The World Loves Attica: World's 50 Best
Attica is a stunning hub of creativity and is rated the 32nd restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best restaurants. The World Loves Melbourne enjoyed a Chef’s Table evening at Attica, having to respond to a late cancellation or risk waiting another few months to secure a table. In a city of hot tickets, this is the hottest ticket!
Ben Shewry, the inspiration behind Attica is a softly spoken genius whose ethos is to make the food and the fine dining experience centre stage. In an industry of large egos, Ben Shewry is refreshing as a focussed visionary who manages to keep evolving. The passion here is for sustainability, natural and native ingredients and modern food techniques.
Ben Shewry has had a perceived meteroric rise to fame, but his roots are humble on the farms of New Zealand where he cultivated a passion for cooking from an early age. After moving to Australia Ben took on the reins of Attica in the burbs with a vision for ground breaking cuisine but also a keen eye on the economics.
Attica soon received wide acclaim and jettisoned to number 21 in the World’s 50 Restaurants. According to Ben Shewry this was not through fad or fortune but through “brutal hard work” and famous signature dishes gained traction such as “Snow crab” and the “Potato cooked in the earth it has grown”.
Ben loves the finer things in life but also gravitates to simple pleasures; to spend time with family, foraging and surfing. Ben Shewry is a proud New Zealander but now considers himself to be an Australian chef. We can claim Ben Shewry like we can claim Russell Crowe. Incidentally Melbourne has seen a domination of New Zeland chefs; thank God for the ANZACS.
We are captivated by the simple menu descriptions such as “Ox and Carrot” for example, but you know there’s a machination of sophisticated processes in preparing these simply described dishes.
A lack of hype is evident; with the extraordinary food and fine service doing the talking. Says the website, “Ben believes that food can have a deeper meaning than just another item to consume; it can be evocative, emotional and thought provoking, appealing to all of the senses. Of course the key to all this is that it tastes of the purity of its ingredients and is something delicious to eat.”
Ben Shewry and his team inspire the creative side of us all by the kitchen process and formation of dishes. The World Loves Melbourne was taken to the Attica testing kitchen out the back by one of the chefs Matthew, who told us how the team arrives early on Tuesdays to hear the new ideas from Ben. The Attica team then spends hours making the dishes that are in Ben’s imagination. Ben asks the chef sto create the new dishes; then sends them back to the chefs with corrections and additions until they get it right.
It’s like a band meeting where Keith Richards gets a riff and Mick adds the lyric. (Or translate to say Dave Guetta and dance beats). The chefs have only a matter of hours before the Chef’s Table dinner service to perfect dishes they’ve never seen before. Even hearing about this causes The World Loves Melbourne to identify with the sweat and pressure of the process. But this process keeps the restaurant constantly evolving.
From the creative experimental tasting kitchen and Chef’s Table evenings, the great dishes are forged and go on the main menu for Wed-Sat service. Let's face it though, this is an experimental kitchen with professionals not amateurs. It's not like throwing a dart blindfolded; more like landing a fighter jet to reach the target.
Says Ben Shewry, “Six years ago chef’s table was born out of a desire to progress faster with the development of our cuisine, throw caution to the wind and to offer guests more variety at a reasonable price.” We like this regard for affordability. Sure it's fine dining of the highest quality; but you don't feel like there's a price gouging going on. It's worth every cent.
“ The menu is a living breathing thing that evolves week to week. I work on it during the weekend and let the seasons dictate what they may in terms of ingredients; many of the dishes are inspired by memories of my childhood in rural New Zealand and by sights of nature and life that I discover on my drive to work from my home on the Bellarine Peninsula. Some dishes are just inspired by common sense and beautiful produce.”
Like all top restaurants dining at Attica is not one dimensional but the full sensory experience. Ripponlea is a well-heeled suburb but is away from the CBD, you enter Attica to be greeted by impeccably presented professional experienced floor staff. In fact the best. The restaurant is like a theatre with black stage curtains and spotlights that shine on the tables (as if they are a stage).
We are told this is Chef’s Table night with diners in the hands of Attica chefs, all 18 of them, and menus are not supplied until the end of the night. (We managed to secure one at the start of the night for blogger purposes).
The service is world class. We are used to one or two waiters dedicated to our table for the night at most restaurants. Attica provides a team of high-class wait staff (maybe 6 or 7 visited our table) that work as a highly professional unit. They notice when you need more of their house made sparkling mineral water or wine, explain the dishes and processes perfectly, and expertly gauge the pace of the evening’s dining. Allow yourself 4-5 hours for the full experience.
