29 Aug

It must be somewhat bittersweet when you are lauded, applauded and awarded – on one hand it’s a celebration of achievement (sometimes after a lifetime of toiling), but on the other it raises the bar of expectation and opens up a whole new world of critique (often unfair).  I imagine this must be what Ben Shewry feels after having Attica make national, and international headlines over the last few years – including ranking 53 in San Pellegrino’s World’s Top Restaurants 2011 (the only Melbourne restaurant on the list), Chef of the Year and 2 ‘hats’ (Age Good Food Guide 2011).

What probably started as an assuming restaurant on a suburban strip in Ripponlea is now a heavyweight on the Australian restaurant scene.  But unlike some other big name establishments where the focus is more on building hype, with limited substance to back it up (cue anything by Andrew McConnell – sorry JL I am not a big fan), you get the sense that at its heart Attica is still about food that tests traditional gastronomic boundaries and doesn’t necessarily care too much about pleasing every patron.  Hence the pared back interiors of black painted walls with rather strong floodlights (which spotlight the food but can be a bit of a strain on the eyes), and a makeshift paintjob in the bathrooms (a garish purple with checked vinyl floor covering reminiscent of the bathrooms you would find at a gig in just any old bar).  Here there are no designer chairs and tables, no gleaming surfaces to indicate you are in one of the most highly restaurants in the country.

So all that’s left is the service and the food.  More on food later, but a quick word on the service, which is polite – almost to the point of being a little sterile.  The waiters rarely crack a smile and if they do, it’s as if they’ve been prodded with a Taser, and the description of each dish on the menu is somewhat rehearsed and delivered so slowly that you can almost see the words travelling from the brain to the mouth.  So whilst the service isn’t exactly bad, it would have been good to see a little more passion about the food and the process that’s gone into its creation.

Now to the food.  Put simply – I don’t see what the fuss is all about.  Yes its all very beautifully plated and the produce I am sure is the freshest of the fresh but taste-wise?  Let’s just say there were no fireworks.  No Meg Ryan When Harry Met Sally orgasmic sensations.

The Tasting Menu

We all opted for the 8 course degustation – unfortunately we couldn’t get in on the Tuesday that we wanted to try the Chef’s Table which is basically where Ben and his team test new menu ideas.  The girls shared a bottle of wine whilst JP opted for the matching wines.  A note on the wines – they were quite stingy with the servings and not exactly too knowledgeable either (apart from the scripted descriptions given at the pouring of each wine).  Also we found it a bit bizarre that the alcohol was served way before the food course, given that the point of matching the wine is to have it with the food (and there wasn’t enough wine to make it last until the food course came out).  Not exactly exceeding (or even matching) expectations here.

So back to the food – listed in order of eating:

Starter - Prawns

Starter – a beautiful prawn, done ceviche style with mustard seeds. Simple, beautifully presented (presenting the tiny morsel at the bottom of a large cylindrical, dark blue dish gave a touch of drama), but so small that I was worried JP might chuck a tanty and walk out before the first course!

#1 Snow Crab – often served as the first course crab, salmon roe, puffed rice and freeze dried coconut presented under a pile of snow like powder made from horseradish oil.  Certainly interesting texture wise (the powder against the crunchy puffed rise and soft flesh of the crab plus the burst in your mouth roe certainly made for a party in the mouth), but didn’t love the taste. The usual sweetness you usually get from crab was totally overpowered by the horseradish and after two mouthfuls the party in the mouth pretty much lost its novelty.

#1 Snow Crab

#2 Marron, Leek & Egg Yolk

#2 Marron, Leek, Egg Yolk – exactly what the menu says it is. Nothing terribly fancy, but certainly tasty! The leek was surprisingly gentle, and cut through the creaminess of the yolk nicely, and the marron was nice and juicy.  Win!

#3 A simple dish of Potato cooked in the earth it was grown – known as the piece de resistance at Attica.  Simple it certainly is – a shiny, waxy potato presented on a bed of dried leaves atop a dollop of sour cream and sprinkled with particles of trout and coconut.  The potato is apparently prepared using the Maori hangi method, and cooked for 13 hours at a low, constant heat, in a tray filled with dirt, which transforms the texture of the potato.  Sounds totally amazing – but I was disappointed.  Yes it looked pretty impressive, but to me it still tasted and felt like a potato.

