In the eyes of the world, a humble converted bank in Ripponlea is again Australia's best restaurant, after snagging 32nd place on a list of the globe's top restaurants. It's Attica's second year among the World's 50 Best restaurants awards, but a drop from last year's ranking of 21.
In nine years under chef Ben Shewry, Attica has gone from a failing Thai restaurant where he cooked for as few as two people to a booked-out, five-night business with daily wait lists of up to 40 tables and 100 inquiries for bookings. Its menus are downloaded more than 50,000 times a year.
Restaurant manager Banjo Harris Plane says there was "a marked upswing in interest from all corners of the globe" when Attica first made the top 50 list last year. "We went from having a waiting list of about four or five tables each night to having a waiting list of close to 40 tables each night," he says.
The award confirms Kiwi-born Shewry's place among as the ratpack of thoughtful young chefs who are changing the way we eat (and think about eating), including Dane Rene Redzepi and Korean-American David Chang. Shewry now co-owns the restaurant with David Maccora, an emergency medicine doctor, and his wife Helen.
Shewry said of the honour: "Well, the first time we ever made the list was at number 73 about five years ago. Prior to that business had been extremely tough and David and I thought we might have to close several times. I didn't realise the impact being number 73 would have. It was like a lightbulb being switched on – thousands of new customers descended upon us and through that we have been able to reinvest the small amount of money we made back into the business and progress our offerings a great deal."
Shewry has come a long way since joining Attica in 2005 as a young chef who'd worked alongside Thai expert David Thompson (his Bangkok restaurant Nahm rates 13th on this year's list), and Andrew McConnell. Attica now boasts a sparkling new kitchen, a sophisticated composter that cost as much as a small car, and a sprawling vegetable garden in the grounds of the National Trust's Ripponlea. Shewry is invited to cook and speak at international food-fests such as Redzepi's Mad FoodCamp, Barcelona's Madrid Fusion and the exclusive chefs-unplugged style Cook It Raw eco food "camp".
When the legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adria came to Melbourne this month, he ate at Attica, though Shewry was in New York with 20 other top chefs cooking a surprise dinner for wd-50 chef Wylie Dufresne at the time. Adria didn't care. "I didn't come to eat the chef," he laughed.
Shewry is a thoughtful chef. He's constantly striving to improve Attica and its menu, tweaking everything, perhaps to make the food healthier, to change its impact on customers, to change how staff interact with customers.
"I can't drink eight glasses of wine," Shewry told Fairfax Media recently, and that helped inspire a new juice menu matched to Attica's eight-course degustation, with combinations such as pear and ginger, cucumber and sorrel.
He's been a champion of indigenous, wild, heirloom and foraged ingredients, saying: "Foraged produce is more flavoursome than cultivated food which tastes softer. Plants I find and pick myself are grunty because they've had to struggle for survival, while cultivated food is mollycoddled."
Attica first made the list in 2010, ranking 73. It jumped to 53 in 2011, 63 in 2012, and 21 in 2013, leapfrogging Sydney's Quay to become the highest-ranked restaurant in Australasia.
As for Shewry, The Age restaurant critic Larissa Dubecki notes that plaudits have not made him less inventive or original. His dishes are inspired by experiences as diverse as a near drowning, outrunning a volcanic eruption on his snowboard, even dreams. "While dozing I had an intense dream of creating a dessert inside a beehive. I tested that dish 80 different ways for 18 months. Then it clicked. I knew exactly what to do," Shewry told Good Food.
In his first week serving his innovative cuisine at Attica, a bewildered customer declared that whoever wrote the menu was on drugs and walked out, "which really upset me," Shewry has said, but mostly diners have been enthusiastic. "When one said, 'Whatever it is you're doing, don't stop', I cried."
Attica now serves an eight-course degustation menu for $190, during which diners may sample whiting cooked in paperbark with lemon myrtle and oyster pearl meat, a charry warm salad of perfect cucumbers, ruby kangaroo, or marron in a lush sauce of pork and onions. They're taken into the herb plot (converted from car parking) for a pre-dessert ice cream cone, and a chat to the chefs.
But on Tuesday nights, the kitchen serves a discounted menu of dishes they've dreamed up from scratch that morning. Shewry says the evening attracts regulars, some of whom have never eaten the traditional menu. Says Dubecki: "Ben still takes risks as exemplified by his Tuesday night mash-ups (the whole fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nature of it gives the sommelier and waiters regular heart attacks, apparently)."
A trick: want to go to Attica? Try booking a table of four or six, they're a little easier to come by than tables of two.