June 10, 2012

74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea
I was fortunate enough to be taken to Attica for my birthday dinner some time ago, (big thank you to mum and dad) and still the memory of this dinner has me grinning. Attica, which is also a region of Greece (though I’m unsure if this was chef Ben Shewry’s inspiration for the name of his restaurant), sits quietly in an unassuming strip of shops in Ripponlea. It took one very, very long drive down Burke Road and then west along Glen Eira before we were through the door and into Attica’s quiet and sophisticated space.

The lighting at the restaurant deserves a mention. The room is dark and mainly black, with curtains sectioning off various areas and created more intimate spaces. Though quite dark, each table is perfectly spotlighted, such that you can see your food and the people around you, faces illuminated, but you feel secluded, like nothing beyond your table exists. Waiters seem to float out of the darkness bringing dishes, and you are blissfully unaware of other diners, apart from the occasional excited squeal when a dish is brought out.

I’ve heard Ben Shewry’s food described as heartfelt and intimate, and I feel this is a very fitting description. The incredible care that goes into each dish of his vegetable-oriented menu, and the respect he gives to even the most humble root, bulb or leaf, is a testament to his skill and gives you a new found respect for the ingredient. Because honestly, after you eat a potato at Attica, you will never think of spuds in the same way again.

The menu on Saturday nights involves eight tasting courses, but we added in a cheeky snow crab as well because we’d heard so many good things about it. Bread (organic sourdough rye with wattleseed) is served with house churned butter and a smoked olive oil emulsion, which was slightly tangy (and, obviously, smoky).

We chose a 2009 Syrahmi shiraz from Heathcote to drink with the meal, which had a very smoky smell, not surprising given the fires that ripped through the area that year. As far as a Shiraz goes, it was relatively soft, but had a nice herbaceous flavour.

An amuse bouche of walnut puree, snow peas, olive oil and buckwheat, served in a walnut shell. I enjoyed the clever play on textures – the walnut flavour came from a soft puree, contrasted with the almost crunchy baby peas.

The second amuse bouche was a simple dish of mussels from Port Phillip Bay with quandons. These were, in their simplicity, brilliant. Stupidly fresh and juicy, lightly crisped and creamy inside. The large mussel shell had been hand painted by a New Zealand artist; we guessed the face was that of Elvis.

The snow crab. What a cracker – steamed crab, verjuice ice, barberries, puffed rice, salmon roe, horseradish powder. The crab flesh was wonderfully tender, the tangy verjuice granita provided lift and the occasional pop of salmon roe kept things interesting. The powder had a bizarre texture. When you took a spoonful of the stuff, at first it felt like your mouth was filled with a dry, creamy mayonnaise, but it had a strong zing like wasabi in the back of your throat. Excellent at cleaning out the sinuses!

Tomato, smoked sesame, eleven basils. That’s right, ELEVEN. What you have here is a bell pepper poached in olive oil, sitting on a slick of labne, topped with an ice tomato and a black russian tomato (quite possibly the most badass tomato of them all, the black russian. What a boss), and eleven tiny leaves of basil. Amazingly, each basil leaf tasted different, the four of us sat there exclaiming how each one was sweeter, or more bitter, or more peppery than the last. Such a fantastic way to get diners to explore all elements of a dish. Tomato and basil, who’d have thought? If it isn’t sacrilege to say so, I think I preferred this dish to the snow crab.

WA marron, steamed leek, native pepper. I’m a huge fan of marron, I love their delicate, sweet flavour and brilliant red hue. The leeks had the perfect amount of bite to them, and a prosciutto and mussel broth with its double salt-factor was a great contrast. Awesome presentation, as with every other dish.

‘A simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown’, teased the menu. It wasn’t really that simple, really. They lied, cheeky buggers. A South Australian Virginia potato, compacted in earth, coconut husk ash and coffee grounds and then cooked according to the Maori Hangi method, served with smoked goats curd and fried salt bush. Good grief I loved this dish, and I don’t even like potato. The potato had the most incredible texture. It held its form but was amazingly soft, almost like mash, and super creamy. Matched with the salty curd and the crispness of the saltbush, it was sublime. Never before have I enjoyed a spud so much and even though there were many other brilliant dishes that evening, I think this one was my favourite purely because it was such a revelation.

