An attempt to get out of the afternoon heat in Melbourne and wrap my hands around a cold beer landed me in front of an odd-looking establishment with a walkway-side counter and protruding box for a facade under the Westin Hotel. After a quick glance to ensure I didn't recognise any of the beers on the menu, I decided to give Caboose Canteen a go.
Apart from the foreign beer, the indoor environment and staff looked foreign. I thought I had stepped into a small cafe back in Brussels or Paris. While the friendly French-sounding waitress organised my orders, I took the opportunity to appraise my surroundings.
There were two concepts presented in Caboose Canteen that I could not adequately digest.
Firstly, there was nothing "caboose" about the place except for the logo with its double 'O' and key line stroke which reminded of the wheels of a caboose moving along the train track. For readers who are unfamiliar, a caboose is simply a rest cabin and work office for the crew located at the end of a freight train. This box car of wood or steel, often painted red, have become defunct by the 1990s.
The interior was a palette of dark and dim industrial from the exposed concrete and structural iron beams, mixed with touches of a retro-French cafe in the wooden wall panels and furniture. An interesting design concept was the glass box that extended into the pedestrian walkway of City Square, which can serve as a separate function area in addition to being part of the dining space with padded stools. The overall decor was perhaps inspired by elements of the old fashion railway and trips to France.
Secondly, I could not reason how this cafe/bar/eatery was an Aussie worker's canteen. It would make immediate sense if this was the Little Creatures' brewery in Fremantle or Mekong Vietnam down the road. Given the range of classic and contemporary European food and gourmet beers and wines served, and associated pricing. It would fit in as an upmarket "canteen" for professionals back in Brussels or Paris with very tight seating to encourage shorter meals and higher turnover of the tables. The outdoor bar and seating provided a more relaxed Aussie feel with views of Swanston Street from a distance while enjoying a meal and drink.
My French and Italian beers arrived with efficiency and courtesy, accompanied by frosty cold glasses. The Bière Gallia de Paris turned out to be a historic copy of a Parisian pale lager from 1890 that died out by the 1960s, now brewed in Czech Republic. This 'Pils' was blond, aromatic with a slight hint of bitterness. The Italian Birra Roma was inspired by Rome's cuisine to a deep golden with sweet scent of strong malt and a toasted smoked bitter aftertaste. These beers were meant to be enjoyed with equally richly flavoured food so I decided on the blackboard special of salted cod croquettes.
Once again, there was nothing "workers' canteen" about the dish that arrived, not in design, portion and certainly not in taste. The sharp, slight oily flavour of the cod was prominent without being overly fishy and perfectly wrapped in a paper-thin crispy skin. The croquettes were devine and the chef had delivered this popular French and Spanish food with exquisite skill.
I learned that Caboose Canteen was sister to the neighbouring eateries Three Below and La Vita Buona Wine Bar where I had well executed Western Victorian lamb cutlets that surpassed those of Little Press during the Look.Stop.Taste food festival. All three were owned by veterans in Australia's food and beverage industry, brothers Gerard and Michael Anderson who also imported the foreign beers.
As I prepared to depart, it dawned on me that Caboose Canteen is ideally located to pick up the all-day traffic along Collins Street, customers from the hotel, seasonal hordes from events like the Melbourne Spring Fashion Week at the City Square and folks who decide against the mediocre coffee at Starbucks and Brunetti which have an outlet in the same area. With its cult beer and exquisite cooking, I'll be back to try the rest of its European-inspired menu.