Thursday, 1 May 2014

Attica, Ripponlea, Victoria (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

When it comes to restaurant reservations, I'm a pretty organised guy. For our honeymoon, I secured tables at all the more difficult to book restaurants months in advance; the then (3 Star-Michelin) Caprice in Hong Kong was secured 6 months ahead, Otto e Mezzo Bombana and Iggy's reservations booked within the first week of their booking windows being opened for the dates we wanted. I even kept a file with all our 20+ reservation confirmation emails printed out just in case we confused times or a restaurant forgot to take our booking down properly. What can I say; I'm a planner by profession.

So when I realised I'd missed the first two days to book a table at Attica, I was filled with a deep foreboding that we'd totally missed out on getting a table for our Melbourne trip - even with a range of dates for the restaurant to select from. The third day in a reservation window for a table 3 months away should not normally be this hard to secure, but such is the frenzy since Attica's incredibly successful 2013; voted #21 in the world on the S Pellegrino List, The Good Food Guide's 2014 Restaurant of the Year and a Chef of the Year win for Head Chef Ben Shewry. David Chang recently went so far as to say Shewry is doing 'god's work in Melbourne', so actually getting a reservation at Attica is kind of a big deal. With all this hype, most of the dates I had wanted were totally booked out, and the only date available did not have a table for two.
"What do you have?"
"We have a table for 4 or for 6."
"Okay, I'll take the four."
"You know you won't be able to split it..."
"That's okay... we'll make it work!"

'Making it work' ended up being a lot of work; as revered as this place is, the $190 asking price for food alone means this is not an invitation to take up casually. Months of asking around on Facebook and in general conversation came to naught and I went as far as to emailed bloggers I don't even know personally in Perth to see if they had any contacts in Melbourne who would be keen.

One week to go and it was looking highly likely that we were going to have to cancel, and Attica's cancellation policy means you have to give 48 hours notice or pay for a table for four anyway. Ouch. Thankfully Ben 'Bendog' Fitzhardinge - a fellow Western Australian who had recently moved to Melbourne - was both in town and very keen, and with his friend and ex-Helvetica bartender Javla Fitzgibbon taking the fourth seat, Attica went from a precarious dream to reality.

All four of us arrived early, with Javla and Bendog seated at the table when Alissa and I we ushered in. They had already ordered their pre-drinks, and Alissa and I joined them with our standard order of Gin and Tonic. Attica's gin selection featured some interesting local producers, and my choice of a South Australian offering and Alissa's intriguing lilly pilly gin by Tamborine Mountain Distillery were satisfying and idiosyncratic options we would rarely have been afforded at other restaurants. Later in the evening we would choose to go with matched wines for the meal and found this trend even more pronounced; in its mix of wine by conscientious international and Australian producers, many of the local wines were exclusives made specifically for the restaurant and unavailable to the public or were unusual wines such as the Nebbiolo/Shiraz mix of the Castagna Adam's Rib The Red. Given the esoteric and exclusive nature of the wine matching, my poor position at the table to photograph the bottles and for the sake of some brevity in writing about a lengthy degustation, I won't be commenting on the individual wines served. Suffice it to say, the selection was thoughtfully considered and well matched. Its adds another $115 to an already expensive meal but given the elusive nature of a lot that was on offer, I would recommend the pairing if you're considering it and I'm glad Bendog convinced us to do so. 

As with our meal at Vue de Monde, Attica's staff brought out tasty morsels almost immediately after we'd settled in. First to the table came the customary bread serving. On offer were a rich, creamy and nutty macadamia butter with salt bush and the a standard serve of hand churned butter.

The bread on offer was an excellent sourdough rye flavoured with wattleseeds. I love the intense flavour of sourdough rye but lament the fact it's often served a little hard and dry. Attica's version on the other hand had a lovely softness in the middle with a decent, crunchy crust on the outside. Its the small details that make the best restaurants really shine, and the bread and macadamia butter combination was already an impressive start before the amuse bouches had even arrived, and we all relished the free flow of bread throughout the evening.

Honeycomb, Hazelnut Oil and Curd was the first of the amuse bouches to arrive. Perhaps owing to the fact Shewry's signature dessert Plight of the Bees is sadly no longer a part of the tasting menu, a waiter brought out a tray filled with honeycomb that was scooped out into our bowls tableside. The yoghurt-like combination of sourness from the curd with the sweetness of the honeycomb would have been a decent enough dish, however the addition of the hazelnut oil helped elevate the dish from being one dimensional.