Next up was meat from the pearl oyster pinctada maxima (paspaley, WA) and slow cooked Byron Bay pork. This was served with the unusual accompaniments of pickled radish, sea lettuce, crispy onion and shiitake broth. Pearl meat, if you haven’t had it before, is what I imagine the love-child of an abalone and a scallop would be. White and not very fishy but quite chewy. The pork was beautifully gelatinous and very rich, but offset by the radish and the onion. Again, another brilliant dish, and I loved the little neon frills of sea lettuce.

Kumara, Purslane, Pyengana. Initially I questioned the inclusion of another potato dish, but this one was so different to the last it didn’t matter. A brick of soft sweet potato with broccoli buds, almonds browned in butter (hell yes), an egg yolk and a cream and cheddar soup. CHEDDAR SOUP, people! Devilishly rich, but once you’ve tasted that indulgent combination of soup, yolk, buttery almonds and sweet potato, there is no going back. My lips were tingling from the peppery cheddar at the end.

By this stage my head was spinning we’d had so many excellent dishes. After six dishes, each one seeming better than the last, you reach a point where you sort of freak out, because you can’t quite comprehend how it could get any better. Fortunately we only had one more main to go, so I managed to keep it together!

Beef tongue, vanilla, parsnip, lettuce stems. The tongue, from NSW, had been poached, smoked, brushed with mulled wine and topped with a fine mixture of chervil and dill. The parsnip puree blanketed the swords of lettuce, and paper thin shards of cured wagyu sat atop some homely pickled onions. The tongue was very well done – it has quite a meaty flavour to it, and the texture was firm but not chewy, thankfully. I thought this dish was a bit of an homage to a classic english dish – beef, pickles, mash.

Our first dessert was a dish of raisins, whey and hazelnut puree. Some of the grapes were fresh and some had been dehydrated for 24 hours. This is the only dish I didn’t like. It just didn’t convince me, but I’m tempted to say that it’s due to my own personal distaste of that milky, sour, watery flavour and not a failure of the dish itself. My parents enjoyed it, though.

I was so excited to taste our final dish that I forgot to photograph it until I’d begun – apologies, despicable me. It was a plate of wattle-seed and honey custard (divine) surrounded by native fruits of Australia. A very educational dish – I felt rather ashamed that there were all these interesting fruits available in the country but I’d never even heard of most of them. Starting from the green things up top and working clockwise were desert limes (very sour and earthy), poached quandons (mild fruity flavour with a thick skin), lemon aspin berries (my favourite, I loved the interesting texture of these. They’re mild at first but that’s soon followed by a burst of bitterness), candied hybiscus (wonderfully sweet and chewy), emu apples (literally miniscule apples, fairy apples, thrilling), desert currants (far too sour to eat without some custard) and a granita in the centre.

Credit goes to Shewry here for taking such interesting and, frankly sometimes overpowering flavours and working them together on a plate; it certainly isn’t a dish I’d pick off a menu but I was grateful for the opportunity to try them.

My birthday cake with freeze dried raspberries (hooray!). Such a lovely surprise. The service throughout the meal was faultless; everyone was courteous, knowledgeable and friendly, and not at all snobby.

Banjo, the restaurant manager, approached our table at the end of the meal and asked, having noticed my note-taking and photography, if I’d be at all keen to see the kitchen garden. Which is a rather ridiculous question really because obviously the answer is a resounding YES. It was a really fun way to end the night; he pointed out all the varieties of basil (they use eleven in the dish but there are actually fourteen varieties growing in the garden), and gave us a taste of green begonia (succulent and intensely lemony) and also a liquorice leaf, which has nothing whatsoever to do with liquorice yet tastes remarkably like it. Incredible. Plants are amazing things.

Upon returning to our table, there was a small nest of white chocolate Pekeko eggs filled with the smoothest of caramels. They were accompanied by a lovely painting of Pekeko birds done by Shewry’s dad.

A meal at Attica is a thoughtful affair. Each course surprises you because you look at, for example, a herb that you’d normally write off as a garnish, but upon tasting and then mixing it with other elements of the dish you realise it has an important role in the construction of the dish itself. You can identity heroes in some of the dishes, but all elements were perfectly balanced and beautifully plated. And throughout the night there was a brilliant emphasis on texture, a contrast between fresh and soft and sharp and creamy. Intelligent and respectful, it’s a meal I would gladly repeat.

In other news, I have survived my first set of law exams!! Hoorah! Finally, I can claim to have done what millions of other people in the world have done before me! Cue triumphant music…



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