Can't exactly remember when I first heard about Attica, but the idea of a chef collecting seaweed and wild flowers at the beach and in the bush then use it in the restaurant had me intrigued. Then I saw Ben Shewry, the head chef of Attica on stage with René Redzepi at the Opera House, they both share the philosophies of sustainability and cooking with wild-sourced, foraging through a table full of native plants he picked that morning has encapsulated my imagination and thought-provoking. Attica has been a must-visit on my list since.
With very little persuasion and 99% of luck trying to secure a table for two at the restaurant in such short notice, I finally find myself in a small suburb called Ripponlea in Melbourne with The Pom, high in anticipation and very much looking forward to a memorable dining experience.
We arrive at Attica for 7.30pm seating while the last gleams of twilight are still hanging in the horizon, but none of the natural light is going to penetrate through the heavy velvet curtains draped across the front windows, inside the restaurant is already dimly lit to provide the mood-setting ambience. A friendly waitress immediately offers to take my jacket and hang it in the cloakroom and ushers us to our table at the far right corner, a prime position to observe all the actions at the pass.
A wine bar dominates the front part of the restaurant with a rectangular chandelier with the exact same length and width of the bar hanging right above. There is a sense of casualness yet elegance in this fine dining establishment, the floor is not carpeted but natural dark concrete for instance, the staffs are professional but extremely friendly and helpful, even the patrons rock up in smart casual of t-shirt and jeans whilst another table will be fully dressed in suits. I can see why people are loving this two-chefs-hatted restaurant where it even has broken the common perception of fine dining.
Tonight we are here for the 8 course degustation menu ($140 pp). Instead of having the matching wine, our friendly sommelier has recommended a bottle of L'imposteur Grenache ($76) that will match well with our dinner this evening.
Soon we are greeted with warm crusty house breads, choice of white bread and wholegrain sourdough. We slather them generously with the accompanying creamy housemade butter but it is the airy light emulsified smoked olive oil with black salt that had me going for second.
A complimentary pre-dinner appetiser arrives swiftly at our table. Minimalism at its best, a stem of seasonal white asparagus is compressed in olive oil, it is still crunchy like raw but without the grassy flavour, seaweed flower adds texture whilst the walnut puree wraps the dish up with an earthiness undertone.
The first course arrives in a monotone of black and white presentation. The waitress is informative and takes her time to explain every single components and the story behind each dish. The snow crab is inspired by the Mount Taranaki, a snow capped mountain in New Zealand, the country where chef Ben Shewry grew up in. The dish may look simple, but hidden underneath the mound of snow is a wondrous of flavours.
Every spoonful is a kaleidoscope of flavours, textures and even temperature. There are tiny flosses of sweet snow crab meat, airy puffed rice that is still warm and toasty, intense sour barberries with smoky char grilled leek ash, then there is also the sudden chilled of tangy verjus granita whilst the freeze fried mound of coconut and horseradish powder simply melts in the mouth once in contact with the tongue.
Next course is a plump, juicy marron tail from Western Australia which has just cooked through, the meat is incredibly tender and sweet against a baby confit garlic from South Australia. Next to it is half a baby leek which adds acidity and is also the perfect platform for the creamy egg yolk, sprinkled with squid ink crumbs over the top.
'A simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown' - that's the exact words on the menu.
But there is nothing simple about this signature dish, the potato is wrapped then baked like a hangi, a traditional NZ Maori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit in the ground. It looks like a golden egg sitting in its nest, the glossy potato taste nothing like a potato but with the texture of a yam, a sticky, waxy sweetness. The earthy flavour is nicely balanced with the intense flavour of goat curd cheese, sprinkled with salty cured salmon crumbs and smokey coconut husk ash, a few leaves of salt bush are air dried then deep fried to add texture.
The last seafood course is an oven roasted bass groper. The flawless white meat is tender and sweet, topped with a crusty layer of quinoa that has been deep fried which really adds an amazing crunch to the dish. A simple clean shiitake and broccolini flowers broth that harmonises the delicate flavour of the fish beautifully.
This is the dish I look forward the most when I read pork tail on the menu. It is a play on geometry on the plate - the pork tail has been deboned, compressed then deep fried into a rectangular golden block. Every bite is a speechless sensation of crispy exterior and the piping hot fatty gelatinous innards, a dollop of Morcilla custard (black pudding) is bearable spicy hot and counter balanced nicely with the sweet picked onion puree whereas two long chips of compressed watermelon and beetroot offer cooling relief from the heat.
"The boys actually picked the flowers this afternoon," the waitress emphasises.
Our final savoury course is a meaty dish of black Angus, seasoned with miso then oven roasted to perfection. The beef is a nice hue of pink, tender and well-seasoned, accompanied with potato chips that had been soaked in soy and miso, an intense saltiness that enhances the sweetness of the meat, white cabbage stems and a translucent green layer of sea lettuce introduce new layers of texture to the dish. Everything works perfectly except the toasted black sesame paste that can be a little overpowering and also not really fond of its grainy texture.
Our first dessert course is simply the most beautiful dish of this evening. Inspired by the farm land the chef grew up on in New Zealand and also a homage to his father, Terroir is designed to mirror the red soil landscape which is actually beetroot cake crumbs mixed with an assortment of frozen berries of many textures, from snap-frozen airy lightness to chewy air-dried. A green sorrel ice sits on top looks just like a patch of green moss on the earth, a refreshing relief to counterbalance the spicy and peppery flavour in the cake.
Ain't no mountain high enough, we unearth the red soil to discover kiwifruit and avocado jellies like precious emeralds embedded in a soft center of organic yoghurt sorbet that is deliciously soothing.
Terroir, is borrowed from the French wine-making term, which translates as ‘expression of the earth’, and refers to how all the elements surrounding a vineyard come together to make good wine. This dessert says it all.
For our last dessert course, the waitress presented us with a bowl of apple wedges which have been compressed and still slightly raw but soft to the core, topped with sweet olive molasses custard, and white powdery crumbs grated from dehydrated apple skins, nothing is going to waste.
Then a pastry chef follows not far behind, holding a bowl of warm shredded wheat and explains to us what the dish is, then sprinkles a few heap spoonfuls of the wheat crumbs all over it. It instantly reminds me of an apple crumble, the shredded wheat which resembles of brown sugar crumble is actually made of candied oats and ground hazelnuts for that nutty flavour to marry the sweetness acidity of the apple.
What makes a dining experience memorable is the little surprise at the finale. Totally unexpected, another pastry chef comes out from the kitchen and presents us with two speckled eggs resting peacefully inside a bird's nest made from green grass and dry hay. The quirky presentation sure have a few inquisitive diners with their heads turn towards our table.
It is a housemade creme egg! Inside the white chocolate egg shell is a luscious sweetness of thick caramel syrup. The Pom and I exchange notes from the dinner this evenig as we savour the last bit of the sticky sweetness. We both agree the snow crab is our favourite whereas the pork tail comes pretty close.
74 Glen Eira Rd,
Tel: +61 (03) 9530 0111