Mushroom Leaves were next, served with a housemade sour cream with cauliflower, oil and lemon aspen. I'm fairly sure none of us had even heard of Mushroom Leaf before, however upon tasting this Papua New Guinea native it was clear that its name was apt. Having the flavour of mushroom with the texture of a herb or leafy vegetable, its earthy flavour was not overpowered by the sour cream dip and really spoke of its potential as a truly delicious salad leaf.

Presented on a tea towel and a printed recipe for the dish, our third amuse bouche was Wallaby Black Pudding Pikelets served with Pineapple Sage, Davidsonia Jam (sour native plum), Malt Vinegar Flavoured Beer Cream and Licorice Leaves. The recipe for the pikelets is hilarious, filled with a plethora of Ockerisms beginning with the title of 'Wallaby Pikelets Maaate' and continuing through with such ingredient qualifiers and directions as 'dripping, left over from whatever animal ya ol man killed for Sunday roast', that the wallaby juice used for the pikelets be not from 'the back of cousin Robbo's ute' and that after serving it to a 'ravenous wild gang of Aussie shearers', one should 'do doughnuts around the paddock in your Holden Monaro'. Australiana and comedy aside, the dish was indeed very tasty - a lot better than a pikelet made from wallaby blood has any right to taste. Its hard to describe, as the slightly metallic taste of the pikelets combined with the sourness of native plum and the sourness of malt vinegar does not sound like something particularly tasty, however it just worked in a weird and wonderful way.

The Blue Mussels were easily the best of the four amuse bouches, crumbed and flash fried and presented next to a painted mussel shell portrait of the restaurant's mussel supplier. Alissa doesn't really dig mussels very much, however even she had to admit that the soft mussel flesh, marine flavour and crispy coating were a winning combination that was moreish and superbly cooked. This was just about the best mussels I've ever eaten. The degustation proper had not ever begun, and we were already impressed.

The waiter handed us the menu for the night's degustation-only menu. Pictured is the restaurant's omnivore menu. A vegetarian degustation is also offered, and in a commendable move it doesn't just substitute meats out of the meat-centric courses. Instead it operates as its own, properly thought out multi-course meal, complete with delicious sounding dishes unique to the alternative menu. With the kitchen prepared to cater the meal to individual dietary requirements and with the starring role Shewry affords vegetables and herbs in his cooking, this is probably a restaurant I would recommend to vegans interested in a fine dining experience. 

Our first course of Snow Crab with Sour Leaves came enshrouded in the large, sour sorrel leaves of its name, with a sprinkling of pepperberry across the top.

Removing the leaves revealed the careful plating beneath; snow crab picked fresh that day, topped with marigold flowers, buckwheat and mandarin puree. Cooked perfectly, the characteristically sweet flavour and delicate, flaky texture of the crab was enhanced by the sweet citrus flavour of the mandarin puree and the floral notes from the marigold. The sorrel leaves helped round out the dish, cutting the overall sweetness by providing a contrasting sour note.

Perhaps owing to a brief stint at David Thompson's Nahm and a subsequent love of Thai cuisine, we could already see tartness and the use of herbs as clear trends throughout the meal, with no dish better exemplifying this aspect of Shewry's palate than the next dish - Ten Flavours of St. Joseph's Wort. An evolution of an earlier, similar dish, the St. Joseph's Wort referred to in the title is an old term for basil. The dish contains 10 different varieties of the herb served with Black Russian tomatoes, native currant juice, red wine emulsion, sheep's milk curd and what I believe was freeze-dried beetroot. This was a stunning, absolutely fresh dish that showed just how great a simple tomato, basil and curd salad can be; balancing any acidity and sourness with sweetness thanks to the delicious Black Russian tomatoes and the beetroot.

After two impressive light dishes the degustation ramped up with Marron and Ground Greens. Its interesting how revered marron is over east, and we all laughed at the fact a table of Western Australians had come all the way to Melbourne to be served a crustacean only found on the west coast.

The ground greens served with the marron were a mixture of oxalis (wood sorrel), tarragon and kale with fried chicken thigh and a decadent pork fat and roasted white onion sauce was poured over the meal as it was served. As with Vue de Monde's marron dish, Marron and Ground Greens really showed off how well the east coast understand how to cook this Western Australian native. The marron itself was juicy and delicious, with the herbs providing a host of complementary flavours. The true stroke of genius however was the pork fat and roasted white onion sauce and how it kicked the dish into umami overdrive, its unctuous richness tasting a lot like my beloved tonkotsu ramen broth. Being something of a tonkotsu fiend (see here, here and here), I was in heaven.

