Thursday, 7 July 2016

Restaurant review: Mr Jennings, Richmond

Wowee, it's been a long time since I blogged. My life is a lot more action-packed than it was when I started my blog eight years ago, leaving little time to call in and say hi at my favourite blogs, let alone write my own, so sorry for not giving my old regulars any love lately :-( To tell the truth, much of the action has involved going out to eat delicious food (G is such an enabler!), so I might as well write about it.
I miss writing and I'm keen to exercise my writing muscles regularly again, so I thought I'd dip my toe in the waters by reviewing restaurants, cafés and other services from the Melbourne 2016/17 Entertainment Book that I take advantage of. Not having to think of topic = blog more likely to be written!

Disclaimer - the Entertainment Book has no idea who I am, but we got one last year and loved it. We recouped the cost (around $60 - some goes to charity) within a few weeks, as most  café and restaurant vouchers are 25% off or better. You can get a book or a digital membership (app). I've had both, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. I'd suggest trying both for yourself over a couple of years.
We probably spend more money on eating out than we otherwise would, as it puts more expensive restaurants within our reach. But there is a whole world of magnificent food out there in all price ranges (they even have Maccas vouchers), just waiting for you to walk at it with your mouth open, so get amongst it!
Every so often the Entertainment Book pairs up with a restaurant and a food supplier or winemaker and offers a tasting menu with matched wines to showcase their goods, for a discounted price. G and I went to one earlier in the year at Church Street Enoteca, which featured Flinders Island meats and McWilliam wines, and it was pretty amazing.
The atmosphere was slightly awkward at Enoteca, probably because it was a larger venue and so the interruptions between courses, as Jason from the Entertainment Book and also a representative from the brand being showcased got up between courses to give a spiel, felt less like a conversation and more like a lecture. But everyone politely sat and listened before tucking in to the next amazing course. Bring your friends and you'll barely notice. The atmostphere there wasn't impersonal as such; it's just a much bigger venue.
On Tuesday night I attended a similar event at Mr Jennings on Bridge Road, Richmond, down the Hoddle Street end, close to the Epworth Hospital. It was sponsored by Mount Pleasant wines, and my hot date for the night was my bestie whose name is also Ness (that's how we became friends. True story!). We were in for a treat, with five courses and matched wines for $95, which is normally $145.
I'll just leave that there and wait for you to catch your breath, eh?
We good now? :-)
This is what I mean about it making higher-end restaurants more accessible - it's still a heck of a lot of money and is certainly not an every day or even every month thing, but because it's below the $100 threshold and includes drinks (wheeee!) it's somehow less shocking.
And did I mention that I love food and am able to see value in a positive eating experience? ;-)
Also, at this point I feel the need to disclose that 3/4 of my dining experiences involve fighting over the perfect $10 pho on Victoria Street (I favour the availability of sliced pickled onions at Thu Tue, whilst G loves the smile of recognition and the broth at I Love Pho two doors down), so I'm not this fancy all the time!
Also-also, I'm not entirely sure that matched wines with dinner is a good idea on a school night, but hey you only live once, and as long as you rehydrate before bed it's all good.
This time there was no awkwardness; Mr Jennings is a far more intimate venue, and the wait staff had already engaged us in friendly conversation by the time Jason stood up with chef Ryan Flaherty to introduce the evening, before leaving us to our own devices with tasting notes for the wine.
Because this week was Mr Jennings' second birthday, and Tuesday was Chef Flaherty's actual birthday, there was an air of celebration. Although obviously busy and keen to get on with his main business, Flaherty was also personable and humble, making a quick joke about his evolving décor before zipping back to his beloved kitchen. It's very much a venue with personal touches, and the 35-seat restaurant felt simultaneously homely and special. 
There is also a smaller private dining room upstairs, and a chef's table experience with a several-course tasting menu in the kitchen area, which is definitely going on my bucket list!
Here is the menu for the evening:

Something I love about tasting menus is that they challenge me to try things I would otherwise shy away from (bone marrow, anyone?), either because they don't appeal to me or because I have no idea what they are. As it turns out I'll eat pretty much anything as long as the chef knows what they're doing, and with a pedigree like Flaherty's you're certainly in good hands.
I'm not gonna lie, I spent ten minutes Googling the heck out of the menu before dinner, because I feel like a goose not knowing what they're talking about (although most wait staff are willing to educate you; this only backfires at somewhere like Gingerboy where the music is pumping and you can't hear them properly, and it's too dark to lipread). If you're interested in deciphering a few things, this is what I learnt:
Bonito flakes - dried, fermented, smoked tuna flakes. I ate plenty in Japan but didn't know what it was called. They can be very strongly flavoured and are quite confronting - the rising heat from the food makes them wriggle around like they're alive. As a result I have drawn the conclusion that the Japanese certainly must have a sense of humour!
Semillon - a dry white wine (I knew it was white), sort of like a Sauvingon Blanc, but heavier and less acidic. Hmm, sounds pretty drinkable... :-)
Skate - I knew it was some kind of fish, but am somewhat horrified to discover that they're very much like a ray and are all cute and squishy (check out the Wiki page, which describes what sets them apart from a true ray, which makes you feel slightly better about eating it). They do have a very slow lifecycle (i.e. are at risk of being fished into extinction), so I'm curious as to what the food industry / suppliers do in terms of sustainable sourcing, which is something I will look into in the future.
Anyway, enough waffle (mmm, waffles...) - we're all just here for the food!

