In February of this year, I had the IMMENSE privilege of receiving a text. This was not just any text either, my friends. This was an automated text from a robot, informing me that a table was available at a restaurant in Melbourne where my name had been patiently ingrained in the waiting list for the last SIX MONTHS. This particular restaurant has been rated within the Top 50 Restaurants IN THE WORLD. It's name is Attica.
To be honest, I never thought I'd receive such a brilliant text. I had put my name on the waiting list hoping to eat at the #32nd best restaurant on the globe, after watching the Netflix episode of Chef's Table that featured both Attica and it's head chef, Ben Shewry. I was immediately engrossed in the idea. How would I ever be able to leave Australia, now that I knew of such a place right in my own backyard?
Happy to provide my credit card guarantee, I immediately signed myself, and three others, onto the highly desirable waiting list. The idea was to a) get the table and then b) surprise my roommate, Katie, for her birthday. Only a month before, Katie decided to travel to Thailand for two weeks as a present to herself. As a Travel Coordinator, obviously I had few objections against her choice. Plus, we were getting so close to the date of the dinner, I never thought we had a chance! When I told Katie about the potential surprise, she simply answered, "Knowing my luck, now that I'll be gone you'll get a table". In the end, I received the message just 6 days shy of the requested date.
Enter - a foraging heaven
Attica is an experience. It's not a casual dinner, no matter if you have the $$$ to constantly book a table there and spend heaps. To truly appreciate the fare, you have to understand the chef's message. Not to get all sappy on you, but Ben creates an extraordinary event on each dish he serves. He brings to life what is normally overlooked and discarded. Leaves suddenly become the highlight, nests are assembled, vegetables are invented, seeds and pits are reintroduced in lieu of spices and garnishes. And, yes, sometimes things were a bit over the top and too pinky-up for my plebeian status, but isn't that half the fun?
First off, I need to confess the reason I can retell all the courses I consumed that evening. It's not because I have some incredible memory, or that I've self-taught myself how to remember every dish detail in order to become the next New York Times restaurant critic. No - the truth is - I was writing it all down on my phone underneath the table. Yes, it's true. I took my commoner level in society one class lower, because I simply HAD to remember everything I was eating. I was the nerd taking photos (though I still tried to hide it and only brought my camera out when the servers weren't looking at our table), and I was the dweeb simultaneously taking notes.
Confessions aside (I feel much better), let's get to the food!
The first course for this Chef's Tasting Menu was a cured beef from Cape Green, Tasmania, aged for six weeks, and served underneath a bed of pine mushrooms, along with their leaves. (Again, please picture me rapidly typing this underneath the table, all the while concentrating on the waiter's face so I didn't give myself away). The dish was "served with an egg yolk emulsion, and the pine mushrooms were in their new season". The pictures I attempted of this plate do not - in any way shape or form - do it justice. The beef was smokey in flavor, the mushrooms (and their leaves!) added just the right hint of earthiness to the plate, and an emulsion of egg yolks never hurt nobody (meaning it complimented well overall).
In our second dish of the night, we took witness to the first vegetable-fruit combination. Ben had created a prodigy of both the pineapple and the tomato: the Pineato. Or the Tomapple. Or if you're not into word combining, just call them Pineapple Tomatoes. These were served with Snow Crab from South Australia and topped with micro basil. It was light and refreshing; sweet yet buttery.
Next up was another seafood dish, this one serving grilled squid from South Australia in a seaweed butter, topped with pumpkin seeds. Unfortunately, I ate this one so quickly that I forgot to take a picture...
The highlight of the evening, my absolute favorite dish of the night, was the lamb. Lamb is by-far one of the most popular proteins in Australia, and I definitely never ate as much of it as I did when I lived in Melbourne. The main course was a confit shoulder of lamb in gum leaf oil, presented with a mint glaze and an apple cucumber (!!!). The lamb was roasted for 48 hours before being served, and the glaze featured "indigenous mint from Australia". Now, I don't have it written in my notes but I'm pretty sure most chefs don't usually cook with gum leaf, a leaf of the gum tree (related to the Eucalyptus tree) found all over Australia. And yes, the apple cucumber was another brilliant mad-scientist fruit-veggie miracle. The lamb melted in your mouth, the mint perfectly complimented it, and the apple cucumber was crisp and DELICIOUS.
BREAD & BUTTAH
All along this epic food journey, I should mention that Chenaye and I were consuming copious amounts of wine, but more so, absolutely devouring the bread and butter. The bread was a dark rye, but the butter. Oh, the butter. Chenaye repeatedly regarded it as the "best damn butter I've ever had in my entire life". It was hilarious- the servers were never allowed to take it away. If anything, they had to constantly replenish it. The butter was house-churned, and served alongside another dipping bowl of blended macadamia nuts dusted with ground Australian peach pits. I don't know that the pits added any flavor, but they did add a nice reddish-orange color (almost like sprinkling on cayenne pepper). Plus, in the middle of the table rested a small nest of emu feathers filled with the very unique-looking Australian peach pits- so it was intriguing to see them and say you had tasted them as well. Needless to say, our pleb-ness was showing...
As dessert was served, I got one of those gut-wrenching feelings. No, I wasn't sick off the wine, I just didn't want the night to end! I knew I wouldn't be at such a highly regarded restaurant again for a long time, and I was savouring every moment. We were given a plate filled with sugar plums roasted in whiskey, topped with Macadamia nuts, and accented with "licorice leaf grown behind the restaurant and picked just as you walked in this evening". I giggled at this line. The entire night I had felt like I was pretending to be someone famous, but in this moment I felt like the server was pretending to be a bit too much.
The final dish, a now famous parting gift from Attica, was a Pukeko egg for each person at the table. Ben has recreated the egg of the bird indigenous to New Zealand (his home country), in chocolate form. With a perfectly decadent outer chocolate layer, and a creamy inside of salted caramel, these hand-painted eggs are absolutely to die for. I'm not embarrassed to say I was instantly in a state of sorrow when I finished mine.
In the materials given with the eggs, Ben writes, “The New Zealand Pukeko is quite a character and has often provided my family with first class entertainment… Like me, Pukeko are often seen foraging for food beside roadside ditches, but unlike me they had been forced to adapt because their natural habit, the swamplands, have almost disappeared with human proliferation.”
Attica is one of those places where the restaurant's modest beginning are evident, but not overlooked. It sits on the outskirts of Melbourne, in a quiet suburb known as Ripponlea. It is not overly embellished, and the decor compliments the fare suitably. As soon as you are seated, you take witness to the small, but carefully thought out, tableware. The walls are dark, and dimly lit, but the staff are bright and enlivening. We were not the first guests in that evening, but we were absolutely the last to leave.
As I wrote in my notes circa 1:31 am that evening (/morning?), "We certainly weren't the regulars, but we certainly weren't treated any less regularly. The staff were gorgeous, the food was beautiful, the night was extraordinary".
Wine makes me the cheesiest person alive. Cheers to the universe delivering!!!!! Thanks Uni xx