His Catfish Thai Restaurant was awarded a hat by the Australian Good Food Guide three years in a row. Then chef Damien Jones closed the doors, brought in the interior designers and reopened as a completely new restaurant.
That was around this time last year and already Mr Jones has foodies coming from near and far for its contemporary Asian menu and amazing desserts. As Damien confided: “My wife Danielle is a fantastic pastry chef. She has wonderful skills. And she didn’t really have the chance to use that at Catfish. So it’s given us the opportunity to bring something new to Ballarat.”
As one of Ballarat’s greatest exports, Damien Jones has made quite a name for himself in the world of fine cuisine. He has cooked in the kitchens of Andrew McConnell and David Thompson. For the latter, he was head chef when the restaurant Nahm received its muchprized Michelin Star.
Still, like most kids from Ballarat who head off overseas to achieve their fame and fortune, sooner or later they return. So once Damien and Danielle had become parents, it was time to bring his young family home. That was in 2009.
Not that you have to grow up locally to appreciate what this region has to offer. In fact, Damien was pleasantly surprised when a sommelier he worked with in London, moved to Ballarat with the idea of starting a winery. “This area is wonderful for cool climate wine so he decided to grow his Pinot Noir here,” Damien added.
Of course, it’s not just grapes that grow well in these parts, Ballarat is ideal for all kinds of produce and opening Mr Jones has enabled Damien to make full use of the local farms, breweries and vineyards.
“It’s fantastic here for local meat. There’s lots of lamb and beef. The local farmers that I use have butcher shops and I speak to them directly. Ballarat’s plate is also incredibly seasonal. It’s very hot in summer. In winter it’s very cold. Then you get spring and autumn that are both different again. So for the local produce alone, it’s an amazing place to be cooking. And, of course, I try to use organic when I can. Recently I’ve been using lots of garlic and another organic grower rang to say he has some zucchinis and pumpkin.”
Damien’s three young boys even have their own veggie patch in the family’s garden.
“We’ve got bergamots, sage, parsley, corn, peas and carrots,” Damien added.
Damien’s signature dish at the moment is Peking duck, salted then smoked. Not that you need to love meat to eat here. The menu at Mr Jones has contemporary Asian dishes with vegetarian and vegan options, great for shared dining, quick catch ups or a long lingering dinner.
Architects and interior designers Russell & George initially gave Catfish its contemporary oriental image. They were briefed again to accommodate Mr Jones’s dining experience. Think urban, light-filled, simpler yet sophisticated. There is table seating for 65. Upstairs is an area for special events of up to 28 guests.
But outside is where things have really changed recently. In addition to the Travis Price mural, which is one of the first things visitors to the street see, Mr Jones has just scored a parklet. This alfresco space, for up to 16 diners, enables guests to make the most of this stunning streetscape.
“It’s a really nice little street we’re on. It’s one-way now. They’ve planted trees. We’re opposite the great old post office of Ballarat which, at dusk, sort of glows,” Damien said.
In fact, Damien would go so far to likening this part of Ballarat with some areas he visited on his travels. “Walk down the street at night and, with all this amazing architecture, you could be anywhere in Europe.”
Damien has seen Ballarat come a long way from the counter meals of his childhood. “There are so many cafés. You can get good coffee anywhere in Ballarat now. A few gastro pubs, restaurants. Could be a high-end dinner or a very quick casual meal. Lots of places to choose from doing lots of different things and some really nice sit outs. You could probably manage to eat at a different place each mealtime for a couple of weeks – though you’d want to go back to a quite a few,” he added.
Mr Jones is open for dinner four times a week, Wednesday to Saturday. There is also a Friday lunch. Bookings are advised and if you have special dietary requirements, just let them know when you call. Of course, you can always try and wing it if you find yourself in Main Road. Or even just stop by to have a bevvy at the bar and sample some of the delicious snack food. After all, whether it’s a casual bite or a very special dinner, no visit to Ballarat is complete unless you’re keeping up with the Joneses.
To add to the culinary variety in Ballarat, Mr Jones’ hatted predecessor still makes the occasional appearance. “It’s $85 a person, with four street foods and the main course is banquet-style chef food, getting a soup, a curry, stir fry and dessert as well, so a real feast.” Keep an eye on the Made of Ballarat website for any upcoming Catfish events, as when these are staged, they sell out quickly.
Mr Jones is career chefs Damien and Danielle Jones’s third restaurant, bringing together their combined experience from a Michelin restaurant in London to their previous hatted Ballarat restaurant, Catfish. The space, which was designed by architects Russell and George, sets off a fun dining experience, much different to that which visitors may have come to expect from the Main Road venue.