I have a great dislike for thickly cut cucumber unless its pickled, so I was a little nervous about how the Cucumbers, Holy Flax and Sauce of Burnet would turn out. As if perfectly tailored to my taste buds, the Gippsland Cucumbers used were lightly pickled and chargrilled, with the sauce made from salad burnet ( a herb similar to parsley) and hot smoked trout, garnished with holy flax, slivered garlic and sweet peas. Javla commented that the dish smelt amazing, and we all breathed in as the aromas from the dish permeated the dining table. As with the Ten Flavours of St. Joseph's Wort, this was a stunning vegetarian dish that showed off the sheer quality of the produce, from the flavoursome pickled cucumbers to the serious sweetness of the sweet peas. What's more, there was an impressive richness and heartiness to the dish -something far harder to pull off which vegetables than with meat, and not something one would usually associate with cucumbers. I never thought I would say I enjoyed a dish with cucumbers as the star ingredient, but I'm happy to say this dish proved me wrong.

Our next course was King George Whiting in Paperbark, barbecued for three minutes to cook delicately.

We were encouraged to peel back the paperbark but that it was not for eating - a useful warning for international diners who would be unfamiliar with this fairly traditional Outback way of cooking. Peeling the paperbark back revealed the whiting topped with lemon myrtle, salt, Paspaley pearl meat and butter. Everything about this dish was prepared wonderfully, and the choice of cooking method allowed the good eating qualities of King George Whiting to shine. Perhaps owing to my familiarity with both this fish and the cooking method, this was probably the least surprising dish served that night. It wasn't a misstep per se, just that as a result it was just not as memorable as the courses that preceded it.

Red Kangaroo served with Herbs Tended by the Hands of our Cooks would be our final savoury course for the evening. The fillets of Flinders Rangers Red Kangaroo were topped with the native fruit quandong, and the carefully selected herbs were coated in a macadamia nut vinaigrette. A few years ago David Chang was quoted as saying, 'I think [kangaroo] should displace the cow in Australia', a sentiment I thoroughly agree with as someone who has actively replaced beef with kangaroo in my diet. A healthy lean meat, kangaroo is too often served dry and tasteless, and still has the stigma of 'eating Skippy'; a real shame as it can be really juicy and flavoursome if done right, and is far more environmentally friendly than cattle farming. Roo proved to be no problem for the Attica kitchen, here likely cooked sous-vide for a top to bottom medium rare with a nice char finish to the edges. Designed to be eaten altogether, the juicy and flavoursome kangaroo, the sourness of the quandong, the various flavours of the herbs and the nuttiness of the macadamia nut vinaigrette were delicious on the fork. With kangaroo and quandong a fairly typical bush food combination, this is a dish that could easily have fallen into Australiana cliche; instead the result was a most successful and masterfully executed version of this dish.

After our mains were cleared, we were invited for a brief sojourn to Attica's courtyard. A small ice cream stand stood in the corner...

... with an impressive herb garden taking up the main space. A refreshing drink of apple and forestberry leaf (actually a type of eucalypt) tea was served to us, while we were given a sneak peak into some of Attica's sustainable practices.

As well as being a forager before foraging became cool, Shewry's commitment to nature is commendably all-encompassing. A high tech composter is located on site that speeds up the breakdown so that the kitchen's organic scraps can be used as nutrients in their gardens, and the office staff use soy-based ink in their pens so that even their paper can be reused in an environmental practice even better than traditional recycling.

It was pointed out that the holy flax served in the cucumber dish came from the garden...

...and we were offered some lime basil to try, with it citrussy flavour surprising all four of us (it had featured earlier in the evening as one of the 10 Flavours of St. Joseph's Wort). The grounds are insufficient for the sheer amount of herbs and vegetables required for service 5 nights a week, and as such the Attica staff tend to a second larger garden located at the nearby Rippon Lea Estate.

While we enjoyed the break in the meal, a waiter served us scoops of raspberry and Queensland licorice ice cream dipped in chocolate ganache...

... and then dipped into freeze-dried raspberries. This pre-dessert was excellent, with the raspberry and licorice tasting like the tastiest red licorice you've ever had (only in ice cream form), complemented by the intense tang of the freeze-dried raspberries and the chocolate thankfully not being overly rich. In a lesser restaurant this would be a commendable dessert in its own right, but Attica had more sweet things in store for us. 

