Back in 2018, the little Ripponlea restaurant that could rose to a surprise #20 entry on the much-debated (and occasionally controversial) World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It overtook Brae’s entry the year before at #44 and set Attica firmly in the minds of the international jetset.
Ben Shewry’s experimental and unflinchingly Australian ten-course degustation has since tumbled out of the top 50, this year not even making the cut in the top 100. So what does this all mean for one of the most loved and well-known restaurants in the country? Does it still live up to its original hype years later, in 2022?
I’m happy to say, it certainly has – and that the list’s snub in favour of another, more hyped Melbourne restaurant for me, misses the mark, because Attica is still one of the most innovative, experimental, and more importantly, delicious fine dining experiences to be had in Melbourne. But, my rapturous superlatives aside, it’s almost not enough to explain why Attica is so important to Melbourne’s dining scene – so, let me explain.
We start our Attica journey greeted by the friendly, approachable staff, one of whom explains that they’ll offer us a series of dad jokes throughout, to accompany the meal. Although the first never materialises, what does is a simple dish of 'First Nations finger foods'; including a simulated bush tomato – a hard to source native ingredient – recreated here with a cherry tomato, stuffed with raisin and coated in bush tomato powder. It’s sweet, sour and savoury all at once, with a burst of intense flavour that kicks off your appetite.
But the winner here is a tiny bowl of crispy saltbush. Coated in a salt and vinegar dust, it’s possibly the bougiest bar snack you’ll ever eat – and I’ll be forever desperately waiting for someone to deliver them en masse to my table. Alas, instead, we move on.
Charred crocodile ribs, doused in spiced finger lime honey, arrive at the table – and have you ever heard a more glorious sentence? As someone who has tried the chicken-fishy delicacy a few times before – generally so over-cooked until it resembles a rubbery chunk of tasteless nothing – this is a revelation. Topped with a fragrant smattering of Geraldton Wax needles, and accompanied by crocodile XO, crocodile fat mayo, finger lime salt, and native plum BBQ sauce, it’s easily the highlight of the evening. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the highlight of my year.
Classically Chinese XO sauce with charred crocodile? Native plum as a sweet, unctuous barbecue sauce? When paired with the smokey, soft crocodile flesh, cooked perfectly on charcoal (as all meat should be), it’s so evocative of how our First Peoples would have eaten – and eaten well – and yet so, so thoroughly modern. Bravo.
The fusion continues as we move to a ‘wattle dahl’ – accompanied by such a long laundry list of native ingredients, they’re hard to catch. It’s a beautiful cacophony of clashing flavours and cultures that it is, in itself, another poetic reflection on modern Australia. A pairing of the world’s oldest culture with our fledgeling multicultural identity, it comes with a lovely story about the heritage of two long-standing chefs who would cook the staff dahl dinners. Dad jokes aside, this personal story – one of many that accompany various dishes over the night – further punctuates the notion that Attica is a family restaurant. Albeit a very, very high-end one.
As you can see, it’s hard not to fall into a blubbering, sentimental hole when experiencing Shewry’s menu. Every dish is so intricate, so well-thought-out and personalised, that it leaves many other fine dining experiences in the dust. Having eaten a lot of clinical, conservative, and quite frankly, boring degustation menus in my time, this one hits right at my romantic, Italian sensibilities. Thankfully, then, that every single dish is backed up by riotous, thought-provoking flavour; be still my heart.
I could be here all day, so let me wrap it up. We take a breather with a house-made emu pastrami, graced with delicate salt crystals, before moving on to a twist on caviar. No – that’s not fish eggs, that’s a smattering of black ants. Pop a spoonful of them, doused in honey, onto your blini made with native root veg, and accompanied by sour cream and chives. It’s an interesting experiment, and tasty to eat, but perhaps a little mean – after all, one can’t underestimate the soaring expectations of, well, caviar, when a caviar tin is delivered to your table.
The emu liver parfait is perhaps the prettiest of the bunch, topped with a vibrant red flower, but is also the most challenging. A sweet and sour taste profile accompanies the intense iron savouriness, paired with spongey sourdough that has been soaked in a tart, tangy syrup. It’s a lot, and speaks to a rebellious crescendo – but it certainly isn’t for everyone.
Mussels, King George whiting, calamari and marron, sitting atop a bed of blitzed greens and spiked with a tangy vinaigrette, give you a moment of solace before heading into a spicy, smokey marron mornay. Another high point is the classic steak frites bearnaise, but this time it’s Aussie style with a skewer of rare ‘roo to be dipped in a punchy pepperberry gravy. The aforementioned bearnaise is spiked with native thyme, and the delicious fries are delivered with a perfume bottle of salt and vinegar spritz. The ‘roo is thinly sliced, and perfectly under, so as to render it super soft and delicious to eat; good with the bearnaise twist, better with the gravy.
Before heading into the desserts, it must be said that Shewry and his team are masters at cooking local meats – so often butchered (pun intended) by overcooking and under-flavouring, as to render them deemed nothing more than a tourist item for curious visitors perusing adventurous menus. If only they could try them at Attica.
We are escorted into the ‘garden’ to relive one of Attica’s lockdown specials; a creamy Basque cheesecake that perhaps would have been better served at the table on such a cold night. The closing of the menu is perhaps the most fun; yes, more ants – but better served this time by a clever choice of breed. This time, zingy green ants are sprinkled over coconut sorbet, and accompanied by a crocodile fat caramel. The almost-popping candy effect of the acidic green ants perfectly cuts through the rich, salty caramel – a fulfilling but refreshing finale to the almost four-hour-long Attica epic.
We never did get our dad jokes, in the end, but what we did get was a rousing peek into the fascinating mind of one Ben Shewry. International restaurant lists be damned, this innovative, loving depiction of modern Australian ingredients is the jewel in our crown.