Attica is more the extrapolation of a personal vision, rather than a world acclaimed destination restaurant. It clearly represents an ideal; an entirely unique reinterpretation of nature, which holds true with every dish plated. Refreshingly this is achieved, with only conventional perception getting ‘lost in the translation’. Standing behind all this is New Zealander Ben Shewry, both a gifted Chef and natural story-teller, whose cultural and family heritage underpins every concept. This is not a transparent journey of three hat dining by the numbers, rather an opportunity to ponder the ecological issues raised; with a look below the surface rewarding those who dare, with an immensely profound experience.
Located in suburban Ripponlea, in a relatively understated site compared to the other three hat restaurants in Melbourne and surrounds, Attica unapologetically not only chooses to showcase foraged and carefully sourced artisan produce, but literally spotlights this on the table, in an otherwise smart but modest room. The diners unmistakably have that tick-box dining appearance tattooed all over them, but it doesn’t take long for them to cast aside that mentality, and understand the message. Whilst most degustations focus on balancing the momentum and weighting of dishes, there is clearly a narrative underpinning the one offered here.
The unlisted snacks provide a fitting prelude to the diverse journey that follows. Starting with moreish cold smoked EVOO emulsion, black salt and cultured butter, which instantly quells any preconceived notions of bread restraint. Mustard greens with house cultured crème fraîche, seasoned with lemon myrtle and alpine pepper, encourages folding and dipping of the leaves, however a timely recharge of the bread does not go astray in polishing it off. A puree of organic walnuts topped with shavings of pine mushroom served in their shells, and Jerusalem artichokes pickled in honey, cider vinegar and turmeric are the perfect lead into Lance Wiffen’s spectacular blue mussels from Port Phillip Bay, flash fried in rye crumb, and garnished with sea succulents.
Parallel running of a vegetarian degustation fully explores the Chef’s versatility, while also providing an interesting and subtle point of contrast. One example being the lightly steamed W.A crab, with toasted buckwheat, sesame oil, sea blight plant, and stunningly aromatic Otway Forest shiitake broth, which is garnished with eleven different basils. The alternate is only substituted with handmade silken tofu, with some sautéed shiitake included for just a little “oomph”. Otherwise, both dishes remain synched, without compromising on relevance. Perfectly poached W.A Marron pairs beautifully with tarragon, sorrel, and pork fat mixed with roasted onion juice. Inspired by the snow-capped Mount Taranaki on New Zealand’s North Island, the dish is brilliantly replicated here on the plate, with an ice made of verjuice and horseradish powder. The dusting of the witlof, cauliflower and apple, also provides the necessary point of contrast.
The humble title, “A simple dish of Potato cooked in the earth it was grown”, implies a course potentially more deeply connected to nature than any other. In many ways, this signature dish of Attica fulfils that observation, with the potato cooked between layers of its soil in a Maori-style hangi for eight hours, and then left to rest for an hour to fully absorb the earthiness. Glistening with grapeseed oil, and sitting on a hickory smoked goat’s curd, seasoned with freshly ground coffee and burnt young coconut husk ash. Finally garnished with deep-fried dehydrated salt bush leaves, the dish is conceptually unique. The result is absolutely sublime textures, with a haunting smokiness and seasoning. The only minor criticism perhaps being a slight sameness; albeit an entirely exceptional and well executed homage to the potato.
The lightly chargrilled Central Victorian cucumbers with smoked trout, Pyengana cheddar cream, pickled young garlic, holy flax, and sauce of burnet, whilst well-balanced, is texturally a tad too one-dimensional for my liking. Redemption is swift, with a perfectly cooked King George Whiting wrapped in paperbark, coated with a lush lightly sautéed Paspaley pearl meat butter, tomato juice and lemon myrtle, grilled over coals. Both the dreamy texture and perfect balance is vindication of the technique, which gently permeates the seafood with a subtle smoky element throughout, adding yet another dimension to this dish. The vegetarian course; compressed onions with orange vinaigrette, gently cradle a puree of lovage, avocado and lemon with caramelised macadamias, garnished with dehydrated kale and brushed with macadamia nut puree.
One of the most exciting produce debuts in recent years, the superb Flinders Island Wallaby is not overworked, with the sirloin astutely pan seared rare. The brilliance lays in the choice of macadamia and wallaby black pudding purees, wallaby jus with native currants, and begonia garnish, to accompany it. When stunning produce is treated with respect, humility and innovation, it is a measure of the restaurant’s greatness. Two sublime corn dishes in a year, who would have thought! The other one by Luke Burgess of Garagistes, both advocates of elevating humble produce beyond its standing. Here crushed fresh corn is thickened with corn husk stock (a very nice touch) and topped with fresh pine mushrooms, lemon thyme, Pyengana cheddar and macadamia nut oil. It is a brilliant dish of extraordinary texture, balance and flavour, which possesses an undeniable ‘wow factor’.
The relaxed garden visit to punctuate the savoury and sweet phases is a nice touch, but I would have preferred being allowed in ten minutes before service on a very chilly night, rather than being left huddled on the doorstep with two other groups. That aside, service was absolutely impeccable with all dishes and wine matches explained in detail, without ever feeling rehearsed or contrived. Fresh curd ice cream, pear spheres, freeze-dried blueberries, extravagantly garnished with chrysanthemum petals and licorice, refocusses the palate. Far from being a conventional cleanser, it fits nicely within the overall context and pitch of the menu.
The result of a dream, and eighteen months of tweaking, “Plight of the Bees” is a complex layered textural dessert that balances freeze-dried apple shavings, layers and distillation of Mandarin, poached pumpkin, sharp fennel ice, cracked meringue bits, and that is before you fully embrace the honey element! The divinity of a silky yet creamy blend of two artisanal single origin honeys (honey dew and wild thyme) with lemon curd, seals the deal, and is all done within the confines of a very stylish Tasmanian oak box. The petit fours ‘Pukeko’s egg’; referencing a feisty native bird that manages to survive, despite constant threat to its habitat, transcends any gimmicky notion, and like the previous dessert, succeeds in reawakening any reasonable social conscience.
Attica is undeniably one of the most thoughtful food experiences on offer. It is the collective memory and collage of an immensely talented and humble Chef who is both philosophically exploring and translating nature. The honesty and synergy on the plate is driven obsessively by the intuitive connection he has with the sustainable bounty of his natural environment. This is food that boldly challenges the diner on many levels, from both a sensory and ethical perspective, posing questions that extend far beyond the traditional culinary spectrum. One senses the well-deserved global recognition will change very little here, other than making it a tougher reservation, as this is a personal journey of discovery, entirely devoid of ego…
74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea
Tue-Sat 6.30pm to late
(03) 95300111 Licensed
Beneath the Surface http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mrks9k0-Xw4
And on a lighter note: http://t.co/vnmtA8V9yK