Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Attica - 5 stars, 3 hats, one great degustation

(Degusted 27th July 2011)

Resaurant of the year for 2012 according to The Age's good food guide, and voted the 53rd best restaurant in the WORLD in the San Pelligrino "top 50" restaurants list, Attica has picked up an additional hat this year to bring its total hat count to three (a "hat-trick"??).  Ben Shewry's Attica is therefore one of Melbourne's most desirable degusting destinations - at least, that's what the critics are saying. In Victoria, only Jaques Reymonde, Vue de Monde and the Royal Mail Hotel have been assigned an equivalent number of hats by The AGFG this year (2011). The Degusters have not yet tried the Royal Mail, but have degusted at Jaques' and Vue, and a several of the double-hatted eateries. So with those 2 and 3 hat benchmarks in mind, we were off to Attica to see what all the fuss was about.
Attica is in inner suburban Ripponlea – and the Glen Eira roadscape has an early 1900's charm. Easy to find and park, its a nice change from the hidden gems in Melbourne's CBD. On entering, the first thing we noticed was the central bar, with most of the dining area tucked behind the bar – not obvious from a peek through the front glass. The atmosphere and the vibe was relaxed – nothing stuffy or pretentious.

Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale.
This one's at home in a classy glass.
We were always going to try the full degustation menu, the question remained as to whether or not we'd wine match it. Erring on the side of 'wowser' and adhering to the 0.05 drink-drive laws, we went without the wine. The wine list looked awesome though, and next visit will be better planned – sans car.
Kicking off with a Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale (Tadcaster, England) – this was really like a warm blanket on a cold night. Smoothe, full bodied, soft and round in the mouth – what a nice beer! So dark but smoothe and relatively mild flavoured, it was very respectfully sipped from a wine glass, where it really did look the part.

The Amuse bouche was Crystal Bay Prawns with a Jerusalem artichoke reduction; the prawns were translucent, almost ghost-like, and this little mouthful was light and delicate. This is not a "dish" but a "morsel" – and one must appreciate this for what it is. We noticed other diners raise their plucked eyebrows in surprise upon receipt of their (95% empty) bowl..
Amuse Bouche - crystal bay prawns

The first actual course was an unusual and 'showy' piece of work – the Snow Crab. Hiding under the horseraddish snow was an interesting mix of barberrys, puffed rice, granita, salmon roe and crab. There was a coconutty taste too. While it was not something that we'd go back to order again, it was certainly an interesting experience, and there's no question it showed off  the great techniques that the chefs posess. For the theatre of the dish and novelty of it all, full marks. For the eating, well, we could take it or leave it.

Snow Crab
After this snow crab – for us – the dishes seemed to get better and better, and a developing theme became apparent...

Next up was the dish of marron. These West Australian "freshwater crays" are like miniature cray fish with less saltiness and a sweeter flesh. There was a nice prosciutto glaze to marry everything together, and the poached leek had a magical creamyness due to the egg emulsion that was inlaid neatly into the central valley of the leek stem. Such a great touch and attention to detail.
WA marron with leek

Next up, the humble spud. To call this dish an 'ordinary potato' is like calling a pair of Monolo Blahniks a "humble pair of work shoes".  It was served up and had a bit of a classy look to it – for a potato, it was beautiful. These spuds are cooked  in a style that is reminiscent of pacific islanders' "traditional cooking" in earthen ovens – Polynesian Umu's or Fijian Lovo's – in this case, for 8 hours. The result is a succulent, soft texture that transcends all our previous understandings of potatoes. On a 'nest' of smoked goats cheese, dried tuna, and salt bush leaves, with some trendy ash of coffee and coconut – this potato was anything but plain. Plating was so neat and tidy, we could have stared at it for ages, but eating it was joyous.
Not-so-humble Potato. Delicious.

