Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Attica, Melbourne - 11 December 2013

A meal at Attica has been on my wishlist for a very long time and I have been waiting for this particular meal for months. 6 months to be exact. This is how far in advance I booked this meal! Call me crazy, but this is the person that makes restaurant reservations for overseas trips before even booking the plane tickets!

Attica has shot to international fame in recent years, thanks to the San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurant lists, in which Attica placed 21st in 2013 (ahead of notable restaurants such as Fat Duck, which is quite an achievement!). Kiwi Ben Shewry is the chef and owner at Attica. Ben is one of the chefs leading the foraging movement (including the likes of Rene Redzepi at Noma). Ben can often be found foraging for wild edible plants from the seaside, in alleyways, and even on train tracks! His cooking is largely founded on his connection to nature and respecting both New Zealand and Australian culture, which of course includes foraging.          

Attica is located in suburban Melbourne in Ripponlea, which is somewhat of an unusual location for a world class fine dining establishment. Attica can be found on the main shopping strip in Ripponlea, which is easily accessible by foot after a train ride from the CBD.

At the time of my meal, Attica offered an 8-course tasting menu for $180 (now $190). A separate vegetarian menu is available, which is what my wife had. On Tuesday nights, there is a special 5-course chef's table menu for $125 where Attica trials new dishes that the chefs have been working on. This to me is great value for a meal at a world-class restaurant.
Matched Juices ($65), green pea juice pictured
As well as matching wines, Attica offer matching juices with each course (for $65). We were excited to see Attica offer something for the non-wine drinkers out there. There was a mixture of fruit and vegetable juices so it wasn't all sweet. The juices have been paired with the courses to complement and bring out the flavours of the food it is paired with, just like matched wines would.

Bread and snacks

Before the main event, diners are served bread and a series of tasty, little snacks to whet their appetite.

Rye sourdough, house churned butter and olive oil emulsion
The bread for the evening was a rye sourdough. This was top quality bread that you would expect to have at a 3-hatted establishment. The bread had a lovely crust and wonderful flavour. We were given two accompaniments for the bread: a house churned Jersey cow butter and an olive oil emulsion. Both were absolutely amazing and left me and my wife debating which one was better (for the record I liked the butter and my wife liked the olive oil emulsion). The butter was smooth, creamy and so good with sea salt flakes. The olive oil emulsion was made from a combination of olive oil, coconut oil and finished with black salt. The flavour of all these elements were well balanced and worked together nicely. 

Pickled carrots
The first snack we were presented with were these pickled baby carrots. I love the crunch of these carrots together with the acidity of the apple vinegar and the natural sweetness of the carrots. These carrots were even more interesting and enjoyable from the tumeric used.  
Mushroom leaves and corn puree
We were stumped when our waiter placed this woven basket containing 2 twigs on our table. These twigs were mushroom leaves and we were instructed to use these as our eating utensils to dip into the corn puree. The corn puree was just delicious. Although it was quite salty, it was sweet, cheesy and just addictive. I was using almost anything to mop up every last bit of the puree from the bread to even my finger!         

Blood pudding pikelet
My next snack was this cute little blood pudding pikelet made from the blood of red kangaroo I believe. This pikelet had that same distinctive that I have come to love in blood puddings and paired brilliantly with jam and sour cream.  The texture of the pikelet was amazing too - soft and fluffy.   

Walnut puree served in a walnut shell
Instead of the blood pudding pikelets, my wife had this enjoyable snack of walnut puree, pine mushrooms served in a walnut shell.  

Lightly fried oyster, lightly fried oyster mushroom
The last snack before the commencement of the tasting menu was both of our favourite snacks. Mine was a freshly shucked oyster that was lightly battered and flash fried. The batter was thin, crispy and didn't feel oily and played very well with the barely cooked oyster. Despite being fried, this snack tasted fresh and you could still taste the lovely briney flavours of the oyster. My wife had oyster mushroom in place of oyster.  

Course one

Snow crab, mandarin and sorrel
A lightly blanched sorrel leaf filled the plate like a lily pad. When we lifted up the sorrel leaf, it revealed a pile of hand picked, steamed snow crab, which was mixed in with mandarin jelly and spiced vinegar. The snow crab was meaty and had a sweet, delicate flavour. However I felt the flavours of the spiced vinegar and mandarin jelly, whilst pleasant, overpowered the crab meat and were too strong in this particular dish. To me it seemed the snow crab was used more as a flavour carrier rather the hero of the dish.

