Birthday Weekend in Bendigo, November 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

The best getaways are the ones that coincide with special occasions – both planned and unplanned. In this case, booking a weekend getaway to the country town of Bendigo for my 30th birthday was planned. However, booking it for the same weekend as the annual Blues & Roots Festival was an unplanned but a highly pleasant surprise.

Bendigo is close enough to Melbourne to be accessible for a weekend away with no need to take any extra annual leave, small enough to be traversable without a car, and large enough to have plenty to offer those looking for a diverting weekend. We took the Vline train up to Bendigo on the Friday evening after work (and after dinner at Dumpling World), arriving at Bendigo station around 9pm. We jumped into a taxi for the eight minute trip to our Art Series Hotel The Schaller Studio, and were treated to the first of many friendly encounters with locals that weekend.

Is it just me, or are country people naturally friendlier? Where most Melbourne taxi drivers will ignore you, we had a good chat with our taxi driver, then with hotel staff who checked us in, with bartenders and waitresses, and with the owner at 5ifty boutique where I bought my first organic bamboo cotton clothing items (I’m teaching myself about ethical clothing). In fact, they’re so friendly that the boutique owner even gave us her own copy of the Blues & Roots Festival program, marked up with her recommendations of where to go and which acts to see. 

That was another highlight of our trip – the Blues & Roots Festival. It’s not normally my preferred genre of music, but to having the twang of guitars constantly playing in the background of a stroll through the city is quite soothing. It was all about the slower pace of life – things like stopping for a half hour in Rosalind Park in the city centre and finding a patch of grass to join all the locals in listening to a free public concert.

In the same vein, we also enjoyed a Sunday afternoon stroll around Lake Weeroona, joining all the family and friends groups having picnics and barbecues. It honestly felt like we were back in Munich Germany, with the forced Sunday closure of shops and businesses creating a cosier community atmosphere. Spending time outside in nature with family on a Sunday definitely beats spending your time in a crowded shopping centre. Ban Sunday trading I say!

The main reason I chose Bendigo for our getaway? I wanted to visit the Bendigo Art Gallery which is renowned for its remarkable exhibitions. At the time of our visit, they were showing items from the personal archive of Australian haute couture designer Toni Maticevski. His creations are beautiful – structural but ethereal, and altogether other-worldly. However, they’re the type of creations that look best on a mannequin. I tried to envision myself wearing even one of the creations, and I just couldn’t visualise it. My life is rather too mundane for Maticevski to be in my wardrobe, I simply don’t have any red carpet events to attend.

Food-wise, Bendigo has a lot going for it. It’s only a small town, but with cool cafes like Percy and Percy, laneway bars like The Dispensary and innovative local hatted eateries like Masons of Bendigo, there’s more than enough great dining spaces for a weekend away.

With our big Europe trip behind us, we’re mainly going to be concentrating on local and domestic travel over the coming years. Part of it is financial – we’re saving for big ticket items like house deposits! – but the other part is pragmatic – we’re also saving our annual leave for things like eventual maternity leave. Short weekend getaways to places like Bendigo are what we have to look forward to…lucky there is so much to look forward to with great art, music and dining!

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: The Dispensary, Bendigo

I can’t even really remember how long it’s been since I had an alcoholic drink. Two years? Three years? It’s definitely been a significant length of time since I had a drink, and I honestly haven’t really missed it. Most restaurants will do a half-decent mocktail, otherwise I’m generally quite content with a sparkling water or organic soft drink of some description.

I decided on my 30th birthday that I would break my drought with a single drink. In fact, I would start drinking again in polite company keeping only one rule in mind – I will only ever have exquisitely crafted cocktails or extremely expensive wine, and I would truly savour the moment by making one or two drinks last a whole day. 

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I chose the perfect place to rejoin drinking society, with a leisurely lunch at The Dispensary Bar & Diner in Bendigo. The Dispensary’s reputation is spreading far and wide, enough so that I had colleagues in Melbourne advising that I visit the Dispensary when they heard I was visiting Bendigo for the weekend.

Part of their appeal lies in their extremely impressible drinks list – dozens of wines join hundreds of beers, join more than a handful of spirits and pages of cocktails. There’s honestly a drink to suit everyone at the Dispensary, from sweet to smoky and creamy to crisp.

Aperol Spritz, $14, Garage Project Hapi Daze, $11
Aperol Spritz, $14, Garage Project Hapi Daze, $11

So what drink did I break my abstinence with? None other than an Aperol Spritz, light, sparkly, fruity, and oh so very drinkable on a warm day in the country. It’s the perfect drink of Aperol and Prosecco to enjoy on a summer’s day, the type of drink that works well with any type of food. Altogether a perfect choice for re-entering the world of alcohol, although it was strong enough to make me feel woozy within minutes of having my first sip, albeit it was on an empty stomach.

