Attica Melbourne does need much in the way of introduction. Owner/head chef Ben Shewry took over the suburban restaurant in 2005 and since then has slowly turned it into one of the most awarded restaurants in Australia, the most recent being the 2014 Age Good Food Guide Restaurant and Chef of the year awards and the number 21 spot in the 2013 edition of the San Pellegrino “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” awards. For a such a highly regarded restaurant with a consistent reputation for delivering excellent food and a brilliant dining experience, me writing a review almost seems superfluous.
Attica is located on an unassuming street in suburban Ripponlea, but finding it is not hard as it’s conveniently just around the corner from Ripponlea railway station. The space is a small 60 seater and quite dark, although the spotlights above are positioned to ensure that the tables themselves are very well lit.
The options for diners at Attica are simple. On Tuesday nights there is a $125 “chef’s table” menu which consists of 5 dishes that are being experimented and developed in the kitchen. A $75 matched wine option is also on offer. On Wednesday through Saturday an 8 course degustation (vegetarian option available) for $190 is available with a $115 matched wine option. The bar is quite well stocked and the large selection of local and international wines can be ordered separately along with a selection of beers, cocktails and juices etc.
My wife and I were lucky enough to receive a $700 voucher from a group of friends for our wedding back in May and 6 months after booking the first “Friday or Saturday night available” to say that we were highly anticipating the meal ahead would be a gross understatement.
Because we had the luxury of $700 to spend, we went for the 8 course tasting menu, matched wines, a cocktail each at the start and a single malt whiskey each at the end of it all. It was all very indulgent.
The food at Attica draws upon Shewry’s childhood memories growing up in rural Taranaki in New Zealand and his experiences in Australia. Many of the wild plants and vegetables that feature in the menu are harvested by Shewry on a daily basis from the beach near his home, the backyard garden of the restaurant, and the nearby property which houses a much larger garden for the exclusive use of Attica. The personal influences on the cooking is evident in almost every dish that comes to the table.
Quandong seeds on a plate at the side of the table when we arrived were a hint at the constant link to nature that was to come.
Macadamia Paste, Salt & Jersey Cow Butter
The salt and butter needs no explanation other than that it was of the highest quality and tasted amazing with the bread. Proof that the simple things done well are often the best. The macadamia paste also went very well with the bread, being ground macadamia nuts turned into a paste and mixed with macadamia oil.
House Baked Sourdough Rye
The sourdough was great bread with just the right level of sponginess to go with the above two options. The wait staff were very attentive and, along with topping up our water whenever it was getting low, we were offered more bread, butter and macadamia paste when they too went low. We got one more lot of bread, and it was hard to say no to more but we had to if we were to survive the feast that was to come.
Mushroom Leaf, Carrots & Corn Puree
The mushroom leaf was beautifully presented in a woven basket. On its own it was… leafy, however the purpose of the leaves was to dip them in the corn puree. Together as intended, they worked very well, and the corn puree also worked very well as a dip for the bread.
The carrots were soured in champagne vinegar, honey, and tumeric and were sweet and delicious.
Black Pudding Pikelets, Foam and Flowers
The black pudding pikelets were very interesting. The flavour of the black pudding was very obvious yet the texture was that of a pikelet. It was unusual but it worked.
Flash Fried Mussels with Sea Succulent
This was a very tasty dish. The mussels are no more than 24 hours out of the water and flash fried for 35 seconds just after they have been shucked. It’s fresh and tasty, with the freshness enhanced by the sea succulent. The garnish was edible sea purslane and the painted mussel shell was a portrait of the mussel farmer Lance Wiffen.
Snow Crab, Mandarin and Sorrel
This dish signified the start of the actual 8 courses. I will give up on writing “this dish was delicious” at this stage because the fact is that everything my wife and I ate at Attica was delicious. The steamed Western Australian snow crab was delicate and light and had a great texture.
Marron and Ground Greens
The chewy texture of the marron, also from Western Australia went really well with the grassy texture of the ground greens. The pork fat and onion sauce that they were resting on gave the dish an unexpected body. Having the lightest component of the dish add the “heaviest” flavour was a sensory curve ball.
A Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth it Was Grown
This is Shewry’s signature dish and, after several years of acclaim, it is about to be taken off the menu. I was thankful that I was able to try it before it was too late. The potato is slow cooked in a Maori-style hangi and left to rest in the soil for a further hour. The result is something so simple with the most amazing flavour and creamy texture. The hickory smoked goats curd and the fried and salted bush leaves all worked to enhance the dish.
Cucumbers, Holy Flax, Sauce of Burnet
This dish was very light and refreshing. Even my wife, who despises cucumbers, polished it off. Holy flax, it turns out, is olive leaf.
King George Whiting in Paperbark
The whiting was a real standout dish. Cooked over coals in paperbark, the fish is imbued with a light smokiness with the butter, tomato juice and lemon myrtle all combining to produce something quite simple and amazing.
The wines were matched perfectly to each dish. Our sommelier was very good. He ascertained our knowledge of wines at the start of the meal and described each wine to us based on this. Regular readers of The City Lane will know that when it comes to wine I’m a “I know what I like and that’s about it” kind of guy and it was nice to gain an understanding of what was going on with each wine, where it was from and why it was selected on a level that I could appreciate.
The wine below was matched to the following dish and was one of only two local wines on the menu that night – Cuvée Ripponlea by Syrahmi 2012 from Heathcote.
Red Kangaroo with Herbs Tended by the Hands of our Cooks
I’d never heard of Quandong until 2013 and it seems to be appearing on an ever increasing number of menus around the country. This is a great thing as there’s no reason that chefs shouldn’t use native fruits and vegetables if they can incorporate them into their meals. In this case the “native peach” provided a sweet counterbalance to the medium cooked tender kangaroo meat. The medley of herbs in the background were all edible.
Strawberry Ice Cream with Chocolate and Freeze Dried Raspberry
At this point of the meal, diners are given a break and taken in individual groups to the garden at the back of the restaurant. A small snack is provided while the staff at the back give a description of the garden and discuss some of the philosophies of the restaurant, answering any questions that diners might have.
My camera was set up for the inside and to be honest I didn’t was to spend time adjusting it to get a good photo of the ice cream while having a conversation to the staff members outside so you’ll have to settle for a blurry picture of this one.
Blueberries, Vinegar and Fresh Cheese
This dessert was brilliant, and one of the best that I have eaten all year. The cheese was actually an ice-cream and the garnish was chrysanthemum leaves and liquorice. The blueberries were freeze dried and some of them were injected with a chewy caramel. It was an amazing combination of flavour and unexpected textures and worked wonderfully.
Raw Strawberry Jam
The raw strawberry jam is just that and doesn’t involve any sugar or anything else. It’s served atop a meringue wafer with a bit of cream. The best word to describe how this tasted is “fresh” (well I suppose “raw” is a better word, but let’s not get into semantics).
The 8 courses finish, but the meal is not yet over. A folded piece of paper is brought to the table, the cover being a painting of two birds by Shewry’s dad Rob. Inside is a story about the Pukeko, that Ben Shewry recalls from his childhood.
A few minutes later and out come two eggs in a nest which despite their appearance are not pukeko eggs, but are in fact white chocolate eggs filled with a gooey salted caramel. A delicious and fitting end to the meal, closing the circle of the story that Shewry is trying to tell with this food.
Attica was every bit as good as I had hoped at it was without a doubt one of my dining highlights of 2013. The 5 hours my wife and I spent (yes the entire experience took that long) at the restaurant passed by without us even realising what the times was – nothing felt rushed, there was no pretension (I was wearing jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers) and the knowledge of the staff was exceptional. The provenance of all of the ingredients used and the details of the cooking techniques were explained perfectly, and no matter what we asked, the staff knew the answer.
Due to the immense popularity of Attica, the reservation system was revamped at the start of 2014. On the first of each month, reservations open for three months ahead of time. I.e. on 1 Feb, tables for May will become available.
The attention to detail and personal touch that Shewry puts into the food at Attica is evident throughout the entire meal, and the result is a dining experience that is truly world class and uniquely Australian with a Kiwi twist.
74 Glen Eira Road
Telephone: (03) 9530 0111
Dinner: Tue – Sat: 6:30pm to late