It’s 24 hours since we sat down to dinner, 19 since we finished, and I’m still in a state of awe and ecstasy.
Those who have watched the Netflix series The Chef’s Table will be familiar with Attica. Those who follow the World’s 50 Best Restaurants will be aware that Attica currently sits at number 20 on that list.
Chef Ben Shewry has built his reputation on the use of native ingredients and processes designed to evoke a culture half-remembered, elusively buried in the recesses of the mind or forgotten altogether. At its heart, Attica is a restaurant about Australia (and to some extent Shewry’s native New Zealand) but it speaks to a culture steeped in immigrant influence and an often uneasy interplay with their native forebears.
Ripponlea where Attica resides is a fairly unremarkable looking Melbourne suburb. The restaurant frontage is understated. Much in the same way as Ides and Amaru, you could easily walk past it without noticing.
My party for the evening was Amy and Lee who have become regular co-conspirators on this trip, along with Simon who had led the previous night’s trip to Smith & Daughters.
Upon arrival, the welcome was immediately warm, familiar, almost familial. It set the tone for a conversation about what we were going to experience that was open and assured, and at times hilarious.
Attica’s dining room holds around 55 diners. It does one sitting per day. The meal is 17 courses. It took us nearly five hours from the opening salvo to stepping into our return carriages.
We chose the paired drinks which included wines of all colours, beer, saké and sherry. If you’re not a professional-level drinker – or have the discipline to leave wine undrunk in your glass – I would be fairly circumspect about attempting this as the volume fairly mounts up. They offer a lighter wine and juice pairing that I think would be much better for general tastes and drinking abilities.
We started with glasses of their own house fizz made in partnership with Chandon in the Yarra Valley. This was splendidly biscuity stuff.
The format of the first tranche of dishes was a fast-paced selection of bites and snacks, accompanied by two contrasting Rielsings, one with a good amount of residual sugar, the other bone dry. Saké was introduced first mixed with the dry Riesling then on its own.
The bites started with dressed salad leaves from the garden served in a crisp cheese taco shell. This was splendid work blending simple greenery with the deft delicacy of the thinly crisp shell.
We then had the adductor muscle of pearl oysters – meat that I imagine could easily be cast aside – served with locally foraged quangdong. This was a joyful oddity.
We then dipped into the collective Australian childhood memory with an elegant pastry swirl called Happy Little Vegemite. The was quickly followed by a lovely pumpkin cracker.
We then considered the Imperfect History of Ripponlea which told the story of the neighbourhood through native and immigrant cuisines. Three delicate tarts featured brightly sour foraged berries for the Aboriginal culture, black pudding for the British, and jellied chicken soup for the Jewish immigrants who made Ripponlea one of the centres of their life in Melbourne.
The chicken and matzo was winner of this particular round. It was the kind of things of which I could have eaten a hundredweight.
We then moved on to a cheese pavlova topped with ripe banana and green ants. This was demolished in one bite and completely sublime.
We then had freshly, sweet, hand-dived scallops served in a brilliant wattleseed soy.
The so-called Chewy Carrots to follow sent Lee into nostalgic rapture and had caused Simon’s partner Georgia to pen a letter to the restaurant following her previous visit given the evocation of family campfire summers gone by that they’d awoken with her. Without going into too much further detail Simon went home with some of the carrots in a bag signed by all the kitchen team.
This section was rounded out by the dazzling iridescence of mutton shell abalone. We were provided with comedically massive and sharp knives for this which enabled Simon to eat this sweet seafood flesh in carpaccio thin slices. It was one of those dishes you simply didn’t want to end.
Seasonal spanner crab was served with wattle damper bread which puffed into pockets for you to stuff the crab in. The tarragon sauce accompanying it was the single most accomplished use of that powerful herb that I’ve witnessed. The crab was exquisite.
We then moved into a slightly more conventional phase involving rather more cutlery than before – most of the snacks were finger food with encouragement from the waiting staff for us to be as gloriously messy as we wished.
This started with a tartare of red kangaroo served with saltbush. I’ve eaten a profusion of raw beef, lamb and seafood on this trip. This dish was the absolute king.
We were next transported to the beach with a coastal-grown potato baked in layers of kelp and sand then topped at the table with a seaweed butter sauce. This sent the whole table into personal rapture zones. I still get misty eyed thinking about it now.
Marron is a local, seasonal crustacean that looks like a cross between crawfish and lobster. It was served with XO sauce and finger lime pearls. We were back to hands-on attack, sucking the delicious brains from the head section, gorging on the meaty tail with its succulent flesh and cracking claws and legs to extract all the goodness from this fabulous beastie.
We were then invited to take a stroll through the kitchen to their rear garden area. This was kitted out with a charcoal grill where they were preparing lamb souva. With flabreads cooked to order then the lamb topped with pickles and sour cream, this was the poshest kebab of all time. Accompanied by tiny pots of local beer, this was the stuff of dreams. We were invited to linger and enjoy the starlit night as our beer pots were replenished.
After a leisurely amble back to our table, we entered the dessert section of this incredible meal. This started with a twist on a classic Australian lamington. This featured layers of ice cream and sorbet with coatings of black ants and coconut. It was fantastic stuff.
The whipped emu egg is one of the restaurants most recognisable and loved dishes. Served in the blue-green egg shell, the egg foam tops pineapple and a chocolate ice cream. Again, this was completely dreamy.
Things were rounded out with an elaborately created bite of bunya. The big pine nuts had been scooped out, used to create an ice cream then piped back inside a crisp bunya pastry. This was a bright bite, emblematic of much of the rest of the menu, and a lovely punctuation point on a mesmeric evening.
It is literally pointless to give Attica a numeric score. It would be like trying to explain the greatness of Mendelssohn’s Elijah Oratorio using only a protractor. It’s a restaurant operating at a completely different level to anywhere I’ve ever eaten. What we experienced was an evening that will live in our collective memories forever. For Amy, Lee, Simon and me, we’ll always have Attica.
PS – you will notice that today’s photos are conspicuously better than usual. That’s because Amy took them, so thanks to her for capturing the experience in better visuals than I could manage.
Today’s questers were: Amy, Lee, Simon, Blythe
We ate: degustation menu
We drank: paired wines, water, coffee
We wore: 3 hats
Total bill: $2,060
Address: 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, VIC, 3185