There are some words you can’t use at a food festival, even in Australia, and one of those words, it transpires, is “wallaby”. When New Zealand-born wunderkind Ben Shewry dares use it during his Melbourne Food & Wine Festival panel, a murmur of disquiet runs around the auditorium where he’s been speaking about the importance of native ingredients to his work. It’s odd, I think, since Australia is such a go-anywhere, eat-anything kind of a place. As the old joke runs, it’s the only country which eats its national animal. If they chow down happily on kangaroo, then, why not an equally loveable hopalong marsupial? If anyone’s going to convince them to expand their palate, it’ll be Shewry.
His restaurant, Attica, in the undistinguished inner suburb of Ripponlea, is now at the forefront of Melbourne dining – far too popular for a visit to be a spur-of-the-moment thing. From the outside, it’s one in a row of posh-suburban shopfronts the sort you find everywhere in well-heeled Melbourne. With its raw-brick exterior and black awnings, it could be mistaken for a fancy coffee shop or a decent Italian restaurant and for a long time, it seems, nobody realised what was lurking behind the unassuming exterior. Attica opened in 2006 and it wasn’t until 2009 that it started to catch diners’ imaginations; indeed, in the first couple of years – as the modest Shewry freely admits – Attica came close to failing. By 2012, though, when I squeezed in a visit, the metaphorical queue for the place now consistently voted Best Restaurant in Australia was stretching out the door and around the block. “You’re looking at… three, four months before we have a table now,” our hostess Hannah explains, long accustomed to the expression of shock this elicits. “Yeah, we tend to be a little quieter on Tuesday nights,” she adds sweetly. I’m sure I’ve misunderstood. Three to four months’ advance notice for a quiet Tuesday dinner? In Melbourne? “It’s more like six to eight months if you’re wanting a Saturday,” she confirms.
Well, let’s be positive: six to eight months just about gives me time to save up for the return flight from London. Because this is food worth travelling around the world to eat: unfussy, yet wildly imaginative; possessing an ultra-trendy, Nordic-influenced focus on locally found ingredients (that wallaby again), but always pinned by Shewry’s thoughtful, intelligent take on the food he’s making.
The room directs all attention to the food: it’s black, black, black – the walls, the furnishings, the floor. The photographs I took of each dish show the white-clothed table suspended in otherwise limitless darkness. The effect is to place diners in a kind of void, an interstice where time stops passing, measured only in your progress through a succession of jewel-like courses. You forget anything else exists.
This is not to say that Attica is austere or humourless. Served with the tasting menu, an amuse-bouche of whipped walnut, bright green baby peas and buckwheat flowers is presented in hollow walnut shells, one sealed, the other with its “lid” removed at your table in a nod to silver service’s po-faced synchronised unveiling of platters. A deconstructed caprese, garnished with leaves from a dozen different basil plants, each with a distinct flavour, is served on a piece of roasted, compressed red capsicum the shape and vivid colour of a panting tongue.
The wallaby – yes, reader, I ate it – is seared round the edges but uncompromisingly rare otherwise: one feels that, as with kangaroo meat, exposing wallaby to the fire for any extended period will render it instantly tough and lacklustre. It’s served with fleshy, dusky-pink begonia leaves, whose acerbic bite balances the meat’s punchy flavour.
The influence of Noma might be detected on a dish the menu describes as “A Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth it was Grown”, a quenelle-shaped piece of potato which genuinely has been baked in the ground it was dug from. (Shewry’s recently-published cookbook Origin includes a recipe for this dish, which includes the memorable ingredient “3kg of soil”.) In Attica it is served on a little cushion of goats’ curd, coffee ash and sagey-tasting saltbush leaves, which build layers onto the potato’s own essence-of-itself flavour. You can’t share someone’s dream, but this deeply comforting dish makes you feel for the duration like you’re glimpsing in sepia Shewry’s own childhood memory: what potato used to be.
The result is a dream of a dessert crammed with flavours subtly unlike any others I’ve tasted in Australia – a dish which cuts straight to the heart of what this country’s cuisine could and should be about.
Aside from exploring his own background and history, Shewry’s concerned with drawing attention to the wider world. His “Plight of the Bees” – assembled on stage at that Food & Wine Festival event by Shewry and friends in beekeepers’ hazmat suits, in a marvellously literal illustration of cooking-as-theatre – arrives in a tiny individual beehive box; beneath the lid, you lift aside a millimetre-thin layer of compressed, set pumpkin gel, dusted with a meticulous honeycomb-pattern of powdered apple, to uncover little deposits of New Zealand-origin thyme honey, meringue and citrus fruit. This is meticulous, intelligent food, whose name reminds you that you’re eating by-products of a planet-wide system of production and consumption which with one comparatively minor alteration – the disappearance of the bee – could be radically transformed, or destroyed… but it’s fun, too. You don’t gloomily ponder ecological collapse while eating “Plight of the Bees”: it’s more like receiving a gift or an award than consuming a dessert.
Along similar thoughtful lines – and the most noteworthy dish, I felt, on Attica’s outstanding menu – was a second dessert, “Native Fruits of Australia”. I feel that Australian cuisine – notably the Mod Oz revolution of a few years ago, which melded great local ingredients with tastes and techniques from its Pacific Rim neighbours – is often guilty of a kind of cultural myopia. The fruits that make up this dish are what indigenous peoples were eating long before Australia was colonised by the West; indeed, Shewry has joined forces with the Outback Pride Project, who employ indigenous Australians to select the fruits and berries for his dish. The result is a dream of a dessert crammed with flavours subtly unlike any others I’ve tasted in Australia – a dish which cuts straight to the heart of what this country’s cuisine could and should be about. There’s a lurid red granité of bush currants, some almost obscenely fleshy, lychee-like white berries of the lemon aspen plant, a purple piece of rosella flower halfway between a hibiscus petal and a section from a red onion. It was as we tasted these extraordinary flavours – by turns honeyed, sharp, and deeply strange – that my companion and I started to use the word “genius” about Shewry – although when we wandered round his herb garden after dinner and applied that description to him in person, he characteristically deflected our praises towards the work done by Outback Pride.
In all honesty this postprandial debriefing with Shewry was less a chat than an overwhelming gushing of praise and thanks. (This faltered slightly when he happened to mention it would be his birthday the next day, and yes, he was younger than either of us. There are times when one’s whole life seems to have been wasted.) We returned to the table to find one last gift from the Attica team: in a little grass-lined basket, two beautifully hand-painted chocolate caramel pukeko eggs. Here’s a restaurant that knows you have to decompress after dining here – that you need a little cute comfort food farewell to help you gradually, reluctantly resume real life afterwards.
Attica, 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, Melbourne VIC3185
+61 3 9530 0111; attica.com.au
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