It’s been a decade since chef Ben Shewry’s Melbourne restaurant Attica burst onto the dining scene – an overnight success years in the making. Neil D.A. Stewart makes a long-awaited return visit to see what’s new, and what the Attica of 2023 says about Melbourne’s dining scene today
The host at Attica gasps when I mention the copy of chef Ben Shewry’s Origin that sits pristine on my bookshelves. Part memoir, part cookbook, it’s one of those gloriously lavish food books one reads for the prose, having quietly decided against sullying the beautiful and elaborate dishes with attempting bastardised versions of even the simpler recipes at home. Hence its spotlessness. And in turn, perhaps, its value. “Copies go for five hundred dollars online these days!” Nonetheless, I haven’t stuck mine on eBay. To be honest, if you have that much cash floating around, I’d advise a trip to Melbourne and dinner in the actual restaurant.
To see what else has changed in a decade, I revisited my notes from my first time at Attica in 2012. Back then, when putting wallaby on a menu was seen as deeply daring
Ben Shewry (pictured above) was never an overnight success. When Attica first attracted major national and international attention, Shewry had been its head chef for five years that were, by his account, difficult and unrewarding. With deep integrity (and without deep-pocketed backers), he worked away doggedly for half a decade to put Attica on the map; his determination became – in a food industry as obsessed with novelty as any other – his USP. By the early 2010s Attica was a fixture on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, peaking at number 20 in 2018 (its absence from the list in recent years may be attributed not to any downturn in quality but to a flaw in how the list is compiled: too few judges are visiting Australia), and in 2015 he bought out the previous owners to become executive chef and director, and ensuring the restaurant would no longer be, in his words, merely “somewhere I worked”.
So much for the origins of Attica. Where are we now? One of the most pleasing and inspiring culinary trends in Melbourne in 2022 is the unremarked presence on menus of native ingredients which previously might have been highlighted as “exotic” – in 2012, Shewry would still call a (brilliant) dessert “Native Fruits of Australia”. As eating habits have changed, this emphasis has faded a little. Partly, I think, this is because to season food with native saltbush and pepperberry is not exotic for people who have lived off the land for unnumbered centuries, so the very fact of not drawing attention to these ingredients meshes nicely with the now ubiquitous text in restaurants, cafes and elsewhere that makes respectful note of the proper name for the location where the building stands, and the traditional custodians of the land.
To see what else has changed in a decade, I revisited my notes from my first time at Attica in 2012. Back then, when putting wallaby on a menu was seen as deeply daring, you ate off white tablecloths in a room so dark it didn’t quite seem to have walls. Nowadays Attica is jollier, brighter, with quartz tabletops, colourful po-mo flatware, and a regularly changing lineup of playful art on the walls – less austere, less imposing, less to prove. The staff remain excellent ambassadors, effervescent without overstepping, giving every impression they’re having their time of their lives. It’s clear, too, that Shewry still has an eye on the bigger story around cooking and dining – sustainability, sourcing and honouring the best local ingredients, and the broader environmental context of the food industry. His food goes beyond “luxury” ingredients and into weirder, more idiosyncratic areas. Here is a slab of barbecued crocodile ribs, with a mushroom “katsup” and a mayonnaise contrived from croc fat in which to dip the buttery, honey-doused shreds of meat; here’s emu “pastrami” (paired with an outstanding sake, produced by a female brewer in Kyoto); bunya nut mayonnaise accompanies crab and a sea-lettuce pikelet. Scattered across several courses are popping clusters of sharp-sweet finger lime, and the berries and seeds of the wattle plant, the basis respectively for a deeply savoury dahl and an aged “tamari”-style sauce for alongside freshwater marron tail.
On my last visit, in 2016, the restaurant had just acquired a big space for growing as much of their own produce as they could use, and was wondering what to do with the back yard, their erstwhile much smaller herb garden. The somewhere surprising answer, as you discover now in a mid-meal interlude out back: turn it into a carnival sideshow. Here are dayglo slushies, corn dogs and kangaroo hotdogs, and a clearly rigged coconut shy. I was reminded of Barcelona’s Tickets (not least by the word “Tickets” painted in gigantic letters on one wall of the yard). Where the Adrià project “committed to the bit” in its design and décor and themes that ran through the whole menu and service, Attica’s take on funhouse frivolity feels a bit disconnected from what’s happening elsewhere: indoors may have lightened up, but this feels a forced-fun step too far.
Fortunately, the final savoury course, while equally playful, is a lot more successful. Kangaroo frites – exactly as it sounds – is not just a nod to one of Melbourne’s institutions, South Yarra’s immortal bistro France-Soir, but, I suspect, to the diner who likes a bit of the less frou-frou stuff too: haute grub, if you like. It reminded me of Eleven Madison Park in its imperial phase, when it presented high-concept takes on the Oreo cookie and the New York bagel, and it’s quite sublime. After this, you’re back into the experimental stuff. A first dessert mingles trad cheesecake and its ubiquitous Basque-style cousin, then there’s an ice cream sundae featuring crocodile-fat caramel and green ants that fizz on the tongue like Nerds, Accompanying these desserts is a weird, wonderful pairing, an amber ale that’s served alongside the cheesecake then topped up for the second with a muscadelle from Victoria, making a strange, sweet, ripe cocktail. Like much in the latest incarnation of Attica, it’s a bit of lateral-thinking that keeps you paying attention, even at the tail end of a (too?) lengthy meal.
You don’t want a restaurant to feel it has to keep innovating merely for innovation’s own sake; nonetheless, sated but still greedy, I’m fascinated to see what Shewry and Attica come up with next. C
Attica, 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, Melbourne, VIC 3185
+61 3 9530 0111; attica.com.au
Neil D.A. Stewart was supported on his most recent visit to the city by Visit Victoria and visitmelbourne.com