Sunday, 26 October 2014

A Review of Attica, Ripponlea, Melbourne - A Quintessentially Australian Experience

I recently had a very memorable evening at Attica, Australasia's sole representative in the World's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 (at number 32, having reached its highest ranking of 21 in 2013).  It was a great experience, and certainly one that I would recommend to anyone who hasn't visited before.  But I need to warn you: if you turn into a pumpkin at midnight, don't even think about visiting.  If you have planned a late night rendezvous with your mistress (or manstress, to be inclusive), give them a call and tell them you will be late.  In short, if you don't have a minimum 4.5 hours for dinner, go somewhere else.

Attica head chef Ben Shewry
I first met Attica's head chef Ben Shewry at the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Forum earlier this year, and he struck me as a down-to-earth, no-bullshit kind of guy.  Out of all the dreamers patting themselves on the back and talking about the significance of their culinary philosophies, Shewry was the only one who dared acknowledge that we were talking about things that did not concern the vast bulk of the world's population, and why it was important for chefs, cooks and producers to focus also on cheaper ingredients.  Right there, I resolved to visit Attica when I was next in Melbourne, and so I found myself there one chilly spring evening with my father-in-law, R.

Guests have two choices of menu: an eight-course tasting menu, or an eight-course vegetarian tasting menu, both costing AUD190 (around US 170).  Tonight, the place is packed, tables very much closer together than I normally expect at a restaurant of this calibre.  And I was pleasantly surprised to hear that most of the accents in the dining room were Australian - it seems that even on a Thursday night, the locals had come out to support their champion.

Bread Service: Sourdough Wholemeal with Caramelised Wattleseed, Macadamia Nut Purée with Cold-Pressed Macadamia Oil and Fried Saltbush Leaves; House-Churned Butter

While you are deliberating (or not) over what you will eat, bread is served.  The butter is excellent (any butter with that colour has to be excellent, right?), and the saltiness and crispiness of the saltbush leaves, contrasted against the cool, slight sweetness of the macadamia puree, is utterly irresistable.

Attica is the kind of place where they will take around 50 minutes to serve up snacks which aren't on the menu.  Here's what we had on the night.  I'm not going to comment on each item individually as I have neither the time to write it out, nor do (should!) you have time to read it.  In short, very labour-intensive, very well-thought-out dishes, attractively presented, but remarkably subtle, with none of the dishes providing the sudden exclamation mark that makes you sit up and take notice.

Snack One: Cow's Milk Cheese set overnight, Cold-Pressed Hazelnut Oil, Artichoke Thistle Honeycomb

Snack Two: Shaved Button Mushroom, Society Garlic Flower, Walnut Purée, Cold-Pressed Walnut Oil

Snack Three: Wallaby Blood Pikelet, maaaaate

Snack Four: Lightly-Pickled Carrots from Ripponlea Estate, Mustard Seed, Honey and Turmeric

Snack Five: Broad Bean Flower, Sheep Milk Yoghurt, Mustard Seed Oil, Vinegar Powder, Dried Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

It's already 8.30 pm and we are just starting on our menu...

First Entrée:  WA Snow Crab, Garden Sorrel, Mandarin Gelée, Native Pepperberry

Fresh and sweet snow crab meat contrasts beautifully against sorrel compressed in verjus and grapeseed oil, with the lot set off with a mandarin gelée at the base of the plate.  Not for the first time, I notice the prominence of acidity in Shewry's plates, and this seems to be one of the unifying themes across the menu (along with a clear fetish for cold-pressed oils and nut purees).  And given the length of the menu and the amount of food served, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Second Entrée: Salted Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya

Think a cured kangaroo tartare with the crunch of heirloom carrots and pomegranate, and you wouldn't be a million miles off.  This is a very nice variation on kangaroo, which is usually interpreted on Australian menus as medium-rare rump (in whichever restaurant you are in, the waiter will always want to demonstrate his knowledge of eating Australian fauna by stressing that that kangaroo must be served medium-rare so as not to dry it out).  The vinaigrette cuts nicely through the gamey kangaroo, and the pomegranate pearls add a much-needed fraicheur and crunch.  Delicious.

Third Entrée: "Minted Potato, Medium Rare": Potato Cooked in Brown Butter, Sauce of 18 month-aged Pyengana cheddar, Mint Vinaigrette, Blanched Garlic

There are few things I enjoy better than a good potato.  Two of these things are good garlic and good cheese, so it should be no surprise that I absolutely adored this dish.  For me, however, this potato was more rare than medium-rare, stoically refusing to yield before the provided knife.  A++ for the conceptualisation but A- for the execution.  I would love to try it again with the potato cooked correctly.