#3 Potato cooked in the earth in which it was grown

#4 Meat from the Pearl Oyster – the pearl meat was served simply with slivers of seaweed and had a distinctly Asian-ness to it.  Whilst it was nice enough – the pearl meat was cooked well with a good mouth feel to it, not mushy but not crunchy – again, it failed to ignite any fireworks.

#4 Meat from the pearl oyster

#5 Raw Chestnut, Celeriac & Pyengana

#5 Raw Chestnuts, salt baked Celeriac, Pyengana – the next dish was certainly visually interesting.  A simple egg yolk sitting in the middle of the celeriac and slices of the chestnut.  The Pyengana (cheese) which was poured on top of the dish at the table.  Extremely rich and texturally a bit of a mush, if you like cheese and cream you might like a few mouthfuls, but any more than that is too much.  Good idea, but execution left a bit to be desired – the liquid molten cheese taking away any crunchiness that you would expect from raw chestnuts.

#6 Beef Tongue

#6 Beef Tongue, Vanilla, Myrtus, Lettuce Stems – being the only one on the table that does not eat tongue, I was reticent to have the menu changed, and so having been assured that the tongue does not look like tongue (unlike ox tongue served at Japanese BBQ places) I hazarded to give it a try.  I’m glad I tried, although after two bites I couldn’t consume anymore – either because it was so rich or because I just couldn’t get around it mentally (probably more of the latter).  Served on a bed of parsnip puree with pickled lettuce stems the ‘tongue’ looked more like a small piece of eye fillet, but it was tender and pretty much melted in the mouth.  I was surprised at how large it was compared to some of the other dishes, and given its richness this is one dish that didn’t need to be big.  Otherwise it was a tasty dish.

#7 Winter Apples – the first of two desserts this was all about the apple.  Compressed pink lady apples served on apple brandy infused cream and Turkish apple tea were decorated with vine leaves and an avocado gel.  The apple was crisp and juicy with a perfect apple flavour and avocado gel was light and velvety providing an interesting textural complexity to the dish.  Definitely my favourite dessert course.

#7 Winter Apples

#8 Mandarin & Honeydew Honey

#8 Mandarin and Honeydew Honey – not a big fan of either mandarin or honeydew I was ready to be converted when I saw this on the menu.  But sadly it was not to be.  The dish consists of mandarin pieces, some fresh and some freeze dried and infused with honeydew honey, with a drizzle of mandarin oil on top of which some Sauternes cream is poured at the table.  The flavour of the mandarin was amazingly pure.  Probably would be appealing to mandarin fans!

With our eight courses completed and feeling surprisingly full we were informed that there was an after dinner treat.  And what a treat it was – the most delicately crafted white chocolate eggs with an oozy salted caramel centre, served in a nest of hay and inspired by the Pukeko bird of New Zealand, the hometown of Shewry’s father.

White chocolate eggs with salted caramel

Salted caramel inside!

So final verdict?  Would I go to Attica again – probably not in a hurry.  Yes the food was beautifully crafted, but for me there was something missing.  Perhaps its because of the unfair expectations that come with being named as one of the world’s top restaurants but for me Attica was a bit bland – neither theatrically luxurious (cue Alain Ducasse and perhaps even Vue de Monde) nor commercially trendy (cue anything with Andew McConnell’s name on it) or awe inspiringly down to earth (not even the potato cooked in its own soil could evoke this sort of feeling).  I would have liked to see more of Shewry’s gastronomic philosophy come through – his passion for food, the influences of his heritage (birds and chocolate eggs aside).  But maybe all those things have been swamped by the loud applause from everyone except our humble party of four.

74 Glen Eira Road
(03) 9530 0111
Editor’s Note: Attica has just been awarded st restaurant in Victoria at The Age Good Food Guide awards.  DDO stands by its review – what is your verdict?

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