Attica. Three syllables, three hats and thirty-second in San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015. The accolades are numerous, the name synonymous with progressive fine dining in Australia. But if you’ve followed Ben Shewry’s journey along the way, you’ll know there was time when this restaurant was turning minimal covers each night, when they were overextended in credit debt, and when the future was very much uncertain as to whether they would sink or swim.
But, like all great stories, lessons have truly been learnt, struggles overcome and Attica has continued to rise locally and globally. This small suburban destination in Ripponlea may appear modest when you first arrive, and may have a mountain of expectations to meet, but trust me – this was one of the greatest dinners I’ve ever attended. Every dish was well planned, thoughtful and a showcase of Australian cuisine in a respectful and playful manner. The evening in its entirety was one of theatrical unveilings, dramatic highlights and the utilisation of native ingredients in what feels like a completely organic and beautiful way.
Only hours after arriving in Melbourne for a whirlwind food holiday with the team from FoodieHub which included CEO Jeffrey Merrihue and Melbourne blogger David Hagger, my stomach was anxiously in knots at the thought of the impending feast that would follow the moment I stepped foot into the oasis. I was definitely in two minds about what would follow – would this be an incredible night, or has the hype overshadowed what we were there for, the food itself?
As I walked through the venue to my table, the warmth and subtlety struck me. It’s humble in appearance and yet polished at the same time. The staff are not just friendly, they’re extremely personable and knowledgeable – in particular the ever -impressive Assistant Manager Hee Won. I was really surprised to hear them greet David like he was an old friend and for their young, engaging sommelier Eva to remember the wines he had drunk last time – which he told me was his first and only time last year.
The extended tasting menu is $220 at the time of our visit in late January, though it is increasing to $230 in March. This is quite reasonable compared to other degustation venues overseas, and within the same vein of locals. The menu is simply stated and doesn’t give much away, with plates like ‘a Mouthful of Green’, ‘Yeasty Potatoes’ and ‘142 Days on Earth’. There’s a sense of wonder and excitement building, and best of all – it only increased as the night went on.
In full Saturday night mode, the restaurant was buzzing and we were each treated to a glass of Nicolas Maillart Premier Cru French champagne compliments of Ben. A lovely touch, and a wonderful precursor to the small plates that soon followed. We commenced our dining experience with ‘Cook’s Leaves’, which was comprised simply of sorrel and rainbow chard leaves, freshly picked from Attica’s own garden. This is literally paddock to plate, and a wonderful example of how fresh produce really can shine on it’s own merits.
These leaves are housed simply in a tall vessel, ready for us to dip into the share plate of house-made sour cream which has been emulsified with caramelised apple balsamic and olive oil.
We enjoyed this course with a wine of Jeffrey’s choosing – the 2005 Gioconda Chardonnay ($410.00). Hailed as one of Australia’s maestro’s of Chardonnay, Rick Kinzbrunner, is famous for producing a wine of power, strength, poise and complexity from his estate vineyard in Beechworth. Each mouthful delivered on the trademark flavours of stone fruit and hints of matchstick and earthen spice.
As a person who gravitates naturally towards corn, the plate titled ‘Whipped Corn’ immediately captured my attention. A perfect mound of whipped fermented corn was injected with the occasional crunch thanks to dehydrated barbecued corn kernels and fragrant basil leaves. Creamy, sweet and for me what I would consider a perfect mouthful (or two).
The ‘Goolwa Pippies’ was one of the most striking dishes visually, though humble in execution to allow the seafood to speak for itself. The delicate pippies sourced from South Australia have been steamed and infused with seaweed butter and lemon juice.
They were excellent to enjoy with my first ever taste of orange wine. This unique wine seems to be making an emergence in the fine dining scene as of late, and showcases a naturally fermented wine where the skins and seeds have not been separated from the juice. Eva recommended the 2011 Ducks in a Row “Pandora’s Amphora” (which I believe was approximately $150.00 for the bottle). Each mouthful was sharp and vibrant, an amplified wine reminiscent of whites but taken so much further.