Fourth Entrée: "142 Days on Earth": Variations on Red Cabbage from Ripponlea Estate (blanched outer leaf and poached heart) Smoked Egg Paste with Tamarind and Ground Wattleseed; Emu fillet with Beetroot, Davidson Plum, Lemon Myrtle and Rosella (native hibiscus)

R shared with me his favourite childhood recipe for emu: "Get a rock and your emu, place both in a pot and boil for eight hours.  Chuck the emu out and eat the rock".  This wasn't so bad, thanks mainly to the livewire acidity of the Davidson plum.  The emu, however, seemed to have the texture of a processed ham, so I'm not really sure what they did with it.  Maybe R wasn't bullshitting me after all...

By the way, the rather odd name of this dish comes from the fact that the kitchen team waits exactly 142 days from sowing to harvest the red cabbage from their Ripponlea Estate farm.  Ripponlea Estate is a name that recurs again and again in your waiters' descriptions of the dishes.  What is it?  It is a National Trust-listed 1880s mansion and estate down the road from the restaurant.  What the Estate website doesn't say is that the National Trust leased a part of its sprawling gardens to Attica, so that it could grow fresh vegetables and herbs for use in the restaurant.  It boggles the mind how they managed to convince a bureaucrat to give them such permission, but I guess it proves if nothing else that anything is possible.

First Main Course: King George Whiting Roasted in Paperbark, Oyster Pearl Meat Butter, Lemon Myrtle

This dish comes with a health warning: don't cut too deep with your knife or shards of the paperbark will come away with your fish.  The fish is moist and perfectly cooked, with the pearl meat adding texture and a marine salinity.  The lemon myrtle is elusive, but there is just enough of it here to keep things fresh and lively.

Second Main Course: Berkshire Pork with a Pepperberry and Native Pepper Crust, Rotten Corn and Lemon Aspen; Broad Bean Leaves with Chardonnay Vinaigrette

I love the pork, which is very nicely cooked (if anything just a tad under).   The rotten corn is a tribute to Shewry's New Zealand heritage, inspired by a Maori technique of preserving corn through fermentation.  The crust, however, adds an acrid spiciness which kills everything else on the plate and has me reaching for more water.

The pork is accompanied by a bowl of broad bean leaves, dressed with a chardonnary vinaigrette and sprinkled with sea salt.  Broad bean plants are grown on the roof garden, at an extremely high density so the plants devote all their energy to vegetative growth without proceeding to flowering.

Interlude: A Visit to a Garden

After coughing out the last bits of my pepperberry crust, we are asked if we would like a tour of the rootop garden.  I was tempted to say "No, it's past my bedtime already" (it was around 11.35 pm, if memory serves) but I just went with the flow.

On arrival, we are presented with an Anzac biscuit-inspired marshmallow and a cup of tea straight from a boiling billy, salty, meaty, sweet and fruity all at the same time, which reinvigorates my tired bones.  And amidst all of this charmingly faux Australiana, what should I see there but a Singaporean pastry chef wearing a Drizabone, an Akubra hat and tending to the billy?  It's all a bit surreal, but I wonder if my recent lack of sleep has been taking its toll.

First Dessert: "Pears and Maidenii": Lavender, Chrysanthemum Petals, Dehydrated Pear Skin, Roasted Balled Beurre Bosc Pears, Cheese Ice Cream with Maidenii Vermouth

I love this dessert.  I love its homely, rustic colour scheme, I love the textural contrast between the crunchy pear balls, lightly icy ice-cream and crispy dehydrated pear skins, and the restrained tartness of the cheese ice-cream.  The influence of the Maidenii, a vermouth distilled from native Australian botanicals, is minimal.  Good thing too because I asked for a straight thimbleful of Maidenii and it made me retch.

Second Dessert: "The Industrious Beet": Mandarin Sorbet, Italian Meringue, Freeze-Dried Mandarin and Coconut, Sauce from Boiled Oranges, Isomalt

The "beet" in question was the sugar beet, not the beetroot as I thought from reading the menu.  This is probably the first (and only!) conceptual error Shewry has made.  Sugar beets?  Bloody un-Australian, if you ask me.  But the sugar substitute and sugar beet-derivative isomalt is used in this dish, so I guess he was at least being truthful.  But personally, I thought "industrious" would have been a better adjective for the humans who worked so hard to create isomalt from the sugar beets, but let that pass.

