Tumble into a secret cafe for addictive cakes with story-book names like “White Rabbit” and “Queen of Hearts.”
Can you detect the shift from summer to autumn? It’s in the wind. It changes from imperceptible rustles to sniffling flurries, and just before winter, blustering gusts. The wind calls to the trees, who answer by aging to rusty browns and fiery reds. As the seasons move, one also wishes, no, yearns, for a change of scene. A little adventure. Please. Let us tell you one. Not very far from home. Anyone who is a true Melbournian knows that the best things in Melbourne are hidden — in laneways, underground, rooftops. Enter Port Phillip Arcade however, and it is hardly the sort of place you would think that there are hidden treasures at all. You will see a cake decorating store that is the first-stop for many bakers and just across, a cluttered den for the dedicated philatelist or coin collector. Someone ought to enter these two stores as the perfect contenders for a “clean up your obsessive compulsive hoarding disorder” television show. You will also see a strip of canteen food joints stuffed full of bain maries of ethnic cuisine and a strangely-placed hairdresser/nail clipping service. You might entirely miss a relatively new bakery-cafe of the tiniest proportions.
On the outside, Alice Nivens’ shuttered frontage is reminiscent of primary school canteens. There’s a sun-lit, faux vine terrace made for dreaming. Stepping inside, the cafe is a hoarding photographer’s wonderland. There are so many little things to enchant at Alice Nivens. There’s a bright wall mural that elicits a range of responses — do you see a monstrous decapitated head spitting a black pool at a vulnerable little girl cowering under an umbrella? Or do you see a modern depiction of a shrinking Alice? In any case, it is certainly as captivating as the inverted teacup pendant lights that we simply must get for our reading room, the stack of dried tea leaves and rose buds in glass bottles, and the open cake kitchen. Let us not digress however, you simply cannot miss a glass cabinet holding a scrumptious array of baked goodies — brownies, marshmallows, macarons, muesli slices, cupcakes, muffins, and a fat cake. More home-style in looks and flavour than laboratory cake artisanship, they rotate flavours on a daily basis — a very clever move of the cafe owner or cake chef that guarantees the return visits of insatiable sweet-tooths such as these Dessert Correspondents.
When Alice Nivens opened its door in December 2012, it was not love at first sight for us. However, practice makes perfect. Having had the opportunity to sample a dangerously high number of goodies, we will feature the ones that you should look out for in the future. If you can’t decide from the array for baked beauties what to eat, eat cake. Eat cakes ($6.50 per slice). The “White Rabbit Cake” is perfect exquisiteness, one that we would probably designate as an Alice Nivens’ signature. It’s an airy, vanilla-toned, sweet white chocolate cake bisected with a thin line of berry preserve and cream, and dressed in a shaggy cloak of shredded coconut. Another favourite is the gluten-free “Queen of Hearts Cake,” which is less dense than most gluten-free cakes. It has a very smooth, very very rich chocolate fudge-like taste and texture. Both the “White Rabbit Cake” and the “Queen of Hearts Cake” make a frequent appearance. Look out for the return of a “Hummingbird Cake” — it was a melody of banana, pineapple, nuts and coconut. Look out also for the marbled “Cookie Dough Cake” — spoon-after-spoon of fabulousness without any overpowering richness, you feel very contented, but hardly sinful. It just returned last week, in time for an associated Dessert Correspondent’s quick drop-by. We have yet to catch our little hands on the “Red Velvet” and “Chocolate Beetroot” cakes.
Are you soooo very exasperated with dehydrated tragedies found in sooooo many Melbourne cupcakeries? Apart from Little Cupcakes and Babycakes, say hello to Alice Nivens’ cupcakes. Made daily in small batches, the cupcakes are consistently cushion-y soft and well-flavoured, usually with a hidden center surprise too. Pictured below are three of several flavours that we have tried: the “Peanut Butter & Jelly” ($4.50) features a heart of strawberry jam and a wig of velvety peanut butter; the very cute “Vanilla and Pineapple” ($4.50) is a pillowy vanilla cake with a pureed pineapple center, detracted somewhat by the slightly plastic-tasting icing; and embellished with tiny clover fondant flowers in celebration of St Patrick’s Day, the “Irish Whiskey Cupcake” ($4.50) encloses a centre of titillating chocolate-whiskey ganache. A colleague has recommended that we return for the “Strawberry Cupcake” in its various disgises too.
Macarons at Alice Nivens are somewhat crunchy and dry, though they are true to their flavour label. Cakes remain the cafe’s forte. Pictured below are the “Jam Doughnut” and the “Hazelnut” macarons.
Alongisde Lewis Carroll’s Alice book exhibition at the State Library this blowsy autumn, complete the tumble into wonderland by visiting Alice Nivens cafe. There may indeed, be many places in the CBD to fulfill the need for good coffee and lunch. But, for good coffee and addictive cakes — for morning treats, afternoon nibbles or a cheeky replacement lunch — as well as a delightful burst of chirpy service, tell us a better proposition than Alice Nivens that will leave us grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Alice Nivens Cafe, Port Phillip Arcade, 228 Flinders Street, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000.
- ☑ Budget: $.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Cake.
- ☑ Must-eat: The “Queen of Hearts” and the “White Rabbit” cakes.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Tumble into a secret laneway cafe for sweet things and addictive cakes with story-book names like “White Rabbit” and “Queen of Hearts.”