Review: Masons of Bendigo, Bendigo

My measures of what I consider to be ‘good value’ in a meal are somewhat skewed. At one extreme, I think $500 is a reasonable amount to pay for a meal at The Fat Duck. At the other extreme, I think any more than $20 for a main at an everyday casual restaurant or pub is daylight robbery.

That murky area between $20 and $500 is where I can find it hard to decide. At the end of the day, ‘value for money’ comes down to food source and quality, innovation of the chef, atmosphere of the restaurant and promptness and friendliness of service. If all those elements are ticked off the list, then the price point becomes less of a focus.

What I can say for certain is that Masons of Bendigo ticks all those elements on the list and definitely rates as ‘good value’. As one of the few restaurants in Bendigo that regularly earns its Chef’s Hat in the Good Food Guide, I chose Masons as the destination for my birthday dinner during our weekend sojourn to Bendigo.

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Given that their menu offers nearly a dozen options each under smaller bites, larger plates and sides, K and I decided to make it a lot easier on ourselves by opting for their chef’s choice ‘Roaming Menu’ for $62.50 per person. Putting yourselves into the hands of a chef and trusting them to guide you through a delicious dinner has never led me wrong so far. In fact it worked particularly well for my 28th birthday dinner at O Bar and Dining, and it was the same for this 30th birthday dinner. 

We started with some house-baked charcoal sourdough bread – soft, dense, and still warm from the oven. There’s nothing better than freshly baked bread!

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Having had some drinks earlier in the day at The Dispensary, I decided to go non-alcoholic and chose a local natural Blood Orange Sparkling Mineral Water from Daylesford and Hepburn Springs Mineral Springs Co. From the same range, K chose their Organic Cola. Mine was particularly light, fresh, spritzy and refreshing without being sweet, while K’s was very easy on the palate without the strong medicinal undertones that often characterise organic colas. All in all, I’d definitely try more of the Daylesford and Hepburn Springs range.

McIvor Farm Berkshire pork belly skewers, roasted shrimp, pineapple and cashew salad
McIvor Farm Berkshire pork belly skewers, roasted shrimp, pineapple and cashew salad

First course was made up of some Pork Belly Skewers, topped with some roasted shrimp pieces and interestingly, sweet chunks of pineapple. It sounds like the recipe for a bad seventies dinner party dish – pork, prawns and pineapple – but surprisingly, it works! The melt-in-your-mouth quality of the smokey pork definitely helps, especially when contrasted with the prawn pieces which have slightly more bite.

Cauliflower and Manchego croquette, quince aioli, flaxseed crisp, parmesan
Cauliflower and Manchego croquette, quince aioli, flaxseed crisp, parmesan

I was delighted when our second course arrived, because I had been eyeing the Cauliflower and Manchego Croquettes on the regular menu. I’ve only really just started discovering the delights of Spanish manchego cheese – creamy, buttery, and cheesy without being too strong. It’s the perfect everyday cheese to suit all situations. In this situation, the manchego really helps to complete these delightful little cauliflower croquettes, helped by the snap and crackle of the flaxseed and parmesan crisps that add a bit of textural interest to the dish.

Crispy fried spiced calamari salad, toasted peanuts, roasted rice, fragrant herbs, lemon and lime dressing
Crispy fried spiced calamari salad, toasted peanuts, roasted rice, fragrant herbs, lemon and lime dressing

What first arrives at the table looking like a big heap of salad leaves is the Crispy Fried Spiced Calamari Salad. The liberally-dressed salad leaves hide the real star of the salad – the lightly battered and beautifully fried calamari. I don’t know whether the spices are hidden in the batter or coating the calamari under the batter – either way, it’s stunning. Honestly, I would have actually preferred to eat the fried calamari as separate ‘popcorn calamari’ bites, rather than mixed through a salad, as I think it could shine better standing alone.

Steamed organic broccoli, smoked miso butter, fried shallots
Steamed organic broccoli, smoked miso butter, fried shallots

Like the broccoli we had at The Dispensary which was coated with lemon butter, the Steamed Organic Broccoli here at Masons was beautifully creamy and buttery. Like The Dispensary, some texture is also added to the dish with a topping of crispy fried shallots to make it just a little bit more interesting.

