Photo: John Laurie
IF YOU think you've heard all the accolades for Ben Shewry you can take, all the plaudits for his emotive, ultra-modern food, all the bouquets for the remarkable New Zealand chef who's ratcheted a little Ripponlea restaurant into the company of the world's greatest, then maybe you should head to Attica for his Tuesday night experimental dinner. Even the flintiest of heart would soften at this evidence that even five years down the track, idealism continues to drive Attica's mission.
It's not often that fine dining - horrible term, really - gives itself room to fail. Attica's Tuesday night degustation isn't a fail by any means. But it is an exciting free-fall that harnesses the impressive creative energy of the place, led by the hype-proof Shewry.
Have some faith and it is likely to be repaid by a crew of chefs who have taken the day's challenge of creating a one-off menu for a restaurant full of willing guinea pigs. It's a night for anyone interested in restaurants; not simply the eating and the drinking and the shiny surfaces - not that there's anything wrong with that - but the behind-the-scenes graft that nurtures the seed of an idea into something that might eventually take its place on the main carte. Or might not.
Not every restaurant would be willing to show diners anything less than the carefully finessed product. Not everyone would want to pay $95 a head for the privilege - normally at Attica you're up for $120 to $160 a head. While Shewry later mentioned that the previous Tuesday had been better (apparently he always says that) the meal kicked off beautifully with a sort of land-and-sea thing overlaid with membrane-like thin potato slices, harbouring sea-fresh mussels, the earthiness of crushed almonds and garlic and the creamy tang of fromage blanc and a ripe cheddar cream poured over it at the table. Interesting. Tasty. Certainly not a clunker.
Attica isn't what you'd call a beautiful restaurant. It hasn't got as much glamour as its Melbourne peers - of whom there are now very few - nor doubtless the budget. The room has welcomed a noir-ish makeover that injects a little more glamour; like the reverse of an art gallery, it relies on a dark, monochromatic backdrop and moody spotlighting to highlight the food.
Service in the past has been the shaky third wheel but the floor team is now assured and personable - switched-on but uniquely Attica. Some waiters are positively evangelical about the food - expect plenty of stories about Ben's New Zealand childhood - and the occasional chef is pushed out of the kitchen to present a dish, a task to which they rise with varying degrees of enthusiasm. It will be charming and unique to some, not so much to others.
There's the decided feel of a kitchen flying by the seat of its pants when dealing with the day's produce. The penultimate course of seared beef rump cap with parsnip crisps and wood sorrel is positively orthodox, although the cornichon-infused smoked butter is a left-of-centre winner. Other experimental dishes keep rhythm with the menu - poached marron tail with prosciutto glaze delighted on the main menu several months ago, although here it's pared back to enjoy the heady punch of wild garlic flowers and gentle lilt of mustard oil and seeds. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to see in a high-end Spanish restaurant.
Other dishes are a step back in time for those who remember Shewry's food when he was new to Ripponlea. The glossy black slurry underneath two stark white triangles of squid is an out-take from his David Thompson days. Stained by the creature's ink but flavoured with tamarind and chilli, it packs a Thai wallop, undercut by pickled sweet onions stained pink with beetroot. But this one is about the squid - cooked sous vide for a few minutes then thrown into a hot pan for a matter of seconds. The texture is amazing - gelatinous yet chewy.
The dessert is the dish most likely to turn up on Attica's regular menu in a recognisable form. As the back-story goes, it's a riff on New Zealand's Franz Josef glacier, so it's a moody landscape of coconut ash-covered caramelised kiwi fruit and fromage frais sorbet with a thin layer of avocado puree peeking out from underneath, the whole composition dusted with freeze-dried yoghurt ''snow''. Its conception is very Attica. Very Shewry.
Tuesday nights will give diners a feel for the work that goes into each of the dishes on the regular menu. Even those dishes that reach hallowed status might be observed by Attica recidivists to slowly evolve. Such as his signature slow-cooked potato ''in the earth it was grown'', which has been tweaked over time, although never without managing to remind the eater that something so humble becoming a thing of transcendence is a mark of immense skill.
He could also do a greatest hits dinner. Now there's an idea - the kingfish with chorizo and squid, the snow crab, the honey custard ''new'' terroir, the Violet Crumble and the dessert on the latest menu that distils about a tonne of strawberries into its most brilliant representation in earthly form. All of which are among the most memorable dining moments of my life.
That's what it comes down to. There are more attractive restaurants, where the service cogs run a little smoother, where there's better lighting and nicer loos. But it doesn't matter a jot, because what Attica doesn't give in risk-free perfection it makes up for in excitement. And that's what I call a fair trade-off.
Where 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea
Phone 9530 0111
Cost Tuesday, five-course degustation $95; Wed-Sat, $120-$160
Wine list Excellent and expensive, organised evenly between old and new world
Owners David and Helen Maccora
Chef Ben Shewry
Cards AE DC MC V Eftpos
Hours Tues-Sat, 6pm-late
- 03 9530 0111
- Cuisine - Modern Australian, Thai
- Prices - Entrees $24, Mains $40, Desserts $18
- Features - Licensed, Outdoor seating
- Chef(s) - Ben Shewry
- Owners - David and helen Maccoras
- Cards accepted - Visa, EFTPOS, AMEX, Cash, Mastercard, Diners Club
- Opening Hours - Tuesday - Saturday 6pm-10:30pm
- Seats - 50
- Author - Larissa Dubecki