Round One was whey risotto with bonito flakes. Please excuse the washed-out colours in my poorly-lit photos from my phone - I feel pretty silly carrying my DSLR around, and food looks awful with a flash, so you'll just have to make do with my phone camera.

Mr Jennings makes a lot of their own basics; as such, the whey used in the risotto was from the ricotta in Round Two. The waiter wasn't sure whether the bonito had been made in-house, but it was much milder than any I've tried before, so either it was house-made or it was simply better quality than my previous bonito experiences.
The risotto was creamy, the chives gave some zing, and the smoky-salty bonito cut through the richness. This was our favourite course (although they were all great!).
Round Two was maple roasted pumpkin with ricotta and garlic. I was far too excited to remember to take a (poorly lit) photo, because I adore roasted pumpkin and couldn't wait to get into it.
Picture this: a matte black high-sided plate / low-sided bowl (much like the one the skate was served on ), with a perfect arc of deep orange maple-roasted pumpkin, embracing a mound of flavoursome ricotta topped with a small pile of bitter salad greens. Normally I find ricotta a bit meh, but this was smoother; and, with the garlic, was just the ticket to offset the sweetness of the pumpkin. A light winter warmer.
Round Three was skate, buerre noisette and pickled onions.

Well the good news is that despite its possibly-questionably-sustainable status (or perhaps because of it?? There, I said it, I'm a monster!), it was delicious. The fish was crispy on the outside, and melted in your mouth. True, it might have been the butter it was swimming in that did that (not gonna lie, the word "buerre" in the description is a sure-fire way to win me over), but I suspect the flesh inherently had a creamy texture.
The fresh green of the broad beans made it visually pleasing, and I'm not actually sure what the pale smear on the left of the plate was, but my money is on pureed Jerusalem artichoke (or even potato?? Or cauliflower? I wasn't paying enough attention), flavoured with pickled onion juice. The pickled onions themselves were a fun addition, and they helped make the butteriness feel less decadent.
Round Four was the one I expected to be the most challenging, due to the inclusion of marrow.

It's obviously all in my head, because there is absolutely no difference between eating meat and eating marrow; it all comes from the same animal. You're still eating an animal. There is also no real difference between eating marrow and eating traditional jelly, because it's all derived from bones. I guess the colouring of marrow is just a little beige, and when things you're not socially accustomed to eating are kind of beige and also squishy and don't hold their heat well it can make your stomach turn a little.
BUT - as it turns out, if you eat it on a piece of lamb, it just emphasises the flavor. The flavor - and this makes perfect sense, and clearly I'm an idiot for not having thought of it before - is the same as when you're chewing on those delightfully crisply, tasty little bits of fat along the edge of a lamb bone. I had always thought that flavour was the fat, but I'm now thinking that the marrow may have oozed out as well during the cooking process (if a chef could please confirm or deny that it would be awesome). Live and learn!
The lamb was cooked to perfection, and I'm not sure why the "potato salad" deserved inverted commas, because it certainly seemed like potato salad to me. Unless it was some kind of construct, like those little pearls of flavour (like deconstructed, reconstructed peas) that are all the rage? Anyway, visually it looked like the canned Edgell potato salad people used to bring to BBQs in the 80's, but you'll be pleased / unsurprised to know that it tasted like actual potato salad, not like a pile of vinegary starch.
Round Five  - the fifth and final round - was chocolate sponge with yoghurt and basil.

