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.

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