Saga in Enmore isn’t just named after a pair of sneakers that Andrew Bowden (aka Andy Bowdy) bought for nearly a grand (blame shipping costs and unfriendly exchange rates for that eyebrow-raising price). It’s also a tribute to the many chapters of his life spent with partner Maddison Howes – they met at Hartsyard, where she was restaurant manager and he produced over 10,000 Peanut Butter and Banana Sundaes in his three-year stint in the kitchen as pastry chef (that number isn’t PR-rigged hype, by the way, I’ve seen the legit receipt tallies for this). The cafe is “about me and Maddison and our story and what we like to eat”, he says. The fact Andy’s cakes happen to be character studies in sugar and torched meringue is another boost to the Saga name (his Milo-mousse and choc-fudge Jasper is a tribute to his brother; while the raspberry mousse, baked cheesecake and candied hazelnut Tony is named after Andy’s dad, who has a funny habit of buying berries out of season and has been guilty of stowing $14 punnets in his fridge; their visits to The Cheesecake Factory and the fact Tony “wears some very suspect-coloured shirts” are other personality traits baked into this ultra-pink cake).
Plus, “there’s the joke that it’s been one long saga trying to get this place open”, says Andy, referring to initial hopes that the cafe would be launched by November 2016. The five-month delay could be pinned on tradie-wrangling and the kind of plumbing dilemmas that inspire bouts of inventive swearing; the upside to this wait is that there’s been long-fermenting interest in Saga.
So when the cafe – Andy and Maddison’s first solo venture – opened last Friday, tables started to fill from 8am and the pastry counters were cleared long before closing time. (Don’t let that dissuade you from coming here, though. I, too, was wary that it could be overcrowded and impossible to claim a seat, but I’ve been four times in the first week and the only significant wait I noticed was for a party of six – not surprising for a slim Tetris block of a venue with room for just 30 people; go in a pair and you should be fine.)
Another silver lining to Saga’s hold-up: Andy’s had a while to think about the menu and it’s no rushed affair or auto-fill-in clone of every other cafe around town. Rejoice – there are no clichés, like smoothie bowls or eggs benny. Avocado is left unsmashed and safeguarded from toast. This is, thankfully, an açaí-free zone. Yes, there’s granola – but it’s no saintly mulch you have to talk yourself into “appreciating”. At Saga, it’s appealingly built from Anzac biscuit shards, which sit on a pool of white peach jam, fresh peach slices and white peach scored with grill-marks then oven-roasted. It’s shot with airy yoghurt from a cream gun, and sprinkled with rosemary. It’s like a loose millefeuille remix of granola and you need no convincing that it’s way better than the default version. (It’s also an excellent year-round excuse for enjoying Anzac biscuits.)
Saga’s menu is the type that makes you keep applying the handbrakes, because you’re constantly having to stop, reconsider your original decisions and contemplate detouring – thanks to sightings of other dishes that you’re equally adrenalised by. It’s not that the menu is massive, but it has good range. I love the Corn Pudding ($17.50), which centres on a caramelised corn custard that’s hidden under a lot of geological rubble – trails of cornbread crumb and spelt that’s been cooked off in corn stock, shavings of pecorino, pickled celery and a poached egg (because brunch). There’s Breakfast Rice ($18.50), aka “fried fried rice”, which began as an early-morning riff on paella, then started to trespass into fried-rice territory as Andy kept pan-crisping everything in the dish (“I fry the living bejesus out of it”) to get the crusty effect that’s “the best part of paella”.
It’s also designed to be a super weapon against hangovers – a battle plan for those classic grease cravings by sending bacon, eggs and sausages into a frypan. The chorizo is also glazed in Pedro Ximénez and served with aioli, romesco, greens and puffed rice for bonus crunch. Will was always in the highest at-risk group for liking this – given his unreformed love of fried rice – and it’s no surprise that it’s a) the first thing he orders and b) quickly becomes something he loves.
There’s also Goat’s Curd on Honey Spelt Toast ($14.50), topped with blood plum and ginger-pickled grapes – the sculptural and abstract fruit discs resembling something you’d see at a MoMA exhibit. Plus, you can get an English Muffin ($12) served with a not-so-classic gribiche that resembles a chopped egg salad. Andy makes the muffins himself (he’s well-practiced from all the Oyster Po’ Boys that were cranked out of Hartsyard’s kitchen) and serves this with an optional grilled Christmas Ham ($6). And yes, it’s the same type that he makes for the holidays.
“That’s where we got the idea from,” says Maddison. “Why don’t we have Christmas ham all year round? Christmas ham is the best ham.”
Andy, by the way, is optimistically (incorrectly?) convinced of Christmas ham’s supposed health properties.
“It’s definitely something that personal trainers recommend you have for breakfast and lunch,” he says with a straight-ish face.
Another menu cliché that he flips is banana bread (“which is done to death”) – the alternative he’s created is a Pumpkin Bread ($12.50) that’s stuffed full of pepitas and presented with poached pear and crème fraîche. I suggest that the seedy pumpkin bread sounds vaguely healthy.
“It is healthy until you watch how much butter I put into it,” he says.
Perhaps the most “typical” breakfast dish at Saga is the Mushrooms On Toast ($18) – and even then, it’s conveyed three ways (roasted, pickled and caramelised) with a big dollop of mayo and fresh herbs. It’s the next order I’m going to make.
