74 Glen Eira Rd Ripponlea, VIC 3185
|Opening hours||Tuesday - Saturday 6pm-late|
|Features||Licensed, Degustation, Green-eco focus, Accepts bookings, Gluten-free options, Groups, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly, Bar|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9530 0111|
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In any other restaurant in the world, if plump larva marched across my table, I would signal queasily for a waiter. Not at Attica. Thirty minutes into a four-hour 14-course culinary symphony, a witchetty grub waggles into my eyeline. There's curiosity, alarm (am I to eat it alive?) and also awe.
As the waiter tells me, this grub was hand-harvested by skilled people of the Wamba Wamba Nation near Deniliquin. It's to end its days in a three-hatted restaurant in Ripponlea.
The grub is carried away on its branch-cum-sedan-chair-cum-death-transport and returns beheaded, fried and sprinkled with finger lime salt. The taste is mild, nutty and eggy with a gently crisp shell. Eating it is privileged access to First Nations' culture.
The whole project of indigenous ingredients is a tricky one. It's obvious that people living in Australia should use and be proud of abundant local flora and fauna. But it's quickly troubling. Who profits? Who tells the stories that are interwoven with the foods? How do non-Indigenous people use them without uncomfortable "white saviour" undertones? And how do you cook them anyway?
Chef and restaurateur Ben Shewry has put these tricky questions – and some answers – at the centre of the Attica experience. Since arriving at the restaurant in 2005 he's reinvented it over and over.
It's been a bit Thai. Foraging was a focus. Gadgets got a good work-out (fancy laboratory stuff but also, famously, a bong used as a smoker). Kitchen gardens at nearby Ripponlea Estate came into play.
Now Indigenous Australia is central. The food is as simple and produce-focused as it's ever been. It's also the most meaningful, exhilarating and delicious.
The meal kicks off with a platter of morsels – quandong, pearl meat, ants (a crisp pop), macadamia cream and more. The cutlery-free tableside foraging sets a tone: we are in Australia not a placeless temple of gastronomy, it's fine dining but we're allowed to have fun, we shall be challenged.
A couple of dishes nod to the local neighbourhood, an orthodox Jewish hub. There's chicken soup tart with a matzo meal base, and emu liver pâté on a bagel.
Emu farmers aren't shipping lots of livers. Shewry and his team discovered why, working for months to express the organ's creamy brightness while toning down overwhelming ferric flavours. It works: a thin shmear brushed with Davidson plum jam on an emu-bone-glazed bagel.
A rack of crocodile ribs comes next, served with a handsome "that's not a knife, this is a knife" knife. It took more than 100 tries to shift the dish from dry and tough to succulent and finger-licking. The ribs are brined, smoked, slow-cooked, grilled, and glazed with spiced honey. The meat is flaky like fish, mild like chicken, but a porky richness is elicited too. It's thrilling to eat.
After a parade of crab, kangaroo, marron and kelp-wrapped potato there's an interlude in the garden. The Attica backyard perambulation has had various iterations: perusing herbs, drinking billy tea, toasting marshmallows. Now it's a visit to a dystopian future: art installation, political manifesto and vegan experiment all at once.
It's back inside for dessert, most excitingly a simple-seeming but complex finger lime, honey and cream dish. Cooked lime is stuffed with raw lime and drizzled with rare and expensive sugarbag honey, laboriously harvested from stingless indigenous bees.
Attica is a restaurant but it's also research project, art collective and cultural incubator. Its style of contemporary fine dining is expressive, deeply anchored and soaringly ambitious.
First Nations' stories and foods are celebrated, not claimed, and a project that could be drily worthy and self-consciously "woke" is hopeful, optimistic and warm.
It's possible to come just for dinner but why not come to be changed?
Rating: Five stars (out of five).