Thursday, 13 December 2012

Attica - Blown Away

Attica always seems to remain off my radar because I know that I have to take private transport (or good god, public transport) to get to it in Ripponlea from the Melbourne CBD. My twelve minute or thereabouts ride on the train though seemed minuscule really when you think how long it takes to walk to various Melbourne eateries when you factor in the traffic on the footpath in and around town. Not to be hard done by the train though, we presented ourselves early for our 8:30 PM booking.

An enthusiastic yet professional greeting was had upon introducing ourselves at the door. Like with my recent experience at Ezard, we were not given the best table in the house but it was by far from bad. Attica can best be described to have a cosy table configuration in the centre of the restaurant where the best tables in my opinion border the perimeter. I had the pleasure of dining a table on the perimeter however it was the closest to the front door. In the winter, I would hate to experience the blast of cold from the outside as the elements would frequently invade the restaurant when the door was propped open for long periods of time as diners oddly made their exit and had to communicate their platitudes to all and sundry. As it was a warm evening in Melbourne on the night I had the pleasure of dining at this place, I took no notice of this malfeasance if not inconvenience for some.

We announced our intention to enjoy the eight course tasting menu with the matched wines to our server, Michael, who throughout the night remained not only professional but good-humoured and informative.

As the various amuse-bouches, yes, plural, were brought out in rapid fire I took the time to absorb the ambiance. The fit-out of the restaurant, albeit cosy  has not changed much since I last attended two years ago however as I sipped the sparking water that was being refilled almost by magic I mused as to what chef Ben Shewry was trying to communicate with the dark colours, minimal yet aggressive lighting and the configuration of the restaurant in general. I thought of the last play that I saw at the Malthouse Theatre as I pondered the surrounds and the lighting. Strangely though as I watched service deliver food and beverage to other happy diners that were seemingly in various stages of their respective degustation experiences, I thought of this restaurant as a stage of sorts. Not in the bogus sense that the diners were the audience though, but quite the opposite. The kitchen who are armed with a large centrifuge in the background peaks out at times on us diners, or should I say, us actors and actresses in the play which they have written and executed where we are left to our own devices to interpret. The track lighting making the diner the star in a very well orchestrated production that is brought to life by the superior service and support staff. Still in retrospect I suppose the play that Ben has intended is a comedy of sorts where the kitchen and staff are able to be amused at us plebeians grunting, pointing and making sounds that resemble "ew and aw" and in turn reflecting whether or not they really like what is on offer.

The highlight of the amuse-bouche phase for me being the walnut reduction served inside a walnut shell, where the innards of the shell are exposed to you by service. Subterfuge is alive and well at Attica and as you start your journey through the menu, you discover that the walnut especially will prepare your palate for the first dish - Snow Crab, Shiitake, Twelve Basils matched with a Sake from Nagano, Japan - Chikuma Nishiki 'Kizan Sanban' Junmai Ginjo, which is not only high quality Sake, but it brought the Snow Crab to life. Already having the walnut flavours on my palate heightened my appreciation of this dish and my glass of Sake had to be refilled so that I could continue to enjoy it and the residual effects of the crab. This would become a recurring theme as there is a small duration between when you receive your matched alcohol and when your dish appears.

We then were taken to Austria where a 2006 Welitsch 'Ex Vero' was provided to match with the Marron and Fermented Corn that would soon follow. Another excellent dish with a beautiful smell. I would soon learn that the majority of the produce is sourced from gardens outside of the restaurant or at the furthest extreme, Ripponlea Estate. Colourful, crisp and exciting flavours are yielded and for once it was refreshing knowing where all of the ingredients were actually sourced as a diner (or in this case an actor in Ben's play) you really take it for granted when you are at a restaurant usually unless you are made aware, usually inconveniently.

I have seen some lampoon the next dish online, the matter-of-factly called "A simple dish of Potato cooked in the earth it was grown" matched with a 2007 Dario Princic 'Bianco Trebez" from Friuli, Italy. There is nothing silly or pretentious about this dish. The potato is cooked in the earth that it was grown in and I will be so bold as to say it was the best potato that I have ever had. I sliced it thinly whilst I used my tongue to compress it against the roof of my mouth where it soaked up the residual evidence of the wine as I consumed what was on offer and had another glass whilst I ruminated this technique. If Coles had not only potatoes but the actual dirt for sale, I would buy it and use it to prepare them. The dish and the preparation technique is quite exciting, if not intriguing.

