After reading countless reviews about how fabulous the food and coffee were at The Wooden Squirrel in Bairnsdale, Victoria, I had to try it for myself.
My second trip to Melbourne was just as adventurous as the first. This time we took a roundabout route that lead straight down the South Coast, winding through several national parks and one very freak thunderstorm. The drive was beautiful. The sight of the sea snaking along with us made my heart very happy. Having grown up in a seaside city, I’ve missed the ocean more than I thought I would. It was wonderful to have it by my side again.
Although the scenic drive was lovely, it didn’t quite fulfil my stomach as much as my heart. By the time we reached Bairnsdale, I was starving and practically skipped towards the little café. From the exterior, The Wooden Squirrel appears like any other café situated in the middle of a city block – two small tables, a few chairs, and a set of sliding glass doors. Only the transparent logo on the door tipped us off to its location; we nearly sped right past it.
When we entered the café, I instantly felt a sense of dread. The restaurant’s layout was less than ideal. The single-column tables lining the left wall and the hot-plate counter centrally opposite gave the room a grungy cafeteria atmosphere. A few framed posters and a cute wooden squirrel perched next to the register were the extent of their décor.
You may be asking why we stayed – given the present description we should have been racing in the opposite direction. As soon as we walked in, the chef and servers greeted us with huge smiles and words reminiscent of a small-town welcome. They knew the locals well. They laughed with their patrons and asked how their jobs were going or how their families were. The people operating The Wooden Squirrel were the friendliest of folks, so we decided to stay. Also, remember I was starving.
The two-page menu had various options, and they definitely get brownie points for serving an all-day breakfast (my favourite meal!) After a deliberation that lasted about twenty seconds, I chose the Grilled Tandoori Chicken Sandwich, which I paired with a skinny cappuccino.
My coffee (a Di Bella blend) arrived first, served with a cheerful grin, and I gratefully took my first sip. Oh, had that sip been my last! It was horrible – the tannins were too sharp, giving the coffee a bitter, burnt flavour that settled at the back of my mouth. I was sorely disappointed.
Our food had a speedy arrival, a testament yet again to The Wooden Squirrel’s superior service. The plating was cute albeit typical Australian café style, and I felt a twinge of jealousy as my lunch partner ate his sandwich while I snapped photos. Finally, with my camera resting on the table, I dove in.
The sandwich had good Tandoori flavour with an exceptional balance of spice. However, the chicken did not look as if it had been marinated as it didn’t possess the usual florescent orange Tandoori colour. The chicken was also quite dry, which may have been due to the lack of marinade but most likely it was overcooked. Toasting the bun was a nice touch and the brush of garlic aioli was delicious; however, I couldn’t taste or see any Swiss cheese on my sandwich, which was a component advertised on the menu.
The hot chips were ordinary. In true heath fad tradition, the chef chose to bake the potato wedges. Although it was a fine idea, and the rosemary was a pleasant addition, the wedges required more time in the oven. They were a tad undercooked.
Although the food and coffee at The Wooden Squirrel was pretty average, I did enjoy the tremendous people Bairnsdale offered and the journey it took to get there. In the end, that’s all that matters, right?