There’s no shortage of proof that Attica in Melbourne is an astounding, standard-setting restaurant. It’s still Australia’s highest-ranked entry in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; bookings for two for the entirety of December disappeared in 43 seconds flat when reservations recently opened for that month; and the most respected international chefs endlessly act as launch-vehicles of high-grade praise for Attica’s chef/owner Ben Shewry (eg David Chang, David Kinch, Magnus Nilsson; I remember an industry friend saying they were cornered by Rene Redzepi at Noma and asked how it was possible that Ben Shewry was not more famous).
But, for all that megawatt hype, a big part of the appeal of Attica is how the food feels so honest and un-stage-managed; when you eat there, it seems like Ben Shewry is less driven by chart-making success and engineering a menu full of hairpin turns than conveying a direct and uncensored curiosity about ingredients.
In fact, it feels like he’s able to coax out the most surprising flavours just by patiently and intelligently picking a combination lock that then releases a rush of unfamiliar rewards.
So we recently went to Attica. We did all the prepwork necessary – such as scouting the website the second the reservations go live (and yes, it’s true, the two-tops go like that, but you definitely have more of a chance of landing a booking if you go with a bigger group – and as if you’ll have trouble finding friends who will want to share a table at Attica). Then we booked our flight to Melbourne and quietly started the three-month countdown.
When we finally had dinner there, a few weeks ago, it was as surprising and delightful as everyone had telegraphed. I’m not going to go through a forensic course-by-course rundown, but many of the highlights came from unexpected details that threw you off-axis in the best way possible. For instance, instead of presenting a long, credential-flaunting tasting menu (which is a flashy move that some high-end restaurants like to take), half of what you’re served just happens to be snacks. So there’s throwdown after throwdown of revelatory bites. Our friend Claire loved the crisp, deep-fried Jerusalem Artichoke ‘shells’ filled with a feathery nest of snow crab and the Salted Red Kangaroo with bunya bunya, purple carrots and red pepperberries; I loved the vego-friendly analogue of the Jerusalem artichoke, which is topped with a light cloud of carbs; the ‘Walnut in its Shell’, which hid a nest of salted ultra-thin curls of mushroom; the lively Fresh Cheese and Honeycomb (complete with a show-and-tell of a waiter presenting the ingredients’ source) and the Spiced Macadamia, with its feisty, full-flavour hit (aka the best TV snack; I could’ve easily eaten 10,000 kilograms of these while blitzing through the recent brain-bending season of Mr Robot.) There were also many whimsical touches, like the Wallaby Blood Pudding Pikelets, which are presented on top of an unscrolled recipe coloured with Dad jokes, or the Lance Wiffen Mussels, where a hand-painted portrait of the mussel farmer brightly varnishes one of the shells (Claire reminded us that Lance is featured in Chef’s Table; he’s the one who essentially tells Ben Shewry to spend more time with his kids before it’s too late.)
Before the stand-alone dishes start, you’re served Wattleseed Bread, and then you’re experiencing the Yeasty Potatoes or the ingredient time capsule that is 142 Days on Earth (the standard version has smoked egg paste, braised cabbage and emu bolognese; the vegetarian alternative has red cabbage and a confetti-like scatter of yellow bean slices). To mark the start of dessert, there’s an ‘intermission’, where you’re led outside into the garden (where you witness the multi-ingredient bounty they’re growing, such as 12 types of basil), and a good-humoured stagiaire stands tending ‘The Ripponlea Volcano’ (which, despite its disaster-movie-like name, is more like a hangi), and from the soft-glow heat, he pulls out a foil-covered sweet that you get to unpeel like a Christmas present, revealing a mini Rum and Raising pudding which is wonderfully warm and flat-out delicious. And when you’re seated back for your main desserts, it’s a clean sweep of greatness, starting with Maria’s Green Apple (inspired by the woman who “accidentally” discovered the Granny Smith, explained our waiter), a treat unlike anything else, where the ridged mounds of apple are bathed in this jewel-red pool of rhubarb and chamomile from the Attica garden. And I don’t know how they worked out that it was Will’s birthday (maybe they overheard Claire saying “happy birthday” to him?), but the staff surprised him with a bonus dessert, which was this fantastic chocolate extravaganza with jelly bean ice-cream. (P.S. That’s just an example of how first-rate the service is; plus, the fact they’re so good-humoured that you can crack jokes with them is another plus.) Another clue to how down-to-earth things are at Attica is how unapologetically daggy some of the tableware is – I love that, instead of a presentation of slick designer gear, for instance, a taco comes in a glass chook that you could imagine originating from the back of some Gran’s cupboard.
I’m sure I don’t really need to mount much more of a pro-Attica case, because the restaurant probably is already on your wish list (or your ‘to book’ list, or ‘we’re already going’ list), but if you need an in-between fix of Ben Shewry’s devotion to food, you may want to catch up with the Restaurant Australia show that he recently appeared in with Neil Perry and Peter Gilmore. (It’s on the Channel 7 site for another week or so.)