Flaherty had explained earlier that he makes the sponge in the microwave, an admission that made it a dish that doesn't take itself too seriously. The lighter brown you can see is a chocolate mousse, the white is a creamy yogurt (almost like whipped cream in consistency) with what I can best describe as chocolate pop rocks sprinkled on top, and the green parts seem to be pureed, shaped and dried basil, which were crispy, sweet and herbal - an almost after-dinner mint finish to an amazing meal.
TL;DR - if you're looking for somewhere a bit special for dinner, head to Mr Jennings. You won't regret it.
Another night of amazing food and wine, at a venue I probably wouldn't have experienced without the Entertainment Book (and fortuitously this dinner didn't use up my voucher, so I'll definitely be heading back in the next year - huzzah!).
Congratulations to the crew at Mr Jennings on holding on for two years in a tricky kind of dead spot on Bridge Road. I sincerely hope that your presence helps transform this shopping strip - here's to another two years. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Travels in Japan - Kyoto

I'm getting steadily worse at keeping up with our adventures, aren't I. My excuse is that it's a pain in the butt to write this all on my phone, plus I've been spending most of my time on the Shinkansen napping or staring out at the scenery.

Anyhoo. We spent four nights in Kyoto, and managed to pack quite a bit in. The train station there was incredible, and came complete with a giant Christmas tree. 

On our first night, which was Christmas Eve, we met up again with our Kanazawa housemate Seigo, who had done the hard work before we got there and found a couple of good bars. There is a street/area full of restaurants and bars called Pontocho*, which is a kind of laneway. 

Apparently Christmas Eve is quite a big commercial thing here, and a sort of couples' night out, and the streets of the shopping area near the Gion bridge* were absolutely crawling with people. We found a small bar with a dragon fly as its logo, where we encountered oragami-folding bar tenders, drinks with LED ice cubes, and Santa enjoying one last drink after a night of hard work. 

And then suddenly it was after midnight, and therefore Christmas morning, and ALL of the Santas went off duty!

G bought me some Christmas flowers because I love Christmas and miss not having the big traditional thing, and we turned them into a Christmas tree. 

Christmas Day was spent visiting the Silver Temple (a UNESCO world heritage site) and strolling along the nearby canals. Even in winter it was a pretty walk but I imagine in spring it would be spectacular with the blossoms. 

We also came upon an old viaduct and another temple complex*, but we had left our run too late in the day and it was closed to visitors. The gatehouse was still pretty impressive though. 
And then it was time for Christmas dinner. We wandered about Pontocho* until we found a place with just enough English on the menu to be not completely flying blind... and then we ordered the chef's menu mystery bag anyway!
There was also dessert but I was so excited by it that I forgot to take a picture. It was easily the fanciest meal we'd had since arriving in Japan - mostly we've been having $10 counter meals or ramen - but it was pretty good value, at least compared to Melbourne. All the above, plus dessert, plus three alcoholic drinks each. Altogether we had a very merry Christmas!

Boxing Day included some more spectacular sightseeing. First up was the famous bamboo grove*, which I imagine would be more spectacular with no people around, but was still quite pleasant. 
We also paid ¥1000 to get into a garden* that had been built by a movie star at the top end of the grove, and had a view over Kyoto. The entry included tea and a sweet, which normally go for about ¥500 anyway, and the serenity and lack of other tourists was probably worth the other ¥500!

Next stop was the chaos of the money park*, where you spend twenty minutes hiking up a hill, and then you can feed monkeys from inside a human cage. Apparently the monkeys don't like being looked at or approached, so it was surprising that they seemed to spend quite a bit of time looking at and approaching humans. Although perhaps less surprising given how many people were feeding them!

Next stop was the golden temple*, and I've got zero pictures of it on my phone, so I may add them from my computer when I get back to Australia. But anyway, the golden temple was infinitely more spectacular than the silver one, so if you come here you should definitely visit the silver one first so you're not let down by it!

Lastly we stumbled upon the world's oldest Zen garden*, the ones with takes gravel and rocks. Again this was UNESCO listed and I had expected something a bit bigger or more spectacular. But it was still quite serene,if not entirely what I had expected. I guess the significance is in the history more than in the garden itself. 
Our third full day began with a trip to nearby Nijo castle

where we saw this sign. I have included it here as I had no idea that stick figures could convey the concept of lounging casually so articulately...but apparently they can!
Next up was a hike up Mount Something*, through the famous torii gates. Like the bamboo grove, it's hard to take a good photo, but the higher up the mountain you go the easier it gets. 

Our last stop for the day was the temple/shrine??* that kind of hangs off the side of a mountain on a pier-like structure, and watched the sun set. 

Apparently it's spectacular with the cherry blossoms in spring, and in Autumn when the leaves turn red they are open at night and have lights shining up from  the ground to illuminate the leaves and make the whole thing glow. 

Last stop was the pottery shops running down the road nearby - apparently this is a good place to pick up Kyoto pottery, and although a little pricey in places you can get some very beautiful things. 

So that was Kyoto. I'm exhausted just writing about it - you don't really realise how kick you've packed in until you sit down and record it.

Next stop - Hiroshima!