Pearl oyster meat and pork tail seems to be an odd combination, and we reckon something you'd never see together in nature. They worked remarkably well together on the plate, however. The pressed pork tail was fried to a crispy finish, but was so tender and tasty – like a really well done pork belly.  The jus was full of  the lovely flavour of shiitake mushrooms, giving a mild but earthy dimension.
Pearl Oyster meat and pressed pork tail.

The next dish was a real "cracker" – OK,  mainly because it looked a lot like a cracked egg.. With raw chestnuts, baked celeriac, pyengana and smoked egg yolk, this dish did amazing things. The chestnuts looked a bit like cross-sections of brains, all convoluted. There was crunchy, there was runny, there was a mix of it all here. The pleasure really was in the eating.
Smoked egg yolk, chestnuts and others

Smoked egg yolk, chestnuts and others - close up

Next for something a bit more 'beefy'. Whether being grass fed actually affects the flavour or texture of the beef tongue, I cannot be sure, but this tongue, thrice cooked (brined, smoked and baked) was – in a word – sublime. I would order this dish again in a heartbeat, without a second thought. When describing other,  really tender meat dishes, one often says it "melts in the mouth". On this occasion, "melting" does not capture the magic of this dish – no, we would say that this meat dissolved in the mouth. Okay, perhaps we're taking literary liberties – but the change of texture in the mouth was amazing – from a soft fleshy feel to almost a creamy consistency in the mouth. Added to the crispier house-made jerky, and a mulled wine sauce - this dish had all the textures you could want in a dish.

We were done with the savoury dishes and onto the sweets.

An apple dessert was presented next – a neat circle of  apple pieces, candied vine leaves and 'blobs' of green jelly-like material, which was actually a vanilla flavoured distilled avocado oil. This gooey green avocado oil jelly was really quite sweet – one of The Degusters was completely enamoured by it, the other - not so much. It could be a little too sweet for some, but that really is personal preference. Again, perfectly balanced with sour through to sweet flavours, and textures from gooey to crunchy and chewy. I never thought apples could be some yummy!
Winter apples - candied vine leaf, avocado oil - amazing.

The second dessert dish was – at first glance – a simple dish of mandarin. Add in honeydew honey,  have some mandarin that was pressed (marinated) in honeydew honey for 12 hrs, add in some  freeze-drying, distillation of the mandarin juice (where 8 litres of juice is reduced down to 500mL of beautifully flavoured concentrate), and add some reduced sweet-wine sauce for good measure.Eating reveals those complexities, and wow.

Mandarin, freeze-dried and fresh, with honeydew honey and distilled mandarin juice.

One of The Degusters had a bad run which tarnished the experience – a chipped plate and pips in the mandarin would not be deal-breakers anywhere else, and would normally be overlooked at less classy restaurants. At a triple-hatted, best in Australia and 53rd best in the world however, you would think these types of food faux pas could not happen. But they did. 
This was the first time in a long time that we've had dessert that was predominantly fruit-based (that is, non-chocolate, non-icecream). So it was a nice finale to receive a "surprise" from the chef – a grown-up version of a 'creme egg'; beautiful chocolate filled with a salted caramel sauce. Served in what looked like a real nest and accompanied by some reading material to put it into context, this Pukeko's egg was a neat and fitting finale to a great degustation.

Rating:  Must go back!
Meh                      It’ll Do                   Nom(x3)                              Must go back!

Done and Degusted @ Attica
Crystal Bay Prawns
Snow Crab
Marron, Leek, Egg yolk
Potato – cooked in earthen oven
Pearl oyster meat
Chestnuts, baked celeriac, pyengana
Beef tounge, vanilla, Myrtus, Lettuce stems
Winter apples
Mandarin and honeydew honey

You might like to check out our other degustation posts: 
Reserve in Maleny, QLD,
Grossi Florentino's in Melbourne, VIC
A dessert degustation at Cafe Rosamond, VIC

Attica on Urbanspoon

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