Oriel cafe

There are moments in life when one realises in an instant that the old order has changed forever. Walter Kronkite’s visceral, contained emotion, broadcast around the world when Neil Armstrong’s feet touched the surface of the moon was one such incandescent moment of change, which lit our imaginations and left us slack jawed in wonder. The world had shifted. There was no going back.

In a less dramatic way, food – not just any food, mind you – can, in an instant presage a seminal shift in how we approach the dining experience, even in the way we eat and our expectations for taste.

In its own way, Phil Sexton’s Oriel Café in Subiaco changed forever Perth’s dining paradigm; and one knew it the moment one crossed the threshold. Here was something new. In one fell swoop, Sexton added a new genus to the family of dining experiences.

In subsequent years, Oriel lost its shine, as its imitators overtook it and a succession of owners allowed it to slip into mediocrity. For fans of the Sexton magic, the disappointment of Oriel was palpable. Occasionally a new chef would bring zest back to the Oriel experience, but long term success and continuity of standards eluded many of the café’s subsequent owners.

Today, Oriel is a café much changed. It functions like a cafeteria. Service is minimal. In fact, so distant is the service, it’s virtually self-serve. On a recent visit, we were forced to prompt staff for virtually everything. “Please clear the plates”, after sitting staring at our congealing left overs for far too long; “Could we have some iced water”, when none was proffered; “Could we order another entrée”, as one was left inexplicably off the order.

This constant struggle for service is hard labour. It soon robs the meal of enjoyment.

And we weren’t the only ones. A couple next to us, no matter how hard they tried, couldn’t seem to have one half of their drinks order delivered. He sat there sipping his beer, while his wife waited, despite entreaties to various passing staff to deliver her mineral water. Eventually it came.

But here’s the rub. While Oriel’s food does not set out to scale the heights of haute, our two main courses were exceptional value for money.

My beef medallions with olive crust, charred vegetables and pistou sauce ($19.50) was well cooked. It wasn’t the apogee of steak cooking, but then it wasn’t a $26.00 main course either. In fact the two small medallions were deeply flavoursome (obviously well aged) and cooked perfectly rare. The vegetables were full of vigorous roasted flavours. The pistou – a Provencale version of Italy’s more famous pesto sauce – was not evident.

The other main course, barbequed squid with egg plant and tomato kasundi ($15.50), not a huge food cost item, represented fair value for money. It was good.

The cross-hatched squid tubes were admirably tender and were supported by a huge baton of char-grilled Turkish bread which, with the addition of the large scoop of kasundi (the condiment de jour in cooking circles), was almost a second meal in its own right.

It’s clear the kitchen is on the right track: delivering a grab bag of café favourites at good prices and with a modicum of flair.

A pineapple crumble with vanilla bean ice cream ($7.50) was a rather clever de-constructed version of this classic Aussie pud. A mound of pineapple was simply arranged on the plate, then covered in a warm oven-cooked crumble. A small pot of vanilla ice cream sat to one side. The pineapple was cold. The ice cream was commercially made.

The menu is divided into day parts, not unlike a room service list. One section is titled 1130 to 0100. Another is titled Breakfast 0100 to 1200. There is a section for Sides, Desserts 1130 to 0100 and Snacks all day.

The wine list is small, but with something for everyone, and to Oriel’s credit a fair proportion is available by the glass.

Michael Patroni’s interior scheme stands up admirably after all these years. The room plays well to the buzzy, post-theatre, coffee’n’cake crowd which floods into Subiaco on weekend evenings.

Oriel is a part of the furniture in downtown Subi and a much-loved meeting place for people from all walks of life.

The concern with Oriel is its frantic, chaotic service, exemplified in the confusion over our entrees. When we asked for the specials of the day, the waiter read from the mirror (Oriel has a long held ritual of writing specials on its big mirrors with lurid red lipstick).

We liked the sound of the Turkish bread with baba ghanoush and ordered it. It took more than fifteen minutes for the waiter to re-appear and explain that these were in fact yesterday’s specials and the baba ghanoush was not on. We re-ordered another entrée and were delivered only one of them.

Eventually, the re-ordered entrée came, at precisely the same time as the mains. Some time later, another staff member took a rag to the mirror and wiped away the lippie. It was not replaced.


483 Hay Street, Subiaco

Phone 9382 1886

Open 24 hours Thursday, Friday

and Saturday, and 6:00am to 1:00am

all other days.

All major cards and eftpos accepted

Non-smoking inside

The Buzz

The autumn menu is out, and abounds with value for money cafe favourites.

A good meal at Oriel need not be expensive. The service is frustrating..

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