Given that Andy has outed himself as a sandwich diehard, it’s not surprising that sambos rule the lunch menu. There’s the Philly Morgs ($17), a tribute to a former Hartsyard colleague and his butchery skills. It’s porchetta with a “fennel-y stuffing – as opposed to the rosemary/oregano vibe”, kale and and a warm vinaigrette warm that’s headlined with bacon bits.
Andy also salutes his old boss, Hartsyard bigwig Gregory Llewellyn ($16), with a sambo that I described in Good Food as “a four-meat sandwich that’s an Italian deli section squeezed between bread” (those cuts of sopressa, mortadella, coppa and smoked ham are wedged in with provolone, iceberg lettuce and pickled peppers).
When Andy left Hartsyard in mid-2015 to go solo – to focus on making his bespoke blockbuster cakes – he took up residency at Gelato Messina’s kitchen in Rosebery (his then landlords jokingly called him a “dirty wizard” that they couldn’t evict). So I guess it’s a callback to this time – and his friendships with Messina staff – that’s getting repped in his Donny ($17) and Alex B ($16) sandwiches. The Donny is chicken parmigiana in portable form, made with a schnitty that’s got a “really herbaceous crumb”, a rich tomato sauce, parmesan custard, a double dose of mozzarella (grated and buffalo), plus basil pesto. Alex B is the vegetarian version, made with an eggplant schnitzel and it is excellent (although do not wear a nice shirt while consuming it, unless ballistic passata splatters and cheese ooze are things you like hitting you, paintball-style).
Speaking of sambos and carbs, they rank highly on the data set of Things You Should Get From Saga. Especially the Broccoli and Parmesan Focaccia ($6.50). It’s studded with charred broccoli, crusty melted cheese and also a hidden (but well-deployed) arsenal of garlic. It’s so, so good. Like your dream-sequence version of the best thing you could get from Baker’s Delight.
Andy has worked as a chef for a decade – and while he’s gained 50,000+ followers on Instagram for his sugar-laced spectaculars – his savoury game is pretty strong. He would sometimes run between the pastry section and the grill at Hartsyard. And he’s worked all over the kitchen since his early days questioning why you’d have to wash lettuce (‘cos surely it comes in a bag? he wondered at his first job in London). In fact, a lot of the standouts here are the savoury dishes.
But given his fame as a pastry chef, it’s totally cool if you’re just here to chase your sweet tooth. Plus, you are fully authorised to order dessert with breakfast at Saga.
Here, Andy’s taken his multi-tiered blockbuster cakes – which are so big, two over-cautious people are required to slowly carry them, one at a time – and he’s zapped them down into mini portions. So, you can get Jasper, Tony, Matt (matcha mousse with yuzu jam and toasted coconut cream) and Grace (cheesecake cross-bred with carrot cake, fortified by salted caramel mousse, ginger cookie and freeze-fried mandarin) – all rescaled into no-need-to-share servings for one ($15 each). There are also Pear Bourbon Turnovers ($8.50), Banana Cream Pies ($8.50), Pineapple Coconut Tarts ($8.50), ShooFly Pies ($8.50), Salted Honey Tarts ($8.50) and Tiramisu originally meant to come in two sizes: “Enough” and “Fat F—“, which has since been made available in less controversial portion servings.
You would be wise to use your table as a loading dock for the many available desserts – which can include offbeat specials, such as a Strawberry and Celery Tart.
One particular pastry is inspired by seeing a 90-something Adelaide chef demonstrate classic Italian pastries at Dust’s bakery at Harold Park’s Tramsheds. One of the baker’s biscuits was made from cake scraps – so, accordingly, Andy has taken offcuts from his own vanilla and cocoa nib cakes and blitzed them into a paste that he’s piping into the bottom of Pecan Pie Paris-Brest ($9), which come with salted caramel chantilly, choux pastry and brown sugar pecans.
This sweet-tooth-sating recycling scheme is also repeated in the drinks section, with a thickshake made of chocolate cake, cherry and coconut whip. Other beverages include a lovely Nectarine Soda ($6), Raspberry Lemonade ($6), Tea Craft brews and coffee by Artificer (long-time allies that have collaborated with Andy Bowdy on dessert pop-ups previously).
Maddison’s been deputised to look after the booze section, which includes a hilariously upfront beer offering – Cheap Tinnie ($6) or Fancy Tinnie ($9), take your pick – as well as house wines and breakfast cocktails, like Nectarine and Prosecco ($14), OJ with Campari ($14), Coffee with Amaro and Soda ($15). You can also get an alco hit from the shakes, which feature a Salted Caramel and Bourbon ($9) flavour.
And while Asics Gel Saga sneakers didn’t land full naming rights to this Enmore Road venue, the shoes score pin-up status in the bathroom (or they will, once photos of the kicks comes back from the framers). Originally, Andy considered naming the cafe Flamingos (“because they’re my favourite pair of Asics”); and sure, that would’ve sounded better than Gel Lite III or Air Max One, but he incorporated only the shoes’ pink colour scheme into the venue instead. Speaking of interiors, credit for the design goes to Smith & Carmody – the studio behind Chippendale’s Brickfields (the bakery responsible for part of Saga’s bread supply), Marrickville’s Cornersmith and Rosebery’s Black Star Pastry. The exposed timber joinery is by Porter & Maple – who are total guns, working over Christmas to assemble the fittings that lace throughout the cafe.
Of course, the most photogenic items in the cafe are the rock-star cakes. And while I could spill 1000 more words describing all the other pastries (like the Apricot and Coconut Galettes, which Andy claims to be his favourite), you should go yourself and conduct heavy test-research to determine your own faves – create your own adventure here. Or should that be saga?