Continuing with our small plates, the ‘A Mouthful of Green’ was a combination of baby peas, asparagus and walnut puree. It had depth from the nutty flavour, and freshness that sang of springtime.
But it was overshadowed by the ‘Fresh Cheese and Honeycomb’ which brought a degree of theatre to the table as chefs literally scooped boxed Avenel Honey farm honeycomb onto house made, 24-hour old Jersey cheese with cold pressed hazelnut oil. For me, this was like a sweet and salty explosion – an excellent interlude as we crossed the halfway point of our small plates.
The ‘Eggs and Pearl’ was a clever description for the pearl meat (harvested from Broome) and topped with silky scrambled egg. The flavours were subtle and nuanced, but the entire mouthful was quite morish – especially because I considered egg a truly sacred ingredient. It was hard to recognise the pearl meat flavour in the mix, but you definitely knew the egg was not alone.
Seeing ‘Wallaby Blood Pikelet’ might cause some concern for others, but for me, I was excited by what would greet me. Each pikelet sat atop of the actual handwritten recipe (which I got to take home after), and were made not just of the promised blood but also an emu egg and marsupial milk. Each round was topped with a light dab of native plum jam and malt vinegar cream. I felt almost oblivious to the amount of effort involved in this dish as I munched away happily, savouring the well balanced flavours as they kissed the inside of my mouth.
An absolute standout for the evening was titled amusingly ‘Gazza’s Lamb Pie’. It doesn’t get more occa than a good meat pie, and I know I am guilty for indulging in this Aussie classic on occasion. Even better was Attica’s version which saw a mini bite-sized version of rich Dorset lamb wrapped in saltbush (an ingredient Ben Shewry is notorious for using and bringing into the Australian food spotlight) flavoured, buttery and crumbly shortcrust pastry that was sprinkled with grated cheese.
The ‘Chicken Carrots’ was served in a retro chicken dish, the carrots thinly sliced to appear like tacos. Housed inside was a plump filling of kale, tarragon, sorrel leaf, chamomile and chicken that was herbaceous and echoed strong chicken flavours. While I didn’t love this dish, I could appreciate what they were trying to achieve here.
When ‘Lance Wiffin’s Mussels’ were placed in front of us, I was overwhelmed by the artistic plating. If you’ve watched Chef’s Table (like I have on too many occasions than I’m willing to admit), you’ll recognise Lance Wiffin as being the mussel fisherman Attica source this produce from – as well as the individual who helped guide Ben in a time when he was seeking direction and clarity on where his food journey would go.
I love that they’ve created an ode to Lance by painting his face on the mussel’s shell, served alongside a fried Port Philip Bay blue lip mussel topped with pig’s face. This seaside succulent is something I’m particularly fond of, with it’s textural pop and salty injection.
A dramatic change in plates saw ‘Beef on the Bone’ present a mouthful of 8 week aged Cape Grim beef slowly braised in oyster salt and dusted in macadamia salt – then served on it’s own bone. While small, it was a satisfying addition of meat that assisted us as we neared the end of the small plates.
Our final dish for this section of the menu was the ‘Aromatic Ripponlea Broth’. A light chicken broth was topped with 25 different herbs, leaves and flowers each with their own aroma and flavour to create a botanical puzzle. This was a palate cleansing bowl that was light, playful and really respectful in the execution and utilisation of the produce.
Transitioning from small to larger plates, we sampled Attica’s wattleseed bread with freshly churned butter, macadamia nut paste and crispy saltbush.
Can you believe that I still have so many more dishes to tell you about? And of course, there was now a beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon chosen to accompany – the 2012 Cullen Vanya from Margaret River ($590.00). A certified biodynamic wine, this was restricted to just 4,500 individually numbered bottles and was an excellent example of why I am so proud of the products that come from the southern region of Western Australia.
