Ryan Flaherty, chef and owner of the latest entry to Bridge Road's dining scene, Mr Jennings, beams with pride as he preps for lunch in the brand new restaurant's expansive kitchen. After honing his skills in European kitchens, Flaherty returned to Melbourne and hit the ground in partnership with Scott Pickett and a celebrated run at Northcote's Estelle, but the time was right to do his own thing. "Luck favours the brave, and we just went for it," Flaherty says.
Flaherty has a lot of love for Richmond, particularly favouring its unique location just east of the city, neither north nor south of the great Yarra divide, though he admits Bridge Road can be a tough gig. "Years ago it was a great dining destination, but its become a bit of a ghost town,'" he says, but he's up for the challenge. "With any big city around the world, an area this close to the city is bound to come back around. I don't think I'll be the one to start the revolution, but I might get the ball rolling a little bit."
Flaherty's passion for the business he's built from the ground up, literally, is clear. Mister Jennings in named after a favourite teacher from his school days and also for children's book author Paul Jennings, who penned his favourites Round The Twist and Unreal Banana Peel. "They're creative, well written, fun and nostalgic, and that's what I want my food to be like," he says. "I like running with flavours that work - they're classics for a reason. Strawberries and cream work well together, so let's have fun with that. As I'm getting older, I'm probably pulling back a bit and keeping it simple."
The menu at Mister Jennings dances around from bugs with fermented cabbage and caraway to a fun take on a Dagwood dog, using boudin blanc. A light chicken mousse is rolled, steamed, cut, put on a stick and deep-fried in batter, served with homemade tomato ketchup with smoked paprika. "It's playful, but it has a bit of technique," Flaherty says. "Instead of us saying 'we're this type of restaurant,' we want you to pick what we are. If you want to come in and have a steak and chips, you can, or you can have a whole fish or just some tapas and a glass of wine."
The frozen kangaroo has proven to be the real menu hero at Mister Jennings, bounding out of the kitchen. It's an incredible dish that thrills with ingenuity as much as it wins you over on fantastic flavour. The thinly sliced roo loins are plated up still ice cold, only defrosting in the warmth of your mouth. Served with slivers of nasi pear and pickled onions, red wine and veal jelly and an avo and wasabi puree, the marriage of hot and cold excites the palate.
The chocolate cardamom crunch dessert is another winner, served with a rich chocolate sauce in its own dinky copper pot and concealing the citrus burst of dehydrated orange sandwiched between the biscuit and feather-light mousse.
"I've always enjoyed the look on someone's face when they eat; that's why I cook," Flaherty says. "It's almost voyeuristic."
Essentially a three-man job, Mister Jennings sees Flaherty working alongside sous chef Jack Ingram in the kitchen and Malcolm Singh as front of house. They didn't bring in architects or interior designers, only graphic design mob Seesaw Studio, doing much of the handy work themselves, not that it shows. The dining room is a bright and classy space, with gleaming floorboards and soaring white walls clambering up to a private dining room mezzanine. A dark bar is clad with hexagonal mirror panels in a honeycomb pattern.
Strip lighting housed in pale wooden beams accommodates two wooden, posable artists' drawing models, with a few more dotted around Mister Jennings in cheeky positions. A stunning artwork by Mike Pelletier features a man seemingly carved out of gold, with countless facets, while striking stools with thick wooden tops held aloft on a column of countless dark metal rods were created by young local designer, Lauren Garner.
"Every single thing in here has a story," Flaherty says. "I was saying to Jack, whenever a chef first thinks that you're ready to open your own place, you're probably three years away. I first thought of it when I was 25 in Europe, and it took three years for me and Scotty to open the Estelle, and we built a really beautifully place I'm really proud of. To stand-alone is a dream come true."
Image Credits: Michelle Jarni, The Urban List.