The CV could strike dread into the heart of any regular diner. Stints at The Fat Duck in the UK, and El Bulli and the Arzak laboratory in Spain, all undertaken while still an impressionable young chef, could surely only lead to a riot of ill-conceived foams and unnecessary dehydration, of plate splotches and pointless deconstructions. It's enough to make you want to shake your fist at the sky, crying: haven't we suffered enough?
It's a fact that chef Ryan Flaherty has all those establishments on his CV. It's also true that his website contains a quote from legendary French chef Antonin Carême (who cooked for both Napoleon and King George IV, and is credited with having invented the toque): "My job is to provoke your appetite, it's not for me to regulate it." By this point it wouldn't be unreasonable to feel panicked, but remain calm - not every set of similar circumstances has to descend into cliché. Mister Jennings, Flaherty's new 34-seat restaurant (with a private dining room that can take up to 16 people) in Richmond, is a case in point.
Since returning from his European adventure several years ago, Flaherty has spent most of his time at the Estelle, the Northcote diner he co-owned with chef Scott Pickett. The two chefs managed to woo the fickle local crowd with a dégustation-only menu - stacked with sardine fossils, citrus gels and frozen sour cream - a feat that felt like a warp in the space-time continuum. It stands as a credit to their cooking skill and unpretentious attitude, and the perversity of the Melburnian dining public.
Now the pair has parted ways. Pickett still has the Estelle and co-owns Smith Street's Saint Crispin, while Flaherty has set up shop in a former café in the culinary badlands of Bridge Road.
At first glance, the offer at Mister Jennings seems more flexible and, perhaps, slightly more conservative than at Flaherty's previous digs. There's a tasting menu or you can order à la carte and the decent range of snacks (a couple of different oysters, charcuterie, pickled peppers, hummus and olive toast) also make Mister Jennings a good pit-stop choice for the glass-and-a-bite crowd. But order the signature snack and it's immediately apparent that, while Flaherty has played around with his approach, there's been no dumbing down with the cooking. It's simply offered in a savvy, more easily readable fashion.
It may seem like a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of a mere dagwood dog, to have it represent the new philosophical direction of an entire business, but this particular dagwood dog is more than up to a bit of heavy lifting.
It's a battered sausage on a stick, yes, but the sausage in this version is a house-made boudin of chicken flavoured with thyme and shallots. It's rolled and steamed, and then coated with a simple flour and soda water batter, deep-fried, sprinkled with smoked paprika and salt, and served with a chunky tomato ketchup. Fun to eat, juicy and with the right amount of crunch in the batter and tang in the ketchup, it's a great blend of humour and finesse.
While the designer dagwood dog might play to the ongoing obsession with blinged-up takeaway, it's the exception rather than the rule at Mister Jennings. What the dog has in common with the rest of the menu is more to do with cooking style than genre, with great balance leavened with a surprise or two being the most recognisable backbeat to the food here.
You can see it in a superb dish of blue swimmer crab that's teamed with a pool of salmorejo, the gazpacho-like purée from the south of Spain. The salmorejo is made from tomatoes, garlic, shallots, white wine vinegar and olive oil and, given a touch of heat via a dash of Tabasco, it's already a great combination with the crab. But add the diced celery, mayo and black pepper that flavour the steamed crabmeat, plus thin slices of green chilli and mustard leaves, and the dish rushes into plate-licking territory (which you'll have to do because no bread is offered for you to mop the plate).
It's also there in one of the more complex dishes on the menu, one that's as close to El Bulli style as Flaherty will allow here and that will probably attract its fair share of Instagramming. The dish, a dramatic mixture of rose and blood-reds, is kangaroo loin (sourced from Western Australia) that's spiced with coriander seed, five-spice and black pepper, then rolled up and frozen. It's sliced thinly to serve and arrives still frozen (as Ferran Adrià used to do with veal) so that when you put it in your mouth, the texture changes and different flavours come into play as it thaws and begins to warm up.
Add a supporting cast of vinegary pickled shallots, wasabi cream, a veal and red wine jelly, batons of nashi pear and a dusting of freeze-dried raspberries, and you have a dish that could never be accused of not trying. But while it might sound as though it's trying a little too hard, the experience of actually eating it is one of surprise and pleasure, balance and solid, satisfying flavour. It's fun.
The dining room, though, could use a little more mirth. Clearly a work in progress and created within the financial constraints of single-owner-operator-dom, there are some understandable reasons for its stark, slightly unfinished feel. Still, there are few soft touches to warm things up and the timber chairs (mostly blond wood with a couple painted light blue for contrast), bare timber tables, polished floorboards, mostly blank white walls and a black-topped central bar with 1980s nightclub-style mirror-tile detailing feel a little utilitarian.
Plans are under way to soften the onslaught of all those unadorned clean lines, not just in the main dining space but with a chef's table in the sizeable kitchen.
In the meantime, the warmth is provided by the service which, as administered by front of house manager Malcolm Singh, is a good substitute.
His is a nicely judged style that's attentive without being overbearing (always a fine balance in a room this size) and the fact that he's played a big part in putting the wine list together (with help from Stokehouse sommelier Lincoln Riley) makes his conversation about the tight, interesting one-page list relaxed and informative.
There's some good drinking to be had on the list, with a decent selection available by the glass and 375ml carafe. If there's a bias, it's towards the Old World with labels from Spain, Germany, Italy and France, but there's also a natural wine presence (apparently, for a new restaurant in Australia, obligatory) that includes some highly enjoyable and somewhat off the beaten track numbers such as the 2011 Lammershoek Roulette Blanc, a succulent chewy white blend from South Africa that includes chenin blanc, chardonnay, viognier and clairette blanche in the mix.
The list works well with the restaurant's menu, able to keep up as the flavours dart here and there.
A carafe of the Lammershoek, for example, might give way to a glass of Punt Road 2012 Chemin Pinot Noir when an odd-sounding but very successful mix of duck spiced with garam masala and teamed with a peanut satay, celeriac purée and pickled turnips lands.
And there might be something even more robust required when the well-cooked steak (Rangers Valley, grain-fed) arrives, accompanied by excellent russet potato chips and a simple, well-dressed leaf salad.
The steak is another sign of the way Flaherty would like his restaurant to be used. It sits alongside the whole fish (perhaps a sand flathead, teamed with a caper beurre noisette) as the only traditional main-size courses on the list, offering both a simple option for those after a quick steak dinner and as a final shared course (the steak sliced, the fish filleted for you if you would prefer) on the tasting menu. It taps well into the plan that allows you to make a meal here simple or tricky, as the mood strikes.
Desserts, such as a moodily dark round of chocolate and cardamom ganache with chocolate biscuit crumbs, chocolate sorbet and quite fabulous chewy dehydrated orange segments, lean towards the trickier end of the equation but have fun doing so. There are also some rather good yoyos filled with vanilla custard for those looking for something simpler and sweet.
Flaherty named his restaurant after his favourite children's book author, Paul Jennings, and his teacher at school, also called Jennings, who introduced the chef to the writer's books. For Flaherty, the name is imbued with nostalgia and fun, of things skilfully done and easy to enjoy. It's a good summary of the kind of meal you'll eat at Mister Jennings.