The Wine List is extensive with perfect mix of local and international wines; consistent with a world-class restaurant. We were offered the matching wine menu (which was perfect and exciting) but instead ordered a French Syrah. Maybe we revealed our weaknesses as the matching wines were mostly whites and we had a penchant for reds no matter what.
Of course we enjoyed a gin to begin; Four Pillars from Victoria.
The food begins with a delightful starter of house made Wattle seed bread enjoyed with soft cultured butter and salt, as well as a compelling macadamia puree. Already we are happy. We are offered more of this dish as the night progresses in between courses.
Whipped Corn and Sorrel seems a simple dish, but loads of complexity has gone in to whipping the corn and getting the right texture. This was a refreshing creamy earthy dish. To be honest we are told the processes involved but its so complex we can't take it all in.
What to do with a prawn? How about grilling it within tiny capsules of cucumber? Prawn Grilled in Cucumber was a rewarding dish that had the Attica stamp on it of honouring natural ingredients. Delicate but compelling.
Peter Gunn the sous chef comes to our table, for a delightful chat, fresh from winning the Asia Pacific S. Pellegrino Young Chef Award 2015. He's a much admired chef of The World Loves Melbourne. We also respect Ben Shewry for the relationship he has with Peter Gunn. If Ben has been an influence we can see it in the sheer passion Peter has for natural ingredients. Peter Gunn's profile is on the rise and Ben gives him space and celebrates his success.
Potato Crisps and Cheese Cream came as a surprise. Desiree potatoes cut in to fine strips and crispy served on top of raw egg yolk and underlying cheese cream. Again this was a refreshing dish with the interplay between crisps and raw egg yolk a texture contrast. The dish was a shock to my dining colleague Mark (CEO of a successful finance company in Melbourne).
Carrot and Ox was a highlight with carrots cut into fine strips and made into capsules with peas inside. You then added earthy flavoursome rich ox inside the carrot capsules for a rustic dish. Dish of the night. We thought this could transcend the experimental tasting kitchen and make it to the grand field.
All these dishes are innovative and clever. All honour natural ingredients. There was an electricity about placing your trust in the chefs and awaiting their experimental offerings.
Dessert of White Peach and Almond Cake was a delightful dish, which celebrated the flavour and texture of the peach. The almond cake was first class but played second fiddle to the superb peach flavours. This is the kind of dessert The World Loves Melbourne enjoys; not the sickly sweet offerings of some restaurants. After all, this is the end of the meal; we desire something clean and cleansing.
The final course was the famous Pukeko’s Egg, which came with a picture of a painting from Ben Shewry’s father and a description from Ben Shewry. The dish pays homage to Ben Shewry’s New Zealand roots and is a delicate rich dessert with salted caramel and chocolate. You have to get inside the ethos and emotion here; and imbibe the hit of salted caramel and chocolate.
Coffee was a delightful cold drip from El Salvador. Even this was a triumph; not a standard latte but an explosion of fruit across the palate in cold drip style.
We are taken out to the adjacent garden where exotic edible plants are growing. Joy. Sustainability is at the fore with our host Heewun telling us the garden used to be the staff car park until they converted it, and now staff use public transport. Only a 3 minute walk away Attica has a further large kitchen garden at iconic Ripponlea Estate. I remarked to Mark that Heewun would be a superb manager in his business. Or a star in anyone's business. So consumate. One of the best we've seen.
Heewun tells us some plant here has the taste of mushroom that one in four people in the world can discern. Of course we can taste the mushroom nuance, feeling good about ourselves.
We get to check out the test kitchen where the magic happens with chef Matthew, walking past Ben Shewry’s impressive book collection and office. It's a space where the chefs often congregate in the morning.
All in all, the Chef’s Table evening was spectacular and intense in process; with Ben telling us “This evening’s food takes about 50 hours to produce.”
An exciting development is that Attica is renovating over Christmas and in the new year will feature an open kitchen where it’s 18 chefs will be on display, adding to the theatre.
The team here is a large happy family with chefs telling us Ben Shewry is great to work for.
Attica remains as popular as ever 10 years on. Reservations for December were booked out in 43 seconds when they went on line in September.
Apart from the Chef’s Table evenings, the Wednesday to Saturday affair is more comprehensive for a four-hour dining experience.
We left as believers; keen to return.
We also recommend Ben Shewry and Attica featured on Netflix with the Chef’s Table series.