Sounding more like a cheese course on paper, Blueberries, Vinegar and Fresh Cheese turned out to be the most exciting of the desserts served to us that night. The cheese came in the form of house made fromage blanc and sheep's curd yoghurt churned with chewy pieces of apples into ice cream, and then finished with dehydrated and fresh blueberries from Yarra Valley glazed in caramelised apple balsamic and topped with white chrysanthemum flowers. Basically a take on yoghurt and berries, the fromage blanc frozen yoghurt was a particularly delicious twist, and one that carried the sweet and sour trend of previous dishes through to dessert. The combination of dehydrated and fresh blueberries provided intensity and juiciness respectively, and the perfumed, floral note of the chrysanthemum proved to be the cheffy masterstroke that elevated the yoghurt and berries concept to the next level.

The modest sounding Raw Strawberry Jam was our last course for the evening. Decidedly less showy than the Plight of the Bees signature dessert it replaces, its simple appearance belies what is in fact a fairly complicated dish. At the bottom is a layer of sour cream followed by very thinly sliced strawberries and chewy strawberry cubes. On top of this sits forest berry ice and meringue flavoured with vinegar before being topped with the namesake raw strawberry jam.

Its another sweet and sour combination, and for all its complication it tastes much like a strawberry pavlova. Except for one important point; the rawness of the strawberry flavour that is the obvious star of the dish. I don't know what they've done, but based on the Rotovap I saw sitting on a shelf in the kitchen I would say that would have something to do with the intense fresh flavour of this dish.

We had been talking about cognac, and Bendog decided to finish his meal with a glass. Alissa and I were feeling like our 8 pours of wine and a cocktail was probably enough alcohol for the evening, and we finished up with some white tea instead. This was decent white tea, but nothing as impressive as the tea served at Vue de Monde. Javla and Alissa did both comment that they liked the pot our tea was served in.

And of course, no meal is complete without petit fours. A card was placed on the table depicting The New Zealand Pukeko...

... with an explanation from Shewry written on the back.

A regular petit four that has been on the menu for many years, these chocolate Pukeko Eggs seemed all the more timely given that it was the Wednesday after Easter.

Made from white chocolate, a bit of the shell revealed a filling of salted caramel - a combination that is a delicious as it sounds. And with that our meal at Attica came to an end. 

The Verdict: Ultimate
So does Attica live up to all the hype? Yes, it most definitely does, though I feel that I need to make a few qualifying statements given that I rated Vue de Monde higher than Attica in my post regarding the famous Shannon Bennett flagship. I think that Ben Shewry is a very talented artist and probably a culinary genius, and given that he's been doing the whole foraging and farm-to-table thing since before it became trendy, he's a man for our times. With creative industries constantly challenged by the dilemma of creativity in the face of climate change, his focus on the local and a deep connection to the land is inspiring. As much as molecular gastronomy wowed everyone with its innovative techniques, this modernist branch is the future of cooking - at least based on the rise of restaurants like Noma, Narisawa and even Perth's Co-op Dining.

I think however that restaurants like Vue de Monde are still more accessible than a place like Attica, and the complete experience of dining at Vue de Monde - the stellar menu filled with a lot of Alissa and Donovan pleasing flavours and ingredients, the view, the theatrical table setting, best-in-class service and the fact that even the tea selection has been considered - makes it so much more than just great food. I stand by my earlier comments. 

But I don't think that is what Attica is about. The comparison I'd make is that Vue de Monde is like Jean-Luc Godard during the nouvelle vague years  - bold, brash, wildly experimental while still playing around with ideas that come from narrative, genre, history and the theatrical, represented in Vue de Monde by a backbone of French technique, a penchant for nostalgic Australiana iconography and a well considered mise en scene. Shewry on the other hand is more like experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage - inward-looking, deeply personal and working in a style that questions the very nature of the medium - to the point where Shewry's food does not have any obvious reference points other than what interests him, and even the Australian/New Zealand touches speak less about a shared collective history than they are a window in the mind of one man.

Javla commented on how stark the room was, and how maybe with a more exciting appearance it might have helped elevate the meal to that next level of experiential enjoyment. I agreed, however in hindsight I'm wondering if this is precisely the blank canvas Shewry wants to work with; it all about what's on the plate. Beyond each dish Attica is not about theatre, and though its for us its not about us. Attica is about Ben Shewry; its autobiography, its philosophical and environmental treatise and profound artistic expression, and a culinary essay about the potential of the world around us if we just open our eyes. It may not hit you right away, but it will be totally worth it when it does. 

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  1. I'm so glad that you managed to find dining companions and got to keep your booking. I'm very jealous, this all looks like a truly mind blowing evening!

    1. Thanks Kristy, and thanks for trying to help us out too. It was a bit of a worry for a while but thankfully everything fell into place. I'd thoroughly recommend making a booking at Attica next time you're in Melbourne.