Sleepy’s Café and Wine Bar, Carlton North

Where: Sleepy’s Café and Wine Bar, 787 Nicholson Street Carlton North

What: The cutest little local with the most hospitable service 

Who: Mullet Maverick, Skin Contact White Drinker

Bloat score: 0 – Living the dream

Taking over from the charmingly ramshackle A Fan’s Notes – RIP their $5 vegan burger specials on Monday nights, a true gastronomic and budgetary delight – Sleepy’s is much the same, in that it’s a café that gradually transitions into a restaurant come nightfall. It’s extremely chill – you don’t have to make a booking to guarantee yourself a table (at this stage) and it has the lived-in feel of a local that’s been around for a while, although it really has only been around since September 2021. I wish it was there when I used to live in Fitzroy North, but am glad it occupies that otherwise lonely stretch of Nicholson Street.

I visited with Mullet Maverick (formerly known as Beer Jenga Master), perhaps the only person besides Rod Stewart who truly looks good in a mullet and who changes her hairstyle with impunity every six months, and Skin Contact White Drinker, who recognised the virtues of skin contact wines way before they were cool. 

The food menu is short and sweet with only six items, so we ordered them all, but the wine list is more extensive. When we were visiting, Sleepy’s were also spruiking the wine list of a friend who’d hoped to start a wine bar but couldn’t due to the pandemic and had all this wine stock they needed to sell – I loved the community-minded feel of this! I can’t remember if we ended up getting a wine bottle off this list or Sleepy’s regular list, but it was a Victorian syrah and it was exquisite – all thanks to the amazing person who served us all night. She was a diamond in the rough of snooty wine bro dudes I’m used to being served by at these sorts of establishments, and she didn’t turn her nose up at our question of what differentiated a syrah from a shiraz. Turns out syrah and shiraz are two different names for the same red wine grape, with the term shiraz commonly used in Australia, except a syrah is usually lighter than a shiraz, and the syrah we drank was actually produced in Australia yet still not called a shiraz, so my conclusion was: they’re same same but different?

To start off with, however, I got one of the four cocktails Sleepy’s had on offer: the ‘wakeys’ with raspberry candy, Mr Black, cynar and campari. To say this was a combination of an espresso martini and a negroni would be the most succinct summation, but it was so much more. The sweet bitterness of the artichoke-based liquor cynar combined with the full-bodied richness of the Mr Black coffee liqueur and the berry notes of the raspberry candy coated my mouth in the most pleasant way. I think it was perhaps my favourite cocktail I’ve ordered in living memory? It was unlike anything else I’d ever ordered. The fact that it came in a coffee cup only added to its charm.

The first dish that arrived was a plate of deep-fried rice balls speckled with nori on a bed of kimchi mayo ($4 each). I think I expected a deep-fried Asian rice ball in the vein of arancini – crumbed on the outside, soft rice on the inside – but the entire ball was actually deep-fried rice. The most challenging thing about this was the texture – it was deep-fried to a point where it was too hard to break apart without the fear of it landing in your lap. Mullet Maverick managed to, but it crumbled when Skin Contact White Drinker and I tried. Another thing I’d advise is waiting until it cools down a bit – I annoyingly scorched the roof of my mouth trying to greedily eat it at once. Were this a touch less deep-fried, it’d be perfect – the kimchi mayo was a lovely creamy accompaniment.

Chinese donuts i.e. you tiao are finding favour in pan-Asian restaurants. I had them with moromi za’atar and smoked sunflower marrow most recently at Parcs, and here, they were served topped with anchovies and a creamy mix of eggs and chives ($9). The combination was sublime, and I wish I’d had one to myself instead of opting to share one between the three of us.

The two dumplings on the menu were vastly different. The more savoury ones were the mushroom and cabbage dumplings ($15) drizzled with chilli oil, sprinklings of sesame seeds, and spring onion. From an aesthetic point of view, these crisp lacy potsticker dumplings were beautifully constructed – the folds were immaculate, and the skin was just the right thickness.

Because I’m a chilli fiend, I would’ve preferred more chilli oil, or at least the option to add some, but the dumplings themselves were one-dimensional and slightly plain – there was no hint of the wonderful savouriness that cabbage is known to have or the hint of any other aromatics.

The next set of dumplings ($15) were almost like a dessert and though I’m not especially fond of sweet things, we unanimously loved these. Yellow-skinned dumplings, akin to parcels of ravioli, were filled with corn and ricotta, served in a thin salty broth, and scattered with chives. Skin Contact White Drinker recalled a breakfast bacon and egg dumpling she’d had at Sleepy’s for breakfast once and rated the east-meets-west combination of flavours equally highly.

The next dish was Mullet Maverick’s favourite, so much so we ordered another plate of them immediately after, when we weren’t quite at the point of fullness – noodles and lion’s head meatballs. Mullet Maverick and Skin Contact White Drinker thought ‘lion’s head’ was synonymous with a type of mushroom, but the name actually refers to their shape, which resembles the head of a Chinese guardian lion, with the green vegetables around them resembling the lion’s mane.

Lion’s head meatballs are large pork meatballs braised in soy sauce, a classic dish in eastern China (primarily the Jiangsu province) commonly served over Lunar New Year. They’re typically served in combinations of either eight or nine for their auspiciousness in Chinese culture – the number 8 represents wealth and good fortune (imagine being an 88 baby!! Sadly wealth has not followed me), while the number 9 represents longevity. Sleepy’s served their lion’s head meatballs with springy wheat noodles slick with the same sauce presumably used to cook the meatballs. It was a great note to end on (twice).

My intolerances are becoming less of an issue than they were for reasons I’ll have to expand upon in a completely separate blog post, hence the zero-bloat review. I loved our time at Sleepy’s so much – the food menu was small but lovingly curated to showcase an interesting take on familiar east Asian ingredients, the drinks were bomb, our waiter was the best and the cosy interiors were perfect to spend a drizzly Wednesday night in. Various pop-ups regularly occupy Sleepy’s from time to time, and I can’t wait to visit again.

Sleepy’s Café and Wine Bar is open 7.30am to 3pm Tuesday to Friday and 8am to 3pm Saturday to Sunday for brunch and lunch, and 5.30pm to 10pm Wednesday to Saturday for dinner.

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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