A food journey for all the senses
Sometimes in life you witness something truly magical and last Wednesday was one of those moments. I have a list of aspirational restaurants that I am ever so slowly ticking off my bucket list. I have amazing memories of evenings at Jacques Reymond and Quay, but I can honestly say that my evening at Attica was on another level.
With a number of prestigious accolades including being voted the fifth best restaurant in Australia by Gourmet Traveller in their 2014 Restaurant Awards; number twenty-one on the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list; three hats in the Age Good Food Guide 2014 as well as Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year, my expectations and excitement were high.
Located in the middle of suburbia on Glen Eira Road in Ripponlea, the unassuming brick building could easily be missed to all but the keenest eye. Once inside the immediate feeling is one of warmth. The decor is minimalist without being stark; clean lines of pressed white heavy tablecloths, black glossy walls and striking black and white images of wild landscapes ensure the focus remains on the food. Service is attentive but never overbearing. Wait staff wear freshly pressed black aprons over black pants and crisp white shirts. Moving with purpose and keeping an eagle eye over the tables they ensure that each diner's experience is faultless.
Attica offers an eight course tasting menu on Wednesday to Saturday nights for $190 per person (wine matching available for $115 per person), as well as the more adventurous Chef's Table on Tuesday evenings where the kitchen test and develop new ideas in a five course tasting menu ($125 per person with a wine match available for $70 per person). The eight course tasting menu offers two options, including a full eight course vegetarian menu and the kitchen is happy to cater to any dietary requirements.
We settle in to the evening with a cocktail for me; the aptly named 'Garden by the Lighthouse' has all my favourites gin, elderflower, mint, cucumber and lime topped with soda, and a freshly squeezed tomato and verjus juice for mum as the designated driver. The juice was refreshing and the addition of verjus was a surprising twist. With a wine list totalling thirty pages, we sought the assistance of our knowledgable waiter, who suggested a bottle of Kracher Illmitz pinot gris from Austria, which was low on acidity and perfectly balanced for the dishes on the menu. The evening was off to a stellar start.
To begin we were presented with freshly baked dark rye bread which was accompanied with the most divine macadamia nut butter purée finished with macadamia oil and dried quandong (a native Australian fruit) and the most delicious creamy, fresh-churned butter, which simply melted on my tongue. I quickly decide my final meal would happily consist of bread with lashings of this butter.
Before the main event, we are presented with a number of appetisers which introduce the theme of the evening. At Attica, Ben Shewry and his team draw inspiration from the landscapes around them, be it the volcanos, rivers, oceans and native bush. The key to any Attica experience I believe is to surrender any pre-conceived notion of what you think something might taste like and instead embrace the experience.
Our first appetiser was two stalks of mushroom leaves presented in a woven basket with a hollandaise-style sauce. The smell of mushrooms fills my nasal passages and one bite of the crisp stalk fills my mouth with the most unbelievable flavour. Next two petite pikelets decorated with a dollop of 'wallaby blood' (similar to a black pudding), topped with delicate herbs and flowers from the Attica garden were produced with a flourish from the crisp napkin. I know what you are thinking....black pudding would certainly not be a favourite for everyone and it is not something I have tried before, but actually I thought it tasted more like a jam or chutney and was surprisingly pleasant.
The final appetiser was perhaps the most striking; a hand painted mussel shell sat alongside dried seaweed with two flash fried crumbed mussels topped with a wishbone-shaped sprig of salty pig face. The mussel is warm, salty with the added crunch of the crumb. Delicious!
Having prepared our tastebuds, the main event commenced. The first dish was simply called 'Snow Crab and Sour Greens' and consisted of a mound of minced snow crab with mustard flower and sweet mandarin purée encased under sorrel leaves. Next came 'Marron and Ground Greens' served on an earthy pale blue ceramic dish. The tender poached marron from Western Australia was served with a side of kale and minced chicken and drizzled with a flourish of white onion and pork fat reduction. An out-of-body experience.