Ben's wicked garden must be thriving as the next dish, a zesty offering of Cucumbers, Sauce of Burnet and Dried River Trout was presented along with a sample of the 2011 Gaia "Thalassitis" Assyriko from Santorini, Greece. My biggest complaint when I left the Press Club was that the wine man never educated my clever mate and I about the few Greek wines that were on offer so up until this point I never had a clear appreciation of anything from Greece as the wine had never been effectively marketed to me - anywhere really. I found it queer yet amusing that Banjo Harris Plane choose a Greek wine of all things to match with this produce-intensive dish however after having the wine introduced and then tasting it with the produce, I really understood and was grateful for the pair. The wine certainly highlighted the bold yet crisp taste of the crunchy and fresh cucumbers but the sauce is what matched well and nothing overwhelmed the dried trout but in fact only highlighted its simple and clean taste. This was one of the stand-out dishes of the night and it would not have been the case if the wine match was not so effective.

The King George Whiting in Paperbark followed along with 2010 Yeringberg Marsanne/Rousanne from our own Yarra Valley. The fish came wrapped in bark and when it was exposed a myriad of smells were released and my senses were piqued. I separated the fish with my fork slowly and fed myself at a snails pace whilst I enjoyed the wine attempting to drag this experience out as long as I could. I would spent at least 15 minutes eating the fish a few grams at a time and immersed myself in the smells of the food and beverage - a beautiful dish which challenged and enlightened me.

When I stopped my preoccupation with sights, tastes and smells and when the pleasant conversation took an intermission I heard KC & The Sunshine Band playing "Get Down Tonight" which I thought was fitting. Not since I was last at Virginia Plain did I find a background soundtrack so appropriate but yet not intrusive at all as it took a number of courses before I would even notice it. The next song was "Porcelain" by Moby which eased me into the most exciting dish that I have had in years.

Flinders Island Wallaby, Bunya Pine and Ground Berry. Who would have thought? I knew Shannon Bennett was serving Wallaby on occasion at Vue de Monde however this was the first time that I experienced the beast. Matched with an Isole e Olena "Cepparello" from Tuscany, I savoured small tastes and would ultimately need my wine glass refreshed once more to finish this bold course. When you are seated you are informed that Wallaby is on the menu and the particular nuances involved with bringing it from Flinders Island to your plate. Some people it would seem are offended by this dish or have some sort of preconceived notion about it. All I can say it is bloody (sic) amazing and it is now one of my favourite dishes that I have ever had.

After a bit of a break, proceedings continued with Native Fruits of Australia matched with a Maidenii Vermouth 'Aperitif' from Bendigo. It was very refreshing and invigorating, yet another testament to Ben's respect for produce and the way that it is grown, prepared and presented.

The aptly named "Plight of the Bees" followed, which is a multi-layered dessert where honey is used as the primary ingredient however once all the layers are merged across your palate, when paired with the 2009 Gunderlock 'Nackenheim Rothenberg' Auslese Goldkap, it was an orgy of flavours that probably can be classed as my favourite dessert that I have ever had. I am not a big dessert person however this simply blew my away.

I did not want the experience to end so I requested more wine and also suggested that if the kitchen had anything that they were experimenting with that they could part with, we were happy to try it. Michael delivered an "Afghan" which looked like a bowl of breakfast cereal, but in fact was another dessert that contained a myriad of sweet sensations. I recently reflected after I visited Chez Dre that I do not normally eat breakfast however if this was on offer every day, it wouldn't matter if I used a spoon, my fingers or my tongue, it would end up in my stomach. Of course on the flip-side after a while my stomach would be engorged but knowing that I would have to step up the frequency of my visits to the gym to compensate is a small price to pay for this delight.

Much to my surprise, there was another twist in the play. The finale turned out to be Pukeko eggs served in a nest. Not real eggs from the purple Swamphen of New Zealand, but white chocolate egg shells complemented with brown spots to mimic the appearance of the real thing which are filled with salted caramel. You are also provided an information sheet about the Pukeko which I thought was an interesting and insightful touch as it provided a further insight to the psychology of Ben Shewry, who is a native of New Zealand.

The last meal that I reference as being the "best" that I have had was enjoyed at Vue de Monde in December 2007. The awesome degustation experience that I just wrote about comes very close to usurping Vue de Monde for its top stop in my humble opinion and it will at least be remembered for years to come. Fortunately for me I can and will come back regularly to now that I live in Melbourne and this place will consistently be referred to as one my "favourites" often.

Attica is ranked #63 on the current San Pelligrino World Restaurant rankings, has been awarded three chefs hats by The Age and for what it is worth, is ranked #1 on my list of restaurants that I have reviewed to date on this blog. 

Attica, Ripponlea, Melbourne
Link to review
74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea, VIC 3185
(03) 9530 0111
My Rating: 17.5/20
Service: 4.5/5
Ambiance: 4/5
Quality: 5/5
Value For Money: 4/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

At the time of this post, 84% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Attica.

Attica on Urbanspoon

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