The wine match of 1998 Chateau Coutet is the only wine on the pairing which I recognised on paper, but it didn't amount to much on the palate.  R simply states "It's not sweet enough".  He's right: it packed neither the sugar nor the acidity to match the dessert.  As it was, it will give me an excuse to open a bottle of 1995 Coutet Cuvee Madame when R visits us in December.

Petit Four: Pukeko Egg

Nothing with chocolate and salted caramel can possibly be bad, and neither is this, but I like it more for the concept and how it fits into the meal's narrative, than for the actual taste.


It was about 1.20 am by the time we left, and I really need to thank R for being such a good sport (anyone who spends six hours in my company without complaining deserves some sort of bravery medal).  In addition, his various anecdotes about Australian geography and flora made the meal seem more real to me, not just recitations from a memorised screed, so I really couldn't have asked for a better companion.

If this doesn't sound too pretentious, it seems to me that beyond just his ingenious utilisation of native ingredients and a narrative as respectful of nature as it is awash with larrikin humour, Shewry has developed his own cuisine acidulée a l'Australienne.  In almost every preparation, including dessert, he has finely judged the acidity to ensure that the diner's palate remains interested, and always on the lookout for the next bite.  There are no rich sauces, no over-reductions, just balanced, fresh ingredients with the ever-present tartness.  His cooking is truly unique and, more importantly, happens to be bloody delicious.

The dining room at 12.45 am, I kid you not!
A word on the service: the waiters were all very knowledgeable and eager to explain the techniques and processes behind each dish, as well as the wine pairings.  The manager, Banjo Harris Plane, is the epitomic combination of professionalism, youthful energy and Australian charm.  But as for the wine pairings (A$115 a head; feel free to ask the staff to divide it between two), while I approved of how they went with the food, I would not choose to drink them on their own.  When a winemaker scratches the Spanish words "La Cosa" (meaning "The Thing") on the wine bottle without any sense of irony, maybe you shouldn't be surprised when you get an unfiltered wine with the kick of an unshod wild horse and little bits of lees floating around your glass.  Perhaps it is the unique character of Shewry's dishes that make more conventional pairings impossible, but I dare suggest that a bona fide wino may be left wanting a little more.

The real irony is that Plane, a Master Sommelier candidate who sat for his final exams this month, has actually assembled a very balanced wine list with a couple of well-priced gems.  But most of the guests seemed to be maiden visitors and went with the wine pairing, which was a shame.  If I should ever darken Attica's doors again, and I hope I will again before too long, I'll be sure to give the list the attention it deserves.

Dining at Attica is more than just a meal.  At 6 hours and costing the best part of five hundred bucks, it is an event and personally, I reckon it's time and money very well-spent.  I can't really comment on whether it really is the World's Xth Best Restaurant, but a meal here is almost guaranteed to be a very memorable one.

74 Glen Eira Road
Ripponlea VIC 3185
Tel: +61 3 9530 0111
Reservations accepted one month in advance, and are absolutely essential.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2015 - Big Changes on the Way

Now approaching its third year, the rules for the annual Asia's 50 Best Restaurants have undergone major changes. I believe that all in all, these changes are positive, but I question their timing and motivation.

In short, Asia's 50 Best will be split off from the World's 50 Best. What this means in practice is:

1. There are now two separate pools of voters in Asia, one for the World's 50 Best and one for Asia's 50 Best.  The Asia's 50 Best voters are all resident in Asia.

2. Any votes cast by World's 50 Best voters (even those resident in Asia) for Asian restaurants will count only towards the World's 50 Best, but will not count towards Asia's 50 Best.

3. Voters previously cast four votes in their demarcated "region".  Now, Asia's 50 Best voters can cast up to four votes for restaurants in their country of residence, and the remaining three for restaurants in other Asian countries.

4.  The number of voters will be increased, so the influence of each individual voter (along with his/her particular biases and eccentricities) will be diminished.

I believe these are positive changes for various reasons. In fact, when Asia's 50 Best was first being conceptualised, I suggested to the organisers that it should be kept wholly separate from the World's 50 Best. After all, the concept of restaurant dining, and even more so that of restaurant criticism, is historically a Western bourgeois one. In many parts of Asia (with perhaps the most notable exception of Japan and its long tradition of kaiseki-ryoori), until the last few decades, the best local cooking was often to be found in private households.  According to David Thompson, until recently, there was, a social prejudice in Thailand against eating out in restaurants.  How then, could the voters fairly compare apples and oranges?