Roast Wanbi Plains lamb loin, crispy belly, rolled shoulder, black olive caramel, fromage, beetroot crackle
Roast Wanbi Plains lamb loin, crispy belly, rolled shoulder, black olive caramel, fromage, beetroot crackle

Our main dish was the Roast Wanbi Plains Lamb Loin, with lamb served two more ways – a crispy belly, and a rolled shoulder. K loved the hefty serve of tender and succulent lamb in this dish, but I have to say that my highlight had nothing to do with the lamb, and everything to do with the delicious crispy beetroot crackle – just like chips/crisps, but better. Unfortunately, other parts of the dish didn’t quite hit the mark – like the slightly pickled little baby beets sitting on top of the lamb, which was quite stringy and fibrous.

Roasted Mount Prospect Russet Burbank potatoes, toasted parmesan cream, parsley
Roasted Mount Prospect Russet Burbank potatoes, toasted parmesan cream, parsley

I could hardly do justice to the final side dish, but did manage to squeeze in a few Roasted Mount Prospect Russet Burbank Potatoes. What a mouthful for a fairly simple crunchy roasted potato. The real highlight here was the delicious cheesy cream on top.

Masons Dessert Tasting Plate
Masons Dessert Tasting Plate

While I said above that I could hardly fit in the final sides, that obviously doesn’t apply to desserts, which go in the ‘dessert stomach’. It’s a real thing, ask any student of anatomy. We finished off with the Masons Dessert Tasting Plate, which is made up of:

  • Creme Brulee
  • Berry & Lychee Pannacotta
  • Chocolate Delice with Caramelised Popcorn
  • Salted Caramel Macaron
  • Strawberry Eskimo Pie
  • Lemon Cheesecake with Sweet Dukkah
  • White Chocolate Pot with Coffee Soil
  • Vanilla bean Favourite Flavours ice-cream with Persian Fairy Floss

While all the desserts had their own merits in small doses, I think that the one I would pinpoint as wanting a full serve of it rather than a small taster would be the Strawberry Eskimo Pie. The strawberry ice-cream (from local ice-cream maker Favourite Flavours) was just the way a strawberry ice-cream should be – full of real rich and deep sweet strawberry flavour with no artificial colouring or sweeteners at all. 

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Masons of Bendigo really ticks all the boxes for me. Our waitress for the evening was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and talked us through each dish of the tasting menu so we knew what we were having. The atmosphere was lively, full of Bendigo families celebrating special occasions and couples out on a Saturday night date.

The food was exceptional – smaller bites more so than the main, but still excellent overall. And priced at only $65 per person for a meal that fills you to the gills and has you rolling out the door, you really can’t go wrong! Masons of Bendigo is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in the Goldfields region of Victoria.

Masons of Bendigo is located at 25 Queen St, Bendigo.

Review: Dinner by Heston, London England

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

The meal that I enjoyed at The Fat Duck in Melbourne in 2015 is still without doubt the best meal I’ve ever had – even when you take into account outings at Sepia, Tetsuya’s, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Steirereck and Amass. There’s something about the majesty and theatrical nature of Fat Duck experiences that’s simply unparalleled.

There was no real opportunity for K and I to visit the Fat Duck in Bray during our time in England. Time and budget wasn’t on our side. What we could try was a lunch at Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge. Dinner by Heston has now opened up in Melbourne now in place of The Fat Duck of course, so we thought a visit to the original restaurant would be a great way to get a taster of what we could expect from the Melbourne site.

There’s a few different ways that you can choose to have the Dinner by Heston experience – there’s a set lunch menu which K chose, or you can order a la carte as I did to ensure that you get to try some of their signature dishes. If you’re lucky, you can even book the chef’s table for a special tasting menu. On the day that we went, we chose these dishes:

Entrée

K: Lemon Salad (c.1730) with smoked artichoke, goats curd and beetroot (part of 40 GBP set lunch menu)

Me: Meat Fruit (c. 1500) with mandarin, chicken liver parfait and grilled bread (17.50 GBP)

Mains

K: Roast Pollack with Admiral’s sauce (c. 1830) with parsnip puree, shrimps, shallots, brown butter and capers (part of 40 GBP set lunch menu)