K took the bartender’s suggestion of the Garage Project Hapi Daze beer in a tinny, a pale ale that had an intense lingering taste of hops. A proper beery beer. I loved the design on the tin with its retro surf vibe.

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As you can tell, I really enjoyed my Aperol Spritz…

Pacific Oyster, $4 each
Pacific Oyster, $4 each

…but I particularly enjoyed these Pacific Oysters, which surprised me with their freshness and lingering flavours of the sea. Is it unusual that I had some of the freshest oysters I’ve ever eaten in a tiny regional non-coastal town? Or is it simply a reflection of the pride The Dispensary take in buying the best ingredients? My only gripe is that the adductor hadn’t been cut, which meant that my attempt to slurp down the oyster in one gulp was hindered and a lot messier than it would have been otherwise.

Super crunch fries with malt mayo, $8
Super crunch fries with malt mayo, $8

These Super Crunch Fries lived up to their name as well, with an audible crunch every time I bit into a fry. I’m going to horrify a lot of people though, as I say that I would have preferred for these fries to be served with a homemade tomato chutney rather than malt mayo, however delicious the mayo was. I think it’s one of those personal preferences that divides the nation – mayonnaise or tomato sauce on your chips?

Edamame with pink river salt, $6
Edamame with pink river salt, $6

No such controversy with the small serve of Edamame with Pink River Salt. Edamame beans are always a crowd-pleaser, especially when cooked as perfectly and flavoured as subtly as these were. 

Broccoli with lemon butter and smoked almonds, $12
Broccoli with lemon butter and smoked almonds, $12

In the interest of ordering more greens and being marginally healthy, we also ordered a side of the Broccoli with Lemon Butter and Smoked Almonds. Health be damned though, when the greens turn out to be smothered in the creamiest and richest buttery sauce you’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. The crushed almonds sprinkled on top helped to add a bit of texture to the dish as well.

Fried chicken steam buns with lettuce, cucumber and mayo, $13
Fried chicken steam buns with lettuce, cucumber and mayo, $13

Initially I shied away from the idea of ordering the steam buns as I didn’t want to be disappointed. I’ve been burned you see, by sub-par steamed buns such as the pork belly bun we had at Mathallen Food Hall in Oslo. The bartender talked me into the Fried Chicken Steam Buns though, and I’m so glad he did. The Southern-style chicken tenders were a surprisingly good much for the pillowy-soft steam buns and fresh crispy lettuce and cucumber. A surprisingly excellent combination.

Prawn toasts with chilli and kewpie mayo, $12
Prawn toasts with chilli and kewpie mayo, $12

The Prawn Toasts with Chilli and Kewpie Mayo were another delight. A wafer-thin sesame-encrusted deep-fried crispy layer hid a piping hot centre of juicy prawn. With an extra chilli kick, these little individual prawn toast bites really hit the spot.

Jasmine ice-cream coconut, milk crumb, lime and strawberry, $15
Jasmine ice-cream coconut, milk crumb, lime and strawberry, $15

While we were quite full by that point, we couldn’t resist ordering a dessert to share. I’m glad we did, because this turned out to be quite the highlight of the meal – Jasmine ice-cream with coconut, milk crumb, lime and strawberry. I think this dish in particularly highlighted the culinary genius of the chef at The Dispensary. Pairing the slightly bitter yet flowery undertones of jasmine with the snap of freeze-dried coconut and strawberry, and creaminess of milk crumb was a real work of art. One of the best desserts I’ve tasted in recent times.

Chocolate fudge, $8
Chocolate fudge, $8

Did I say one dessert to share? My mistake…naturally, we ended up ordering two desserts! The little Chocolate Fudge bites were the perfect way to end our meal, with the aftertaste of rich dark and creamy chocolate lingering on the tongue.

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The Dispensary was a wonderful place to celebrate a birthday with a long and leisurely lunch. With world-class cocktails and a highly impressive drinks list, one could easily make the mistake of assuming The Dispensary is just another bar. However when you take into account the excellence of the food menu, and the innovation behind some of the dishes, it’s clear that food is just as important as wine to the proprietors of The Dispensary.

It’s definitely a must-visit for any visitor to Bendigo. Even if you don’t count yourself as a wine buff, a beer connoisseur, or a foodie, you won’t be able to help but walk away from a meal at The Dispensary feeling well satisfied with your visit.

The Dispensary Bar & Diner is located at 9 Chancery Lane, Bendigo.