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. 

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