Me: Powdered Duck Breast (c. 1670) with smoked confit fennel, smoked beetroot and umbles (36 GBP)

Sides: Carrots and caraway (4.75 GBP) and triple cooked chuips (6 GBP)

Desserts

K: Marmalade Pudding (c. 1750) with blood orange, Campari, goats milk and lemon thyme ice-cream (part of 40 GBP set lunch menu)

Me: Tipsy Cake (c. 1810) with spit roast pineapple (14.50 GBP)

What do the dates mean next to each dish? Some of you will know that the whole concept behind Dinner by Heston is a celebration of traditional British cuisine, updated of course, to suit Heston’s modern techniques and tastes.

So my entrée of a meat fruit actually stems from an English recipe dating back to 1500, the time of the Tudor dynasty in England. It’s been updated by Heston to feature his signature ‘what you see isn’t what you get’ touch. Here, what looks like a simple mandarin is actually a delicious ball of creamy aerated ball of chicken liver parfait wrapped in a fresh citrus gel.

The same thing applies to all the other dishes – they’re modern interpretations of recipes that have been found by Heston in old housewives household manuals, royal menus, and other cookery books. If you ever wanted to eat your way through decades-worth of A History of English Cooking, Dinner by Heston has you covered.

My food highlight is the meat fruit of course for its moreish liver parfait – rich without being too rich, meaty without being too meaty, and just light enough to justify eating a whole ball of it on thick toast slices. I also loved the Tipsy Cake with its custard-soaked brioche pudding and caramelised pineapple – this is one dish I have to try making at home! If you prefer a lighter dessert, K’s Marmalade Pudding was a perfect light, fresh and palate-cleansing dessert – one perfect for a warm summer’s day.

Beyond the food, Dinner by Heston also offers some fantastic drink options. There’s an extensive wine list of course, but they also mix up some of the amazing infused juices that I first experienced at Fat Duck Melbourne. On this particular day, I had a startlingly spicy chilli-infused orange juice that had the two-fold effect of quenching my thirst while leaving a surprisingly hot chilli afterburn. I’d never really tried chilli and orange as a combination before, but this juice sold me on the combination!

So how has this experience set up our expectations for a future meal at Dinner by Heston Melbourne? If anything, I think we’re probably more excited about the possibility now – not only was the food and drink remarkable in its modernity given its traditional roots, but from all accounts, the Melbourne branch includes some interesting Australian offerings. It’ll be fascinating to see how they can interpret a traditional English menu with Australian ingredients.

Review: Amass, Copenhagen Denmark

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

One year of marriage…and I still have trouble remembering to refer to ‘my husband’ rather than ‘my boyfriend’. It’s been an exciting year, with most of it spent saving and planning for this remarkable adventure around Europe that we’re now on – our first adventure together as a married couple.

For the longest time, we’ve been talking about treating ourselves on our one-year anniversary by dining at the famous Noma in Copenhagen. We even structured our trip so that we could stay in Copenhagen for a week, to give ourselves more chance to get a reservation. Of course, all this hype naturally meant that we would end up being disappointed – when reservations for November were released online, I was on the website straight away…only to be shunted to a queue for two hours after which I was only offered the chance to add my name to a waiting list, rather than being guaranteed a reservation. It absolutely broke my heart.

It was back to the drawing board – what could we do in Copenhagen to celebrate our anniversary? Luckily, Copenhagen is probably the best place in the world for top quality Michelin-starred restaurants, with (I think) about 10 restaurants in the World’s Top 100. We looked into all of them, but finally settled on Amass as a restaurant that could offer something a little more unique, a little more Danish, a little more local.

Amass is located a little bit out of Copenhagen city centre. We took a ferry from the beautiful Nyhavn in the Copenhagen city centre across the harbour to Refshaleoen, where Amass is located – a lovely scenic trip (despite the gloomy weather!) sailing past the beautiful Opera House. The reason they’re based a bit further out is because Amass counts on producing a lot of their own produce, maintaining their own beehives, etc. As they’ve only been around for about two years, their garden is still definitely a work in progress, and was looking a little sad when we visited in winter.

