Attica is the Restaurant of the Year in the 2012 Age Good Food Guide. It has been awarded three hats and chef Ben Shewry has been lauded as producing food that is quirky, original and labour intensive.
Even before Attica had won such acclaim and was just one of many much praised restaurants in Melbourne, Steve had singled it out and has been wanting to go since we arrived here. I'd put it off because to me the food doesn't sound delicious and mouthwatering but is in that avant garde, test the boundaries category which I always seem to shelve and I succumb to the familiar more taste familiar dining venues.
Based in Ripponlea amongst very little, it's a short walk from the station. We were greeted warmly and showed to a table. The dining room is intimate but the tables aren't too close together. There's a minimalist feel to the place but it doesn't feel spartan or cold. Slate grey and dark coal colours along with low lighting create an understated moody ambience.
We start with gin and tonics and opt fot Melbourne's finest tap water which is all done easily without any pressure to go for bottled water. The menu is explained to us - degustation and we opt to go with matched wines.
The dishes are not described in details so there is an element of surprise. Waiters explain the dishes as they bring it out with passion and are informative. Although they must repeat themselves so many times over in one shift, it doesn't sound repetitive.
Then we launch properly into the degustation menu with a dish simply entitled "Snow Crab" which was accompanied by a sake. The snow crab is actually hidden beneath a mound of horseradish powder which looks like snow. There is also some salmon roe and barberries hidden beneath like treasure. Very witty and the crab is sweet, the salmon roe adds more sea flavours and the barberries just cut through to add some citrus which the rich crab needs. The horseradish snow is a little too strong for my palette so I leave a lot of it but the whole dish is creative
A Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth it was Grown - one potato buried in the soil and cooked Maori style known as hangi. Who would think that a potato could be such a delight. It was soft and earthy and the accompanying goats curd and fried sage leaves just set it off adding sharpness and creaminess. Jacket potato with sour cream and chives is such great comfort food so take that and just up the ante a million fold and you get this wonderful plate.
Artichoke, Salt Baked Celeriac, Pyengana - the dish came out without sauce and the waiter poured the creamy goodness around the egg yolk making it look like a giant poached egg. The egg had been slow cooked and we smashed into it mixing it with the cheddary sauce and toasted garlic and nuts spooning a mash up of flavours into our mouths. Not a fan of celeriac but this proved me wrong. The crunchy nut and garlic had an Asian feel to it, like what you get on the top of a laksa and reminiscent of the peanuts on a pad thai! The slow cooked egg and cheddar sauce represented comfort food at its best - creamy, rich and so yummy. The celeriac and artichoke for me didn't add to or detract from the dish. The star of this plate was the unmentioned egg combined with silky smooth cheese sauce.
Beef Tongue, Vanilla, Parsnip, Lettuce Stems - we were offered an alternative to the tongue of Wagyu rump in case we were squeamish but we decided to go with the chef's recommendation. The vanilla scented parsnip was silky smooth and just so yummy. There was a little tinge of sweetness that off set the grains of pepper on the ox tongue. The tongue itself at first reminded me of corned beef. Steve likened it to Spam and I can see the similarities! Of course this was much better than Spam. I liked the slightly salty flavour. By my last piece though, I felt the texture had become a bit spongier and a bit more tongue like so was glad that I didn't have to eat any more. I was definitely glad I'd had this over the rump though. Even if the rump was more delicious, I really enjoyed the fact that I was trying new things and getting pleasure out of that.
Second dessert was Native Fruits of Australia. We were informed that if we picked these berries ourselves we would be committing an illegal act but the restaurant is allowed to buy them from a co operative that have a licence to pick this fruit and sell it on. Six different types of berries that were unlike anything I'd ever had before, bound together by a eucalyptus custard and some granita made from another berry I'd not heard of. The whole not sure what it was going to taste like made this whole dessert feel like a bush tucker trial! I'm not sure I can say I particularly like any one of the fruits but I loved the challenge of trying each one to find out!
Service was flawless through the meal. It was a joy to watch other people eat and experience what we had - that journey of admiring the plate of food, uncertainty of what it was going to be like, to tasting, to surprise. That journey is what Attica does so well. It forces us to be adventurous and whether we decide if we like it or not is by the by as it's all about trying and being surprised.
Some places like Jaques Reymond, our tastebuds rejoice in the familiar done to a superior standard. At Attica our tastebuds and our minds rejoiced in the unfamiliar. Credit and kudos to Ben Shewry for working with the unfamiliar to come up with flavours that complement and contrast.