Attica is the little restaurant that could, in the little suburb that you wouldn’t expect (Ripponlea’s only other claim to fame is a rabbinical school) headed up by one Ben Shewry – the New Zealand chef famed for surfing, foraging and crying, to whom tricks and gimmicks are anathema and sustainability is innate philosophy.
But what’s the big deal and why should you go?
To start with, Shewry is cooking some of the most innovative food in Melbourne. He trades in fresh and clean and exciting cooking that never leans on the props of hyped-up ingredients to get results. To that end you won’t find foie gras or caviar here. A slender slow braised fillet of wallaby buckshot by native pepper berries and served in a rich sauce of its own blood is the only red meat on the menu.
Shewry summons deliciousness from native leaves, small amounts of sustainable seafood – king whiting, blue mussels – and stuff you’ve never heard of like honey made by aphids. Should the apocalypse come and we have to go bush, we want Shewry on our team.
You’ll start with a flash fried mussel – a creamy burst of ocean that explodes from a delicate rice flour restraint – followed by pure walnut purée topped with impossibly thin shavings of pine mushrooms and a solitary cabbage flower, plucked daily from the kitchen garden at Ripponlea Estate. It’s a rich, perfect bite, served Thumbelina-style in the walnut half-shell on a little bed of leaves.
It’s restrained and beautiful stuff, with not an element out of place.
Compressed and grilled cucumber spears rise like stalagmites out of a shimmering black bowl from a pea-peppered green and gold sea – a reduction made from the cucumber skins, and a sauce of smoked cheddar and flecks of trout.
The room is just as understated and excellent as what’s on the plates. It’s a muted palate of charcoal carpets, drapes and banquettes, punctuated only by deeply saturated black-and-white landscape photographs. Early in the night Cheap Trick and Something for Kate carry the audio balance until the babble of diners takes over – which happens.
For all the seriousness of what’s on the plates, Attica is fun. Couples are eating with their hands while big tables are getting loose over magnums of Champagne. You’ll be unwrapping buttery fillets of king whiting from a charred cocoon of stringy bark, and before dessert, you’ll be invited out to the kitchen garden where chefs wait with cups of fresh apple tea and marshmallows for toasting over an open fire. It’s all part of the service – and the service here is exceptional.
Manager Banjo Harris Plane possesses one of the most enthusiastic faces you’ll find in hospitality backed by impeccable knowledge. He’ll also steer you right with wine. The list is a playground of biodynamic and natural gear (wines made with the least tinkering possible) and chances are he’ll be pouring you anything from a funky, cloudy unadulterated chardonnay from The Other Right in South Australia to some Kizan Sanban sake. He’s wild like that.
The eight-course degustation is $295 including matched wines but for a restaurant experience that will blow your mind in every way, we reckon that’s a goddamn bargain.