As we stepped off the ferry, my nose caught a tinge of the most incredible smoky barbeque smell. Letting my nose guide me to the back of Amass, we met Milton Abel, the pastry chef at Amass who used to work at the famous French Laundry in California (and Noma before that). He happily talked to K and I about the Amass team as he worked on barbecuing their signature fermented potato bread, made from local potatoes that have been fermented for 10 days, combined with salt and yoghurt, and then cooked on the grill.

As he said, “When I came to Amass, I looked at the bread that all the other famous restaurants in Copenhagen were offering. Everyone does amazing sourdough, and it’s all homemade. I wanted to do something different here at Amass, so I came up with this fermented potato bread – it gives everyone a reason to come here and try something different.”

He loves his job and the team as well. “We’ve been open for about two years now, and in that time, I think only one person has left the team. Everyone’s really close, and it’s a lot of fun to work here.” Catching our accents, he asked if we were from Australia. “It was either that or New Zealand, and I knew there’d be trouble if I got it wrong! We’ve got a few Aussies and Kiwis in the kitchens, and they always have a few jokes with each other.”

Entering the restaurant, you know that you’re in for a cool and innovative experience, not a stuffy formal experience. It’s a big open warehouse-like space, with some pretty cool urban graffiti on one wall. The staff are very cool as well, with either a hipster beard, stretchies in their ears, or piercings.

Our main waiter for the day is a cool Scotsman with ear stretchies and an impeccable ability to pick the right beverages for his diners. Knowing that I don’t drink alcohol, he started me off on a grape juice made with grapes from the French Alps that are normally earmarked for Beaujolais, and then offered me a local organic apple juice from a no-pesticides orchard from the south of Denmark as my second drink. Both were delicious, and I was particularly excited to find the same bottle of apple juice (Fejo Aeblemost) in an upmarket grocery store in Copenhagen later in our stay.

While we had originally planned to have the cheaper lunch menu (395DKK per person), we decided to splurge for the six-course standard menu (595DKK per person) given it was such a special occasion! At the time of dining (it changes regularly!), this menu included the following dishes (wording all my own, not on the menu):

  • Fermented potato and yoghurt grilled bread served with a fermented vegetable dip with nasturtium emulsion
  • Starter of celeriac mousse, salted apple and wormwood crumble
  • Smoked Arctic char served with vinegar powder, potato vinegar crisps, and garnished with nasturtium leaves
  • Smoked Danish squid from the West Coast topped with radish, black garlic oil, plum, egg yolk, and flowers from the Amass garden
  • Soft scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms, red seaweed, sour curd, and topped with toasted buckwheat
  • Wild Danish duck (beware of any stray buckshot!) with pumpkin and juniper, topped with charred parsley
  • Dessert of sugar beet syrup, yoghurt ice-cream, baked sweet potato puree, honey from the Amass beehives, and the slightest hint of black pepper

My pick of the above was definitely the smoked squid – I’ve never had squid quite that creamy and smoky before. Combined with the black garlic oil and the firm and crispy radish slices, it blended together on the palate in a rich smoky savoury hit that sparked all my senses. I also loved the fermented potato bread, and complimented Milton on it when we saw him again during our meal. I’m definitely interested in trying to recreate this bread at home when we return to Australia…we just have to figure out how to ferment potatoes first!

I found the duck quite strong and gamey – understandable given that it was a wild rather than farmed duck! Best suited to those like K who like to eat a lot of meat, and rare, strong-flavoured meat at that. K didn’t think much of the soft scrambled eggs which I enjoyed – I thought the toasted buckwheat and the sour curd really made the dish pop, but he thought it was a bit plain.

Overall, Amass was an absolutely wonderful fine dining experience, well deserving of their status on the World’s Best 50 Restaurants list despite the fact that they’ve only been open for two years. Innovation is high on their priority list, as is the promotion and use of local produce. Their staff are warm, friendly and inviting, and come to Amass after having served time in the kitchens of some of the best restaurants around the world – heck the head chef at Amass is ex-Noma! I wouldn’t be surprised if they were to climb up the Top Restaurants list in the years to come, provided they continue creating and trying new things.

Amass is located at 153 Refshalevej in Copenhagen.