For the vegetarian course, the snow crab was replaced with cauliflower. I did not include a picture of this dish because the cauliflower looked remarkably similar to the snow crab.  

The juice pairing for both of us was a young coconut juice.
Course two

Marron and ground greens
Next up for me was a simple yet elegant looking dish containing marron and ground greens. The marron was softly poached and beautifully cooked.  The marron was fresh, translucent in the middle, tender and had great flavour. The slightly sweet juices of onion and the rich pork fat was a wonderful pairing with the marron. The grassy ground greens, which was mixed with chicken floss, had a lovely savoury flavour and was a good textural contrast to the smooth and slightly chewy texture of the marron.

The juice pairing was cucumber and sorrel.

Leeks and seaweed butter
For the vegetarian, the second course was leeks, sea lettuce with a seaweed butter and a brown rice miso sauce. The leeks were perfectly cooked - just soft with some bite. This dish was all about the umami flavours imparted from the seaweed butter and the brown rice miso sauce. These flavours were big yet enjoyable.

The juice pairing was also cucumber and sorrel.

Course three

A simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown
A simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown is the signature dish at Attica, which draws on Ben Shewry's New Zealand heritage. A potato is cooked in earth for several hours, replicating the traditional Maori hangi oven. A hangi oven is an earth oven created by digging a pit in the ground, heating stones in the pit with a large fire, placing the food on top of the stones and covering everything with earth to cook.

This method of cooking yields the most consistently smooth, creamy and amazing potato. On the plate it was paired brilliantly with fried salt bush and smoked goat's cheese. The ashes from charred coconut husk and a sprinkle of coffee grounds added earthiness to the dish. A simple looking dish, yet a true standout!

The juice pairing for this course was a cold-smoked granny smith apple juice. This was by far the best juice pairing of the night, a match made in heaven. The goat's cheese really brought out the apple flavours in the juice and the tartness of the apple helps cut through the creaminess of the potato and the goat's cheese.

Course four

Cucumbers, holy flax, sauce of Burnet
This was yet another ingenious dish by Ben Shewry and one of my favourites of the night. Everything on the plate just played off each other brilliantly. For me the star of the dish is that amazing sauce of Burnet,  which was buttery and cheesy. It reminded me of a delicious pesto sauce. The richness and the saltiness of the sauce complemented the sweetness of the green peas and the concentrated cucumber flavours in the pressed cucumber and cucumber oil. My dish also came with dried river trout flakes, whilst my wife's didn't.

The juice pairing for this course was green pea juice.  
Course five

Onions, Kale, Mustard Oil
The onion, kale, mustard oil was my wife's vegetarian course. There were some nice textures here with the smooth, creaminess of spinach avocado puree, crispy kale and crunch of macadamia nuts. But this dish was an explosion of flavours, which my wife thought was a bit heavy-handed for a fine dining restaurant like Attica. The kale was salty, the spiced vinegar in the onion was acidic and the mustard oil smacks you in the face.

The matching juice for this course was tomato and verjus.    

King George Whiting in Paperbark
My course was a King George Whiting enveloped inside a Paperbark parcel. The paperbark locks in the moisture and the flavours of the fish, which was buttery and tangy from the lemon myrtle. This was a really really delicious piece of fish!

The matching juice for this course was also tomato and verjus.    

Course six

Fresh polenta and thyme
This was my wife's final savoury course and her favourite of the night. I tried a little bit of it and I concur. The hero of this dish is of course the polenta and it is the most freaking delicious polenta ever! The polenta was made in house from fresh corn and cooked in its own juices. The polenta was smooth and creamy; the flavours were sweet, pleasantly corny (obviously) and just downright addictive. Over the top of the polenta was shaved oyster mushrooms and some amazing Tasmanian cheddar cheese from Pyengana (the best Cheddar in Australia in my opinion).

The matching juice for this course was slightly bitter orange.

Red Kangaroo with Herbs Tended by the Hands of our Cooks
If there ever was a native Australian dish, this would be it: kangaroo, our national emblem; quandongs, a native Australian fruit found in the outback; and Australian fauna in the herbs. This was a superb dish that was one of the highlights of the meal. The kangaroo was cooked medium-rare with a lovely pink centre. It was a tender piece of meat and not too gamey. Quandongs are a sour berry and they worked quite well with the kangaroo. I also really liked the herbs that the kangaroo was paired with. The assortment of herbs added a lot of different flavour notes to this dish, all of which were interesting and kept me guessing what would come with each bite. There were hot, minty, mustardy, peppery, bitter, and floral flavours just to name a few. So all in all, I thought this was a highly enjoyable course and one of the best of the night.        