We were next presented with one of Ben's most famous dishes, 'Potato Cooked in the Earth it was Grown', which was actually fortuitous as it is due to be removed from the menu this year. The perfectly round Virginia Rose potato from McLaren Vale sat on a bed of coffee coconut ash and goats curd with grey salt bush leaves. The beauty of this dish comes from the way the humble potato is slow cooked for two hours, in the earth, 'maori hangi style'. I doubt I have ever tasted a more perfect and creamy potato.
'Cucumbers, holy flax, sauce of burnet' offered a Spring freshness after the creaminess of the potato and featured crunchy cucumbers soaked in Chardonnay vinegar topped with slices of garlic in a sauce made with the herb burnet, cucumber peels and snow peas.
Next came the 'King George Whiting in Paperbark'. Served on a beaten ceramic dish, the whiting was encased in paperbark that had been grilled over coals. Unfolding the paperbark revealed perfectly cooked fish in a pearl oyster and green tomato juice with onion flowers. Perfection in every way!
The final savoury dish of the evening was a true taste of Australia, 'Red Kangaroo with Herbs Tended by the Hands of our Cooks'. A loin of kangaroo sourced from the Flinders Ranges was served medium-rare and topped with half-spheres of tart quandong and pepper berry sauce with leaves hand-picked from the garden.
As an interlude to dessert we were taken on a tour of the kitchen garden. Quite possibly one of my favourite moments of the evening. Weaving through the restaurant, past the buzzing kitchen pass and out the double doors we happened upon the cutest herb garden, complete with two chefs manning a candy-striped ice-cream stand. They presented us with two tiny cornets of raspberry liquorice ice-cream dipped in chocolate from Mossman in Queensland's Daintree topped with zingy freeze-dried raspberries. A perfect appetiser leading into the dessert courses. Talking to the chefs I got a sense of just how passionate everyone is about the Attica vision. Clearly Ben has cultivated a fantastic team, who are just as excited talking about the dishes as they are tending to their herbs and vegetables. This small kitchen garden is fed by rain water tanks and is just a taste of the much larger garden housed at Ripponlea Estate, a short stroll away. Here they have around fifty crates of herbs and vegetables on either side of the orchard totalling around five hundred square metres.
Suitably inspired we head back to our table and are shortly presented with the first of two dessert courses. Simply titled 'Blueberries, Vinegar and Fresh Cheese', the dish comprises of tart sheep's milk yoghurt with pink lady apples, fresh and dehydrated blueberries drizzled with apple balsamic vinegar and the petals of a chrysanthemum flower. The combination of the fresh burst of juicy blueberries with the slightly chewy frozen dehydrated blueberries is another hero moment.
At first I was slightly disappointed to learn that the last course of the evening would not be 'The Plight of the Bees' which famously featured as the final pressure test on last season's MasterChef Australia. That was until I was presented with 'Raw Strawberry Jam'. A disc of vinegar meringue sat on a bed of soured cream with fresh and freeze-dried strawberries and a fresh strawberry purée that saw fresh strawberries painstakingly pressed through a rotary mill. If Strawberry Shortcake was a dessert this is exactly what she would taste like!
Totally in awe of the eight flawless dishes we had been presented with and not quite being able to express in words just how amazing this evening had been, we sat for a moment in quiet reflection and enjoyed our tea. The piece de resistance to a truly amazing evening appeared in the form of a white chocolate speckled Pukeko egg coated on the inside with salted caramel. Accompanying these two perfect eggs which sat in a bed of grass, was a leaflet with a painting by Rob Shewry (Ben's father) of the New Zealand Pukeko bird (it seems creativity runs in the family). The leaflet also gives some insight into where Ben draws inspiration from. For me this summed up the Attica experience perfectly:
"Being a thoughtful cook is about understanding a little of the history and culture of cuisine other than your own...So, for me it's important to have respect and empathy for animals and plants and a connection to the past, or an emotion felt through a memory of an event or a culture experienced."
I cannot thank the amazing team at Attica enough for creating some of the most ingenious dishes and an atmosphere that satisfied each and every single one of my senses. Get yourself to Attica for what is truly an evening like no other.
74 Glen Eira Rd
Ripponlea VIC 3185
(03) 9530 1111