Attica - Ripponlea, Australia

Dinner - Saturday, October 13, 2012

Although we were very disappointed at missing the Ben Shewry guest dinner at Manresa earlier this year, we certainly made up for it by making the trip to Attica proper.

The restaurant's star has been on the rise in the past few years, due to Shewry's use of native Australian ingredients and his "earthy" menus - just the type of cuisine that appeals to us.

The restaurant is black, like a studio set, with draped curtains and minimalist furniture. Spotlights direct your attention to the food in front of you, so organic that it is a jarring contrast to the industrial environs. With the degustation being the only option on weekends, relatively few choices are required of the diner (drinks, essentially) before the food arrives. And arrive it does, in the humblest of beginnings.

Mustard greens
House-cultured creme fraiche, lemon myrtle, alpine pepper
Thumbelina carrots
Simple vegetables from the garden arrived in woven baskets, unadorned and as fresh as anything you've ever had. Crisp and brightly flavoured, they were superbly complemented by the kick of the spiced creme fraiche.

"Walnut in its shell"
Walnut purée, white mustard leaf, shavings of mushrooms
Rye, Parmesan, olive oil, holy flax
The thin rye cracker was topped with chilled Parmesan cream. The holy flax (santolina) had a sprightly taste that seemed to parallel the olive oil - clearly a winning combination with the cheese and wafer.

"Lance Wiffen watches his mussels"
Fried blue-lip mussels, sea succulents
Shitake broth, cabbage flower, mustard flower, Society garlic flower
Amazing taste. Our server swore that the broth was made only from mushrooms! Each flower paired differently (and well) with the liquid, and I particularly enjoyed the heat of the purple Society garlic bud.

Artichoke, crab, macadamia nut, buttermilk
Fascinating - the first time I've had such delicate artichoke petals. They were accompanied by a puree of the hearts and stems, lending an intense hit of flavour with a buttery texture. The crab was a give-away, but the tangy buttermilk did a superb job tying together the crustacean's sweetness with the nutty artichoke. Macadamia nuts (native to eastern Australia) made their first appearance of many in this meal and the ones that followed.

"Textures of cauliflower"
Cauliflower, horseradish, pink verjus granita, shaved coconut, puffed rice
Marron, fermented corn, smoked chicken broth
Baby leeks, white and purple radish flowers, mustard flower
The marron (an Australian crayfish) was poached in cultured butter, then doused in a sauce made from the smoked chicken broth. Perfectly cooked with excellent texture. The pairing with the (surprisingly mild) fermented corn was inspired. The pepperiness of the different flowers certainly helped to brighten the richer components.

"A simple dish of Potato cooked in the earth it was grown"
McLaren Vale Virginia Rose potato, goats milk curd, coffee-coconut ash, saltbush leaves
A signature dish at the restaurant, I found that the potato actually took a back seat to the terrific curd - it was creamy, sour, spicy, with a touch of bitterness. The fried saltbush leaves (naturally salty plants) provided most of the salinity and crunch in the dish, whereas the spud contributed an unearthly fluffiness.

King George Whiting wrapped in paperbark and grilled over coals
Pearl oyster and green tomato juice, onion flowers
Asparagus, Sirora pistachios, apple cider, geranium, chervil
I wonder if all asparagus in Australia is this good, because this might've been some of the best I've ever eaten! It was simply blanched, served with a puree of germinated pistachios and smoked whole pistachios. Every component built up the main vegetable. It really doesn't get any better than this.

Kumara, Pyengana cheddar cream, egg yolk
Almonds, chickpea sprouts, broccolini
Quite a heavy course, surprising for a Spring menu. The salt-crust roasted kumara (sweet potato) was extremely tender, without any hint of fibrousness. Once broken, the yolk spilled into a deliciously salty cheddar cream sauce that coated the kumara. The greens were a welcome (and necessary) refresher from the richness of the other ingredients.

Flinders Island wallaby, Bunya pine
Currants, chicory, begonia, ground berries
Seared loin of wallaby, sourced from a farmer that kills the critters - it seems that wallabies can be quite the pest. Tender and very mild, unlike its much gamier kangaroo relative. I found the Bunya pine shavings fairly neutral, although they had an interesting texture. The macadamia nut puree was amazing, and the greens were (again) remarkably good.

Fresh curd ice cream
Meringue, apple, balsamic vinegar
An excellent intermezzo. Creamy fresh curd ice cream, topped with powdered meringue. Underneath, shards of meringue with poached apples and balsamic vinegar. Sweet and tangy, quite the transition into the next course.

"Native fruits of Australia"
Candied wattleseed custard, sheeps milk yogurt, macadamia nut crumble
The first in a long time that we've encountered a dish where none of the ingredients were recognizable. Clockwise from the top, we were served (forgive any spelling errors): quandongs (the nuts of which are pictured at the top of this post), lemon aspen, candied rosella, emu apples, why berries, desert limes, and Davidson's plum. Frankly, a challenging course, with many of the fruits (particularly the desert limes) displaying pronounced tart and bitter notes. One component I really enjoyed was the rosella, which tasted like hibiscus.

"Plight of the bees"
A delightfully intricate (and substantial - it would not have been out of place in a three-course menu) dessert. The benign surface belies the treasure trove underneath. At the bottom of the container, some lemon curd and wild thyme honey, with mandarin segments. Over this, a granita of lemon and fennel. Finally, to shield the ice, a sheet of compressed pumpkin infused with honeydew honey, dusted with freeze-dried apple powder. Very, very, very good.

"The Pukeko's egg"
White chocolate, caramel
Our final bite was a tribute to the New Zealand Pukeko, a tenacious forager (something Shewry, himself a New Zealander, can relate to). The hollow egg comprised a white chocolate shell with an interior coating of caramel. This final bite was served with an essay on thought and inspiration, and the importance of emotional connection.

Ben Shewry at the pass
There is something uniquely Australian going on in the Attica kitchen, and they embrace their native ingredients unabashedly. If the food tonight doesn't speak of a sense of place, I don't know where else one would go to find it. Our dinner also showcased a slightly different mindset, a different sensibility, than we usually encounter. Ben Shewry stands apart from his peers in really pushing his heritage forward - our meal felt (by far) the most unique of the trip. Not every course was delicious in the traditional sense (see the dessert of native fruits), but they were all interesting. I'm really looking forward to how he will continue to experiment with and exploit his local bounty.

74 Glen Eira Road
Ripponlea, VIC 3185
Phone: +61 (3) 9530-0111