21st August 2017
74 Glen Eira Rd
Ripponlea, VIC 3185
Well it took almost a whole three years, but I finally made it – Attica. We braved the vicious three-months-in-advance booking system – multiple times – and finally landed the prime spot of 6pm on a Saturday night.
If you didn’t know about Attica – best restaurant in Australia, and 32nd in the world – you’d be roundly excused for not thinking very much of it at all. Located in the sleepy Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea behind a nondescript brick facade, Attica looks very much like a local bistro.
Step inside however, and it’s clear that Attica is all class. Recently renovated, the once-austere restaurant now has a down-to-earth, unpretentious warmth, whilst paying homage to the country’s indigenous and native roots.
There is only one menu available at Attica – the $260 Degustation, with the option of matching wines/juices. They cater to food intolerances for sure, but a meal at Attica is really about letting Ben Shrewy and his team show off all the culinary wonders Australia has to offer.
The Cook’s Leaves may seem like a complete bore of a start, but you’d be entirely wrong. The fresh salad leaves, picked from Attica’s Ripponlea estate, showcased the brilliant variety in taste and texture that can be found in a garden. The greens were complimented by a dip of sour cream, dotted prettily with olive oil surround with halos of fruity apple balsamic.
The Aged Santa Claus Melon had me intrigued with its translucent prettiness. Flavour-wise, this tastes like a milder version of honeydew, and the sour sprinkling of native plum powder brought out the delicate sweetness of the fruit.
Next up was a Hand Dived Scallop plucked from Port Phillip Bay that very morning, served with anise myrtle butter – no biggie, right? Well as it turns out, it was the best thing I’ve eaten all year. I can’t even begin to describe the plump sweetness of the shellfish, with its hint of fresh brininess and luscious plumpness. It was pure, sensual delight, and so different from the scallops I’ve had before that I loathe even to call them by the same name.
The scallops were a near-impossible act to follow, but the Smashed Avocado on Toast did a… smashing job. This fine-dining take on the Australian brunch classic consisted of a paper-thin cracker, topped with bright green avocado (no brown bits in sight!), specks of finger lime, and the tiniest sprig of mint. It is an instantly familiar taste to anyone who’s ever stepped inside a Melbourne cafe.
The Smoked Pork is another dish that puts a twist on something everyone knows and loves. Instead of deli ham, these slices of smoked pork neck were sinfully fatty and full-flavoured, the richness cut through with a drizzle of apple vinaigrette. The guilty delight of eating with my fingers – all these appetisers are designed to be eaten sans-cutlery – brings back childhood memories of sneaking whole slices of ham out of the fridge after bedtime.
Now here’s a fancy one – An Imperfect History of Ripponlea, told through mini tarts. Each tart symbolises a period in the history of the suburb of Ripponlea, explained our waiter. The red tart represents the indigenous people with its filling of pepperleaf cream topped with native berries. The black tart came next, the warm black pudding on breakfast tea cream symbolising the British heritage. Finally, the pale tart of schmaltz (clarified chicken fat) and chicken soup jelly represents the burgeoning Jewish population. A little pretentious, yes, but it makes up for it with its inventiveness and clever flavours.
Much more casual and a little tongue-in-cheek was Gazza’s Vegemite Pie. Each tiny piece of puff pastry, filled with lamb stew, was imbued with the yeasty, umami flavours so characteristic of the Australian spread. The result was bold and distinctive, but not in the least bit overwhelming – I’m a big fan of this one.
You think oyster is fancy? Then wait until you hear about the Pearl Cooked in Paperbark. Pearl meat is the abductor muscle of the pearl oyster, and unlike regular oysters, has a firm, meaty texture that is almost reminiscent of squid. Smoked in a wrapping of paperbark with macadamia cream, these delicate little morsels shone with freshness.
I hate carrots. But I love Chewy Carrots. These beauties had been smoked for a full 12 hours, resulting in a skin that was indeed satisfyingly chewy, whilst the center remained soft and delicate. Served alongside was a dip of egg, tarragon, and carrot oil, its fresh, green flavours downright addictive when paired with the sweet earthiness of the carrot.
Our final appetiser (I know, we hadn’t even started the mains!!) was the Mutton Shell. Hidden under the psychedelic shell was a delicate whole abalone from Indented Head, tenderised and pan-fried with seaweed butter and black cream. It was rich and indulgent, with layers of earthy and briny umami intermingling. And the knife on the side? It’s hand-made by the Attica chefs in Canberra. Whilst we didn’t need to use it, it did make for an impressive piece of decor.
