monk bodhi dharma
Most of the time, when I hear the name of a café, all I think is, “Okay,” and then start to wonder what is on their menu.
Sometimes, I’ll hear it and then think, “Oh, that’s a good name!” and then start to wonder why nobody else had thought to name their café that same name until now.
And less often, I’ll hear the name of a café and immediately sense that there must be an underlying story to tell – that there must be more to the café’s name than merely the need for an official title – and I’ll find myself wanting to know and understand that story as soon as possible.
Balaclava’s Monk Bodhi Dharma is a fine example of such a café.
When I first heard about it, I immediately wondered who this monk was – whether he was perhaps the café’s founder – and therefore, what sort of food he wanted his patrons to eat. I pictured a stereotypical monk: Probably Asian; short; a little round; with flushed cheeks and a kind face and tangerine- coloured, floor- length robe. I imagined the café to be a dark and dimly- lit establishment that served meals similar to what I’d eaten before at Buddhist temples: Tofu, glass noodles, Chinese broccoli and shiitake mushrooms. And then I remembered that this place, this Monk Bodhi Dharma, served coffee. I pictured a monk dressed in robes, standing at a coffee machine and making lattes and flat whites, and I became mystified and intrigued all over again.
It turns out that Bodhi Dharma was a fifth- century monk. As legend has it, he aimed to meditate for nine years, but fell asleep for the last two. When he awoke, he was so angry at himself for having fallen asleep that he cut off his own eyelids so that he could never fall asleep again. Where his eyelids fell to the ground, the first tea plants allegedly grew, and inadvertently, Monk Bodhi Dharma became the father of caffeinated beverages.
It’s an appropriate name for a café that roasts its own directly- traded, seasonal coffee in- house and boasts one of Melbourne’s first – and still one of its only – specialty tea menus. So serious is owner Marwin Shaw about his caffeine that, despite having been open for almost six years now, he still comes in almost every morning to roast the coffee beans.
In a very monk- like fashion, Marwin is also very serious about helping others: The café is dedicated to holding at least two to three different charity events each year. On International Peace Day last September, Monk Bodhi Dharma donated all of the proceeds from its dinner event to Nepalese earthquake sufferers.
It goes without saying, of course, that he’s also very serious about his food.
For all of the avocado lovers out there (which is just about everybody, am I right?), Monk’s version comes as crunchy organic sourdough toast that is topped with a generous serving of smashed avo, fresh chilli, mint leaves, a wedge of lemon and your choice of regular or almond fetta.
Yes, you read that correctly: You can choose to have your breakfast topped with a fetta cheese that is made from almonds. It. Is. Divine.
Another signature dish of Monk’s is the Umami Mushrooms. An exotic medley of mushrooms is cooked to perfection and then tossed in an unbelievably creamy – and slightly herbaceous – goats’ cheese, drizzled with red chilli oil and then sat atop a house- made pumpkin and polenta bread that can only be described as next- level. Full of flavour and unlike anything I’ve ever tasted anywhere else, this dish is a must- try.
My personal go- to item on the menu, however, is the pancake dish. A short stack of fluffy pancakes (fluffiness is a real feat when it comes to gluten- free and vegan pancakes, as anybody who’s attempted to make them will attest) made of buckwheat and apple sit modestly beside a flavour- packed raw cinnamon ice- cream and beneath a luscious vanilla bean whipped cashew cream. It comes with dehydrated apple chips and a small bottle of maple syrup.
The almond milk coffees here are incomparable, too. The house- made almond milk contains a never- before- seen 42% almond content (most milks contain around 8%) which results in an almost- thick, very drinkable beverage.
The menu is almost entirely gluten- free (which is good news for gluten-intolerant folk like myself) and all items are modifiable to become vegan, if they aren't already. Each item is abundant with “flaveness”, too (which is Marwin’s way of saying “full of flavour and wellness”).
Monk Bodhi Dharma also does dinner. Held just one night a month, the dinners are usually of the dozen- course degustation sort and are entirely free of refined sugar, gluten, garlic and onion, and are also vegan. If you think you’ll leave hungry or dissatisfied, think again: I was stunned silent by the quality and taste of each course, and have never experienced a more generous degustation in my life. Upon taking the first bite of the first course, I mentally vowed to return every month thereafter.
It may all seem very “now”, but six years ago, when the establishment first opened its doors, things were very different. Today’s buzz words (vegetarian, raw, vegan, gluten- free) were considered weird and polarising back then, and when Marwin announced to his friends and family that he wanted to take his love of healthy, healing food and coffee one step further by opening his own wholefood wellness café, the response was both sceptical as well as foreboding.
The location didn’t support his case, either. Situated very inconspicuously in a quiet area behind the local supermarket, Marwin took one look at the small building and could see its potential – even when others weren’t so easily persuaded. Undeterred, he had the space gutted and refit, and now, several years on, Monk Bodhi Dharma has become somewhat of an institution. Part of its undeniable appeal is its hidden, secret-like nature.
Unlike the temple- esque décor I had initially imagined, Monk is instead warm, earthy and humble. It’s easy to forget that bustling traffic is only metres away. Fresh flowers sit on the tables and heavy wooden stools perch on the smooth concrete floor. Milk crates sit by the front door and act as makeshift chairs. Music plays quietly in the background while relaxed and happy staff members talk, laugh and dance. The mood is informal, uncontrived and authentic. The service is always friendly – here is a place you’ll actually get eye contact and conversation.
It’s a place I’ll never tire of visiting. It does incredible food and coffee in a very special setting and is one- of- a- kind. The service and “flaveness” of the food are just added bonuses. I’ll be the one sitting in the corner; creamy almond flat white in one hand and forkful of pancakes in the other. I’ll see you there.
Monk Bodhi Dharma is located at 202 Carlisle Street, Balaclava, Vic 3183.
This piece was originally written for, and published on TravelStaytion's blog, www.theinspireedition.com