The 2001 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier ($450.00) is a NSW wine that was named the Penguin Wine Guide Wine of the Year in 2002, as well as the Best Red and Best Shiraz. As we approached our final few savoury dishes, this was the perfect drop – peppery and complex.
It was well matched to the ‘Salted Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya’, which featured an uncommon native ingredient (the latter part of the name), utilising the nut as a puree to be unearthed as layers of the peppery kangaroo, kimchi cabbage and purple carrot were chipped away at.
The real showstopper for the evening ‘Marron with Sweet and Sour Pumpkin Seeds’ saw produce from my home state perched bright and proud. I love marron – that delicate, sweet meat which can be overpowered if not careful. Here it was served with what I can honestly say was like an addictive compilation of crunches and cracks with each bite from those pumpkin seeds.
Seriously. Give me four more plates of this and then stick a fork in me. Talk about food heaven.
Our final wine was just the thing to finish up on (by this time I was feeling a little undone from the excess of food and drink!). The Yarra Yarra Syrah-Viognier ($120.00) is a spicy and plummy wine that is highly acclaimed and I found it more mellow than our previous red.
The ‘Yeasty Potatoes’ dish which has replaced the previous glorified dish ‘Potato cooked in the earth it was grown‘ was next to come to the table. Now while I don’t know what that dish tasted like, this one was something really special. The fact that Ben and his team could take humble chat potatoes and elevate them through burnt butter, toasted yeast, mustard and cream in such a way… well this was a very memorable dish for me.
‘142 Days on Earth’ was another example of how a simple, everyday ingredient can be put in the spotlight in an amazing way. A whole red cabbage was bought to the table and plated before our eyes.
A blanched crunchy outer leaf was placed on top of an eggplant tamarind paste, then a wedge of the poached cabbage heart was added. A generous spooning of emu, bush tomatoes, native plums and more created heartiness and incredible depth of flavour. This was cabbage in a way I’ve never experienced before – and has changed the way I look at this vegetable.
At the completion of our final savoury dish, we were invited to visit the back garden which was lush and vibrant, and just the place to enjoy a course known as ‘Halftime Oranges’ after a quick spot of backyard tennis!
Inside actual orange peel sat perfect wedges of orange sorbet and lemon myrtle – one bite of these and my nostalgia kicked in and transported me back to days of playing netball in primary school. Ice-cold, refreshing and tart. It was the ideal palate cleanser that helped me reset after the escalating courses we’d already enjoyed.
Named after Maria Smith, the found of the Granny Smith apple, ‘Maria’s Green Apple’ was an elegant dish of apple ribbons, coiled into a cone and filled with buckwheat, cream cheese and lemon myrtle, then topped with a rhubarb and chamomile sauce.
This was my favourite sweet course, and while it looks quite simple the flavours were complex and beautifully balanced. I couldn’t help but marvel too at those never ending apple coil!
‘Lois Jelly Whip’ was Ben’s ode to an Aeroplane jelly and condensed milk dessert from his childhood. Mango sorbet, passionfruit jam, honey, pineapple jelly and condensed milk were layered, frozen from the bowl being chilled by liquid nitrogen before plating. The entire dessert was topped with sorrel, mandarin and coconut to bring added freshness, herbaceousness and texture.
This was the dish that sent my stomach into utter capacity limits and so sadly I put my spoon down in defeat!
Lucky for me, the final dish known as ‘Pukeko’s Egg’ was able to be boxed up for me to enjoy the next day. A hand painted white chocolate egg was served with a salted yolk caramel. What a wonderful New Zealand bird to draw inspiration from!
And so brought to the close the magical night of Attica. From start to end it was a narrative, a theatrical offering that had touches of humanity, emotion and longing in every dish. The food is both humble and humbling. And yes, it is safe to say that it very much met, passed and far exceeded all expectations.