Akin Celik used to work in banking, but running a cafe was his dream. "I even had a commercial coffee machine in my bedroom. My mum wouldn’t allow me to have my coffee set up in the kitchen so the only room was in my bedroom," he tells SBS Food.
He opened his first café in Ringwood East, Melbourne, but returned to his Kew roots, closer to the CBD, at the end of last year when he opened Willsmere Station. "I grew up in Kew, I'm that local that two doors down [from Willsmere Station] is the kindergarten I went to," he says.
The venue operates as a café during the day and morphs into a wine bar in the evening. "I wanted to fill a void we had in Kew: somewhere where people could have a nice glass of wine and chat with friends over a meal. I used to always end up going to Richmond or the city," he explains.
With the help of chef Trinh Le, Celik developed a menu based on their interpretation of the Turkish flavours he grew up with at home.
For breakfast, it means that alongside Aussie café staples like smashed avocado and granola, you'll find cilbir (poached eggs) with labneh, Maras pepper burnt butter sauce and herbed flatbread. "Cilbir eggs is one of the first Turkish dishes documented on paper. Back then, in the villages, it would have been yoghurt and eggs. We've added our own sauce," he explains.
Later in the day, several dishes feature lamb shoulder, which has first been cooked sous vide in a herb rub, before being picked apart and grilled with more herbs, spices and a red wine reduction.
You can add the lamb to the spiced pilav, which is mixed with barberries, almonds, pistachios, herbs and lemon. Or you can have the dish with Australian sardines wrapped in vine leaves. It's a play on sarma, traditionally filled with grains or meat, which were one of Celik's favourite dishes growing up.
Another hit is the manti, Turkish beef ravioli with garlic yoghurt, which is also available in a small portion for children. "I used to help my mum…closing those up, it was our weekend thing. I have fond childhood memories of that," says Celik.
But what has become Willsmere Station's signature dish, and a bit of an online sensation, is dessert kunefe. Eaten all over the Arab world, the dessert is slightly different in every country and every home. It's usually baked and involves cheese, as well as string pastry or semolina. Here, Le uses a mix of cheese and kadayif pastry he shapes into a ball, and deep-fries. "It makes it crispier on the outside," explains Celik.
The dish is completed with a scoop of stretchy ice cream from Northcote's Cuppa Turca and your choice of syrup: orange blossom, lemon and thyme, pomegranate or Nutella.
The grazing menu also has a Turkish-Australian feel with snacks like lamb köfte, sucuk and house-made flatbread next to Australian cheese and prosciutto.
The Turkish drops on the wine list have been a hit with customers who are often unfamiliar with wine from the country. With over 500 varieties of grapes, Turkey is one of the largest producers of wine grapes, and one of the earliest wine-producing areas in the world.
"We always ask our customers what kind of wine they usually enjoy and we try to get them something similar. We’ll offer tastings of the Turkish wine and they quite enjoy it," says Celik.
Willsmere Station is a very good reason for Kew locals to eat out in the area, and even more for the rest of us to visit.
158 Parkington St, Kew
Tue – Wed 8 am – 3 pm | Thu – Sat 8 am – 11 pm | Sun 8 am – 9 pm
The yoghurt dough base can be made ahead and kept in the fridge for up to a week.