Far too long between visits
A lot has happened between now and the time I last visited Attica. It's gone from having the AGFG "Dish of the year" to being 73rd best restaurant in the world in 2010, to being the 53rd best in the world (according to the San Pellegrino restaurant awards). I've changed a lot too, I've eaten at award winning restaurants in Melbourne and around the world, including most of Melbourne's two hatted establishments and even some Michelin starred restaurants in the USA. Through all of this, Attica has sat comfortably atop my list of favourite meals, never looking threatened. With this in mind it was the obvious choice for where to go to celebrate (finally) completing my PhD, to see if what I remembered was really what I remembered.
The intimate and relatively dark dining room was just as I recalled, although this time I noticed how blogger friendly the lighting is, allowing for some pretty good sneaky food photography. On a Friday night there's a compulsory 8 course degustation ($160) and as this was a celebration we couldn't very well overlook the matched wines ($90), especially with offerings such as Sake, a few Spanish wines, and even the daring but inspired choice of a rich nut-brown ale in the middle of the meal.
We began with oysters topped with various seaweeds (some of which were picked locally by the chef himself) followed by an amuse bouche of raw prawn with mustard seeds and oil. Next came the first listed course. The Snow Crab. I suggest that it's difficult for anyone to describe this dish accurately. It has such a complex array of textures and flavours, from the crab meat, salmon roe, freeze dried coconut and who knows how many other things I couldn’t identify, all working together in such an amazing way. This, while not my favourite dish at Attica, is one I will always remember. Thinking back to my first visit, the Snow Crab was what I called an "epiphany dish". This is the dish that solidified me into committing to this blog, to describe myself as a "foodie", to start thinking of food as being an actual "hobby" more than just an "interest".
The following Marron, Leek, and Egg Yolk was wonderful, particularly the hollowed leek filled with the soft bright egg yolk, combining perfectly with the subtle sweetness of the marron meat. Next came the eagerly anticipated “Potato” a seemingly simple dish of Potato cooked in the earth in which it was grown. This, while being just a spud (albeit sitting on a bed of goat's curd), still makes many "top 10 dish" lists when the Melbourne food critics do their annual roundups. It's not hard to see why either. Potato is a side dish, it takes a brave restaurant and an excellent chef to make it a course in its own right. Here it surpasses all expectations, even after having sampled an earlier rendition of this dish on our last visit.
Next came the Shiitakes and Meat from the Pearl Oyster (wonderful even for someone who doesn't generally go for seafood), followed by the Raw Chestnuts, salt baked Celeriac, Pyengana. This was the course that came paired with a Nut-brown Ale from the North of England. Again the sign of a restaurant constantly willing to innovate and experiment, nowhere else can I imagine a beer being not only on the matched wine list, but in the middle of the meal. This was probably the standout of the evening, impressive for a vegetarian dish. At the start of the evening our waiter flagged to us that the menu contained a dish of Beef Tongue (Beef Tongue, Vanilla, Myrtus, Lettuce Stems)as it seems some people object to the idea of tongue. I really want to know who these people are, as after having this course, someone needs to track them down and explain to them why they're wrong.
The two/three/four desserts (depending on how you want to count these things) were simply referred to as Winter Apples (one type of apple poached in the liquid of a different apple) , Mandarin and Honeydew Honey (a honey where the bees collect nectar extruded from another insect which took the nectar from the sap of the trees, in this case New Zealand Beech trees - another nod to Ben Shewry's NZ upbringing). An Afghan Biscuit (a deconstructed version of New Zealand's equivalent of our ANZAC biscuits, made with cornflakes, chocolate, and almonds). And finally, Pukeko Eggs (thin, white chocolate eggs, containing caramel - like the best easter eggs you can imagine).
The names given to the dishes, including "Snow crab, Raw Chestnuts, Winter apples" really don’t do justice to the complexity of what appears on the plate. After each dish we would try and identify the various components, it became a kind of table game throughout the night. And just when you think you've got a handle on what might appear next BAM, something out of left field. I'm generally not a fan of surprises, but I can't think of a better place to be surprised than Attica.
Attica started the evening at the top of my list of favourite meals, and from tonight's effort it's not going anywhere.
For me, the Gourmet Husbands dinner at Attica was an eye opening experience.
As I begin to write this review, I am feeling significantly out of my depth,
I don't even know where to start. Who am I to comment on a restaurant which
attained the title of 2009 Restaurant of the Year in The Age Good Food Guide?
Who am I to discuss the pros and cons of ingredients I've never even heard of?
So that's the angle I'm going to take, a cross between a food novice, and what
will probably end up seeming a starry-eyed fan.
Attica is the restaurant of Chef Ben Shewry, recently named in Food and Wine Magazine's 2009 rising stars.
The dining room was smaller than I expected, but far from cramped. The staff were extremely
accommodating when we arrived 20 minutes before our booking, and equally happy to
alter the tasting menu in light of my dietary requirements (allergies, not anything crazy
like veganism). We all decided on the 8 course degustation menu ($130, $215 with matched wines).
Until this point I've been un-sold on the concept of degustation, generally preferring
ordering a la carte and wines on my own. I am now a convert.
Arriving first was what was listed on the menu simply as snow crab . This was
an eye opener for me in every sense of the word. The waiter informed us that the dish
was a marriage of subtle flavours and complimentary textures. This is the first time
I have every been at a restaurant and been able to say I have never eaten anything like
it before in my life. Snow crab, puffed rice, freeze dried coconut, so much more than
the menu would lead you to believe. I'm still not sure I believe it.
The following was also an award winner - the 2009 dish of the year in fact.
Smoked trout broth, crackling, basil seeds, fresh smoke. The dish comes
covered in an upturned glass bowl, which when removed releases a cloud of wonderful
smelling wood smoke. The trout broth and basil seeds is then poured over the revealed
crackling from a small glass beaker. The first of many reminders of the high-tech
origins of many of the dishes.
The next few dishes included a slow roasted potato with cured tuna and goats whey,
and a rare kingfish before we made it onto what would be considered the mains. The
first of which was glenloth pigeon, celery, borage, bitter onion, the bitter
onion again poured from scientific glassware (a test tube in this case). This was
followed by slow cooked free range pork, baby turnips, house-made black pudding, apple.
The pork flavours in each of the 4 parts of this dish (neck, poached pork, house made bacon and
the black pudding) were truly astounding.
Desert was another revelation. The first of which simply called: terroir. I guess
it could be classed as a savoury dessert, though not without sweetness. It consisted
of freeze dried berries, dehydrated beetroot, lime jelly ice, some greenery, all covering
a fromage frais sorbet. This dish, amongst all the others of unbelievable quality, is the
one that literally made me sit back and decide this was it. This was the best meal I have
ever eaten. That view was only reinforced when it was followed by Sauternes custard with blackberries.
Another unassuming name for a truly remarkable dish.
At this point I simply have to stop gushing. I haven't even mentioned some of the alternative
dishes I sampled due to my dietary needs (a Moroccan lamb, and wagyu steak - spectacular). Nor
have I written of the amazingly well matched wines, including a Spanish sherry, French Cider,
and a good collection of French,Italian and Australian wineries represented. I find it hard
to recommend Attica highly enough, I now know what all the fuss is about. Wow.
8 Course Tasting Menu
Matched wines. Including a Spanish Sherry, a French pear cider, some French, Italian and Australian wines.