” in this dish is made from a combination of black beans and a gluten-free vegan protein. “We wanted to steer away from seitan [a commonly-used vegan protein substitute] as it has a lot of gluten in it,” says Pyke. “So we looked around and we found a vegan protein that’s entirely gluten-free.” Cherry tomatoes, crispy tortilla strips, salsa fresca, lime and a coconut-yoghurt dressing round out the bowl.
Key Lime Pie
Another of Pyke’s favourites is the key lime pie. “This is one of the desserts I had nine years ago at Cafe Gratitude, and it was one of the dishes that was responsible for changing my mind about healthy eating,” says Pyke. “That’s exactly why you open a restaurant – because you want to share personal dishes that you’ve had or have made and that mean something to you.” As much as this key lime pie is decadent, it’s also healthier than it sounds, made only of avocado, cashew-coconut cream and lime.
The most popular smoothie at The Alley is the peanut butter cup (peanut butter, banana, pea protein, cinnamon, and a mixture of almond and coconut milks) but Pyke’s personal favourite is called My Little Brother’s Protein Smoothie. “It’s the same recipe I used to have every day in New York.” The prized family recipe includes banana, avocado, kale, pea protein, activated chia seeds, maca, sea salt and almond butter with an almond milk base.
Fries, Two Ways
There are two types of fries at The Alley, and both of them aren’t actually fried. “We have a TurboChef oven from New York,” says Pyke. “It [reaches] an extreme temperature, so you can put it in there for a few minutes and it comes out crispy without deep frying it. It took us a while to get that texture, but we played around and we’ve managed to get it just right.” Depending on your preference, you can either opt for classic potato fries with herb salt, or air-baked potato wedges with “parmesan cheese” made from almonds and a sprinkle of crispy kale pieces.
417 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Mon to Fri 8am–7pm
This article was updated on April 24, 2017.