Secondly, because of the Western roots of restaurant criticism, the professional critics on the voting panel, whether consciously or otherwise, have a predominantly Occidental mindset where staff knowledge and correctness of service is as important as the food.  Most Asian gourmets do not care that the coarseness of the restaurant waitstaff was outdone only by the coarseness of the worn carpet, but only that the food should transcend divinity.  Separation of Asian restaurants may help to create a distinctly Asian paradigm of what matters in a restaurant experience, as opposed to just pandering to an Anglo-Franco worldview.

Thirdly, the new rules also eliminate a selection bias, which I believe ended up skewing the results of the annual poll. Imagine you are a food critic in Europe and a voter in the World's 50 Best. You decide to take a week's vacation in Southeast Asia. You've heard about Nahm, Andre, Gaggan who topped the 2013 list. You fly out to Thailand and Singapore, eat at those places and are duly impressed, fly home and cast your votes for them. Not a mention for the local eateries which you, as a foreigner, would never have heard of without a local connection. This reinforces the spiral which perpetuates the dominance of the list toppers.

A second aspect of selection bias is in favour of the global cities / air travel hubs regarded as "must-dos" in the itinerary of the globetrotting food critic.  In Asia, these cities would today include (in no particular order) Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and maybe Kyoto. My hypothetical Euro food critic would be far more likely to visit these cities than any other in Asia, meaning the restaurants in those cities would be the likely beneficiaries of a disproportionate number of votes from outside their home regions.  After all, why should my hypothetical Euro food critic waste his time visiting a city with no restaurants on the list?  The lesser the influence of these limited, result-distorting trips on Asia's 50 Best, the better.

This bias is compounded by the main systemic weakness of the World's 50 Best.  Perhaps due in no little part to the jaded palates of the critics and chefs who make up the voting panel, it has ended up being a poll of the World's 50 Hottest and Trendiest Restaurants, or the 50 Restaurants Most Likely to Elicit Some Sort of Visceral Reaction.  If you want to be part of the hot trend, you have to visit the popular restaurant NOW: today's Iggy Azalea (not Iggy's) will very likely end up being tomorrow's Jennifer Lopez.

My last point will sound almost xenophobic, but what the hey. This is an Asian list. What do I care what some food critic in France, Brazil, Russia thinks about Asian cuisine, when the depth of Asian cuisine in these countries is, to put it mildly, indifferent? What do I know about their exposure to and knowledge of Asian cuisine?  Read Andy Hayler's reviews, for example. The man is a veritable walking encyclopaedia of European gastronomy, and I was a huge admirer of his work covering the Michelin-starred beat in Europe. His critiques of Japanese restaurants, on the other hand, are uncharacteristically laconic and replete with mistakes, of which his typos are the least egregious.

But I question why the organisers decided to introduce these major changes now. I suspect that in part, it was because Asia's 50 Best threw a massive spotlight on Asian restaurants, at the expense of other regions without their own regional awards.  Look at how Asian restaurants performed in the World's 50 Best in 2013 and 2014 (the first World's 50 Best list compiled after the inaugural Asia's 50 Best list was introduced):

2013:  7 restaurants in the Top 50 with one in the Top 20 (Narisawa at No. 20) and a further two ranked in the Top 35, 9 restaurants ranked 51-100

2014: 7 restaurants in the Top 50 including three in the Top 17 and a further three ranked in the Top 37, 10 restaurants ranked 51-10.

While the total number of restaurants in the Top 50 and Top 100 have not changed much, the top Asian restaurants managed to improve their positions significantly.  Bearing in mind it takes a lot more votes to make headway towards the top of the list, the top six restaurants have clearly benefited from being the top names in Asia's 50 Best.

The other disadvantage of the changes is that with two different voter bases, the relative positioning of Asian restaurants will not be the same on both lists.  Restaurant A could trump Restaurant B on Asia's 50 Best, whereas B could beat A on the World's 50 Best.  While diversity of opinion is positive, sending out mixed messages from the same stable and brand (if not the same voting panel) is less so.

But what's done is done, and all we can do now is await the results that will be announced in February next year.  I'm hardly staking out a revolutionary position in predicting that there will be massive changes in Asia's 50 Best 2015. It might not even be too much of a forlorn hope to witness a decline in the cult of the marketing genius that is the celebrity chef, and a rise in fortunes for those eateries that value substance and authenticity over nitro-bollocks and flashing light shows.