Monday, October 21, 2013

Attica, Melbourne, and a chef who walks the talk

Deep-fried mussels
I've been procrastinating about this post about Attica, because there is so much to say, and when that happens, I end up like a clumsy teenage nerd on her first date and I ramble and fail to say what I really want to say. This blog post is not going to be anywhere as lyrical as the meal.

The restaurant is in Ripponlea, an inconspicuous suburb in the south, on what is essentially the suburb's high street, amidst pharmacies, second-hand bookshops and takeaway eateries - basically, it's not where you'd expect to find one of Australia's best restaurants, which is refreshing.

"Walnuts" (puree) in their shell
This was the first meal I booked when we confirmed our trip back to Australia this summer, and still it was probably too late, so I asked for help from the sublime Tony Tan, with whom I have had the immense honour and pleasure of meeting and working - more on that later, perhaps. So, that's the disclaimer about how I got in, and probably how I was on the receiving end of two extra courses. Yes, the world is not fair, so sue me (okay, I am that awful, awkward teenage nerd now).

Pickled vegetables
It's petite - I'm guessing 40 seats, but size has nothing to do with professionalism. As soon as you step in, there is no mistaking that you're in one of the country's top restaurants. There is no pretension, only the swift, precise service of seasoned pros.

Crab and sorrel, wild and cultivated
Once we were seated, we're handed the menus - a choice of 5 or 8 courses, and I go with the 5, partially because I'm dining with G, who is possibly the only person in the world who treats my every restaurant choice with as much distrust/disdain as a policeman has with a felon, and at this point, was refusing to be convinced that Attica was worth time away from his computer.

Crab and sorrel, wild and cultivated (after I opened it up)
We were then presented with a little warm-up routine of amuses bouches - bread with an olive emulsion, mustard leaves with cream, walnut creme, pickled veg... our bouches were definitely amused.

A simple dish of potato cooked in the earth in was grown
Each course is presented with a detailed description of its components, much of which I was in too much/comfortable of a holiday mood to take proper note, but it definitely all made sense at the time, and I remember asking questions; all of which were diligently answered. I don't know why I'm making these little notes about service. Perhaps the ease, flow and sheer competence of the staff was something I really missed - we hardly ever get service like this in Hong Kong.

Cucumber, Holy Flax, Sauce of Burnet (a mere corner of the dish, because I forgot to take a picture)
Ironically, the dish that blew me away was one we didn't order - the cucumber. Chef very generously served us a few things that were not on our menu, and I'm grateful he did, because they were amazing. I don't think I have ever seen G mop up a plate of greens. The dish was so well balanced - the cucumbers were slightly pickled and had a great crunch, echoed by the acidity in the yogurt; the holy flax provided texture as well as an intensely fresh 'green' flavour. It all came together so seamlessly, that nothing stood out. The best vegetarian dish I have probably ever had.

King George Whiting in Paperbark
The care and though that goes into each dish was simply astounding. Every Tuesday, Attica does a special menu of items that are being tested for the real menu - I think it's this sort of dedication and penchant for experimentation that gets them, and chef Ben Shewry, to where they are today.

King George Whiting in Paperbark (opened)
There is a clear commitment to using Australian produce, and going well beyond the regular supermarket varieties. A number of ingredients had us pulling our smartphones out to consult Wikipedia (the Achille's heel of all pub quizzes), and it is astounding to really think about how narrow the repertoire considered "normal" has become.

Flinders Island Wallaby, scorched macadamia, ground berry
After our "main" course of wallaby, (which reminds me - as much as Australia wants to claim him for their own, Ben Shewry is from New Zealand - and I was reminded because, as you rugby fans will know, New Zealand is known for their wallabies - we both roos and wallabies in Australia), we're invited to tour the restaurant's garden, where we soon find the chef himself waiting for us.

Toasting housemade marshmallows out in the garden
We were greeted with warm, home-brewed apple cider infused with eucalyptus (and G's attention was further piqued, as he's experimenting with brewing his own beverages at home... with mixed results, ahem), as well as a couple of marshmallows that we were instructed to toast in the nearby fire. Ben then took us on a quick tour around the garden, pointing out what we had just eaten, and told us a bit about the restaurant's off-site farm (about 20 minutes away), where they're growing hard-to-find, commercial unviable varietals.

Plight of the Bees
It's quite clear where the chef's focus is, and it's refreshing that in a time when ideas like locavorism, farm-to-table, sustainability and so on are so often abused, there is a chef who is really getting his hands dirty, keeping crop diversity alive, and communicating this is such delicious ways to diners.

The dessert, Plight of The Bees, is an example. It is a simple fact that without bees, around 30% of our crops would not pollinate, yet it doesn't seem to sink in with people - they continue to view them as pests and contribute to their demise. The layers of honey gel, mandarin, fennel seed granita, meringue were a gustatory delight of temperatures, textures and flavours, but also a reminder. (Mind you, this isn't a part of the 5-course menu, again it was an extra course from the chef).

Vinegar Ice Cream
The final course on our menu was this spectacular vinegar ice cream - smoother and more velvety than the finest velvet any royal could ever have wished for.

As you can probably guess from the pictures (horrible as they are), Ben Shewry isn't afraid to use modernist techniques. Before you turn your nose up, hear me out - I believe that chef should not be judged by what school of cooking, or what techniques they use. What matters is whether they use them well, and have reasons for using them. Chef shouldn't be put in a box just because they use a circulator or a convection oven, and I wish the Daily Mails of the food world (wait, is that just the Daily Mail?) would stop their sensationalist, misleading ways. (Cue scene where I shout this on the top of my lungs on Victoria Peak.)

Pukeko-inspired chocolate eggs

To finish, we were presented with a note from the chef, with a beautiful painting by his father of the Pukeko bird, a reference to his New Zealand heritage. In the note, he explains his approach to cooking - sensitivity to culture, emotions and the changing world are central - through an introduction to the bird. The eggs themselves are caramel filled chocolate eggs, which brings back memories of Easter egg hunts and childhood sugar highs...

The amazing thing about the food at Attica is how naturally the chef can tell you his story. None of it feels pretentious or forced, although of course it is a remarkably sophisticated and polished dining experience. Actually, I think the most amazing thing was that for the first time, G came out of a restaurant, and said, "That was actually quite good". Damn straight it was.

74 Glen Eira Road,
Ripponlea, 3185
+61 3 9530 0111
Open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Book up to 3 months in advance: meet [at]

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