*I'm too lazy to check all the names of these places and provide links from my phone, but they're all in easily-identifiable pictorial form on the bus/public transportation map, available at the information centre at Kyoto station. You can also pick up one and two day bus passes from the ticket machines in the main bus bay at Kyoto station (but apparently nowhere else that we could find), which I'd recommend doing if you're planning to see a few things

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Travels in Japan - En route to Kyoto, aka nuding up in public

The most important thing about this leg of our adventure is that we nuded up on our way down to Kyoto, and it was FABULOUS. If you don't want to think about me or retirement-age ladies naked, best you click away now. 

Upon a tip from our Kanazawa housemate, Seigo, we stopped in Kaga-onsen, a station near to a hot spring area. All we knew was the name of the nearest JR station, and that the Lonely Planet said you could catch a bus to the Yamanaka Onsen. Very helpful, LP!

So we got off the train, locked our luggage up at the station, and wandered around until we found a sign for buses going in approximately the right direction and hoped for the best. The bus was pretty confusing to begin with, never having used a Japanese bus before and also not speaking the language, but we figured it out. Basically you take a ticket at the middle/back door when you get on, and when you get off the bus you pay based on how far you travelled, which is lit up on a board at the front. As it turns out the LP was useful for something - it listed the journey price as ¥410, and so watching the price board go up gave us confidence we were getting off in the right place. 

The lady at the bus stop was also enormously helpful, and gave us a map to the onsen, which was a ten minute walk up the road. The town, once you hit the onsen, reminded me of a ski village crossed with the likes of Daylesford outside of Melbourne - lots of mid to high end gift shops and cafes.

As a side-note, something Japan does very well is manhole covers, and the Yamanaka Onsen village showed us our first situation-appropriate urban design feature/art:

But I digress. The important part is that WE GOT NAKED IN PUBLIC!!!

It was my first onsen. I've skinny dipped when camping, and also when I lived by the beach, and gotten my kit off in many a hot tub (in a purely non-sexual way, because hygiene), but all were under the cover of darkness or water. I'm a fairly practical person, and as the daughter of two nurses and having trained in biology myself I'm very down with human anatomy. But I don't have the greatest of body confidence to begin with, and knowing I wasn't going to blend in at all, in any way (not that I really do at home, but here I'm definitely not going to blend in!), was a bit nerve racking. Especially knowing that you have to actually scrub yourself pretty thoroughly before you get in, and I mean the whole personal shooting match rather than the cursory "splash, splash!" you might do at the local pool. 

I mucked around a bit in the locker room until someone else started to undress, and I took that as my cue, and pretty much followed their lead. But not in a creepy way! So if you're curious, and hopefully I have this right - 1. Take your shoes off at your gender-appropriate onsen; 2. Pay; 3. Get any soap/towels/etc. you need from the vending machine; 4. Find an empty locker in the locker room (the key will still be in it); 5. Strip off, stow your kit, lock your locker and take the key which in this case was attached to a piece of elastic for putting around your wrist; 6. Walk through to the baths and wash yourself thoroughly with soap at the shower heads/hoses along the sides, being sure to wash down the little stool and the little tub before and after use; 7. Onsen time! Some people were pouring water on their feet before getting into the baths and some weren't so *shrugs* 8. get out and wash yourself again 9. Dry down as much as possible before leaving the wet area 10. Go back to your locker, get dressed and get out of there. 

The verdict: despite my initial reservations, it was amazing. Being surrounded by women of all shapes and sizes was a very positive experience for me, especially realising that, despite what the media would have me believe, I am actually somewhere quite near the middle of the bell-shaped curve of body type/how much fat I'm carrying/how muscular (or not) I am. 

And breasts! My goodness, they're all so different! I'm familiar with my own, my mother's, a couple of friends from changing at swimming pools etc., and pretty much anyone I've seen breastfeed, but when they're all lined up together, I was blown away by the diversity! I know I sound very sheltered right now, but if you think about it, women have less opportunity to look at them than men. So that was interesting.

I think at least in the portion of Australia that I've been exposed to, there isn't really an opportunity like that to see so many body types in one place. As a teenager or young woman at the pool or beach, I was mostly concerned with how I looked, if I was being judged by other girls for being overweight, or whether I was desirable to the opposite sex in my swimwear, and I always felt a bit funny about looking at other people's bodies and seeing what there is out there, because I don't like being stared at so why would anyone else? But when you're all naked, and it's about getting clean, it's somehow different. Not that there was any staring really going on, but it was different. And very positive. A younger me may not have felt so good about it but I guess I'll never know. 

I've realised that this entire post is about being naked and body image rather than travel. I guess the long and the short of it is that if you ever have an opportunity to visit an onsen, you should definitely do it.

Also, if there are any men reading, G had a similarly positive experience, and noticed similar diversity. 

Go forth and onsen!