The matching juice for this course was beetroot and native pepper.     

Garden tour

The herb garden at Attica
Before desserts, we were given an intermission and taken to the garden at the back of the restaurant. One of the chefs was waiting for us in the garden, where he would explain to us the restaurant's philosophy and give us a tour of the garden, which contained some of the herbs that the restaurant used. The chef explained to us that this garden was only a representation of what takes place at the much larger grounds at Ripponlea Estate on a much larger scale.

Sipping on apple juice whilst learning about Attica and Ben Shewry's philosophy on food
Whilst the chef chatted to us, we were offered a cup of pink lady and granny smith apple juice to enjoy.

Toasting marshmallows in the Attica garden
After the chat, the chef gave each of us a stick with a house made marshmallow, which we could toast at the fire set up in the garden. This was really fun and brought me back to school camp, where I would keep myself warm by a camp fire and toasted marshmallows. Despite being summer, it was surprisingly cool in Melbourne so we found standing by the fire to be nice and comforting. For a while we did not want to head back in, but knew we had to to continue the journey.

Other diners toasting marshmallows and checking out the garden

Chefs hard at work preparing the desserts
We were then taken back to our table and we noticed that a couple of chefs were preparing the desserts for the evening. There was molecular gastronomy involved so this was quite a spectacle. We saw mists and vapours and all sorts of funky scientific equipment you'd expect to find in Heston Blumenthal's kitchen. I was getting more and more excited about dessert and salivating at the thought of dessert. 

Course seven

Blueberries, vinegar and fresh cheese
Our first dessert of the night was certainly a pretty one with chrysanthemum flowers scattered over the top. It was an enjoyable one too and unlike anything I have seen at a restaurant. What I liked the most about this dessert was the fresh cheese ice cream, which was made from a fromage blanc goats cheese. The cheese ice cream was really smooth and had a subtle cheese flavour. Folded through the ice cream were bits of candied apple. The ice cream worked well with the flavours of the compressed blueberries, which were quite acidic from the apple vinegar.      

The matching juice for this course was Beurre Bosc Pear and ginger.

Course eight

Raw strawberry jam
The final course of the night was raw strawberry jam, which was like a luxe version of strawberries and cream. The raw strawberry jam is created using an evaporator, which breaks down the walls of the strawberries until it turns into a jam like mixture. This method of making jam requires a lot less sugar than normal jam (which is usually roughly 50/50 fruit and sugar) and yields a more natural tasting jam with concentrated and delicious strawberry flavours. Underneath the jam was a thin, crispy disc of meringue for texture; vanilla ice; fresh strawberries and sour cream. Overall, this was a very pleasant and fresh tasting dessert to end a great meal!  

The matching juice for this course was watermelon and lime.     
Petit four

Pukeko's egg
And to complete the meal and the story, we were presented with these 2 Pukeko's eggs, which is a bird native to New Zealand, and a handout that talks about the Pukeko and likens its behaviour to Ben Shewry's philosophy to cooking. Just like Ben, the Pukeko is often seen foraging for food beside roadside ditches.      

Salted caramel inside the pukeko's egg
The Pukeko egg is actually white chocolate that has been decorated to look exactly like the Pukeko's egg. The detail is amazing and it looks remarkably close to the actual egg. And it tastes great too! And when you bite inside there is some salted caramel, which was just to die for!  

Our meal at Attica was certainly a fun experience that progressively got better through the night. This was not just a meal, it was almost like a story was being told. The garden tour engaged the diner and provided a real insight into Ben Shewry's philosophy to food and connection with nature. And the cooking of course showed a lot of technique and the flavours were exciting and packed a punch, although we did find some of them to be a bit overpowering at times. Is this the best restaurant in Australia and 21st best restaurant in the world? Probably not (there is no way Attica has better food than Fat Duck). But Attica certainly stacks up well on the international dining scene and is worth making a special trip for.
Highlight: How a simple potato cooked in the earth it was grown in can taste so good astounds me!
Lowlight: I found some of the courses to have flavours that were overpowering. I would have liked the flavours in those dishes to be a bit more restrained and have better balance. 
Overall: Attica is considered one of the world's best restaurants and is booked out months in advance for a reason. Everyone comes here for the same reason: the food is delicious and inventive and the service is friendly and attentive. Hint, you should go too :) 8.5/10 (Excellent)

Address:74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea VIC 3185
Contact no: (03) 9530 0111

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