After we were given some eucalyptus-scented hand towels to freshen up – the appetisers were all eaten with our hands – we were served our bread course of Wattleseed Damper. For those of you with cruddy memories of damper made on year 5 camp, don’t worry – this is nothing like that. The light, chewy bread was warm and studded with hearty seeds, and although I’m a traditionalist that prefers my bread with butter and a sprinkle of sea salt, the more adventurous have the option of dipping into a macadamia nut puree topped with crispy saltbush leaves.
The first formal course is the Kangaroo, Wattles, and Waxflower. The innocuously pretty pile of wattleseed hid a center of pink and tender salted kangaroo. I loved how natural this whole dish tasted, a feature that was echoed by the rough and ready texture of the seeds and flowers, contrasting with the melt-in-mouth kangaroo.
You think pumpkin can’t be exciting? That’s because you haven’t tried All Parts of the Pumpkin. This was a dish resplendent with technical mastery, as well as the spirit of nose-to-tail (stem-to-base?) eating that is becoming increasingly prevalent. The dish starts with a base of buttery-sweet pumpkin flesh, which is then topped with crunchy pumpkin seeds, brittle fried pumpkin skin, and finally a dollop of raw pumpkin cream. I’ve never had a dish like this before, which made me appreciate all the subtleties an individual vegetable has to offer.
I love marron, and the rendition served at Attica is the Grilled Marron with Desert Lime. As expected, the crustacean was cooked to a pearly plumpness, then wrapped with a wilted cos lettuce leaf and drizzled with desert lime dressing. Simple as this dish may have been, the sweetness of the marron combined effortlessly with the freshness of the lettuce and sharpness of the lime. I savoured every bite, drawing the experience out for as long as possible.
Our final savoury dish was the hearty Tulips and Jumbuck. Nestled prettily between vibrant tulip petals was a comforting braise of lamb neck, the fattiness of the cut balanced with sweet currants and pepperleaf.
We were then invited on a bit of a walk, through the kitchens where we were jauntily greeted by the kitchen staff – I have to admit I was a little star-struck – and finally out into a cosy little kitchen garden with a heater in the corner to guard against the chill.
After being invited to stay for as little or as long as would like, we stood in the garden, munching on Hot Jam Donuts and sipping hot Gumbi Gumbi Tea. The donuts were of course flawless, the sugar-coated balls of fried dough hiding a jewel-bright centre of jam. The gumbi gumbi tea was a blend of sweet and tart, underscored by a faint herbal aroma that brought to mind crisp Autumn evenings spent by the campfire.
After a few minutes more in the garden, we traipsed back in for our Camel Milk Ice. No, not caramel milk ice, camel milk ice, topped with edible ants no less. I’ll admit, I had a hard time getting over my mental block enough to enjoy this dish – I had accidentally eaten an ant when I was 8, and the disgusting taste has stayed with me since. That and the fact that I have this thing with unusual dairy products – I always expect them to taste funny. Objectively speaking however, the camel milk ice was actually light and icy, and the ants were but the slightest crunch.
Unfortunately enough, I also have this thing with raw egg, so I was also a little iffy about the Whipped Emu Egg with Quandong. However, when the whipped emu egg foam was mixed through with the chocolate and quandong, it actually tasted remarkably like chocolate mousse with raspberries. I especially enjoyed scooping out the hidden slick of sticky caramel at the bottom of the egg.
Fantales? You’ve got to be joking right? As it turns out, these weren’t fantales – they were Attica Cheftales, complete with chef trivia printed on the iconic wrappers. These were, without exaggeration, the best caramels I’ve ever had. Enrobed with a layer of silky chocolate was a chewy caramel, subtly infused with sea salt and lemon myrtle oil. Not only did the delicately flavoured candy taste incredible, it also doesn’t get hopelessly stuck to the teeth!
So, did Attica live up to all the hype? If you ask me, the answer is a resounding yes. Too often, fine dining restaurants focus so much on innovation that the most important thing – taste – gets left out in the cold. But that’s not the case with Attica. Each individual dish was exquisitely crafted and refreshingly unique, yet at the same time, approachable and, well, tasty. The only thing that stopped this from being a perfect meal was frankly a quirk of my own tastebuds – I tender to prefer my desserts to be relatively straight-forward, and so wasn’t a huge fan of the ones served here, even if I could appreciate them objectively. I will say this however – this is hands down the best meal I’ve ever had.
Rating: 19/20 – but basically a 20.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.