Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Pub with No Quandongs

Venue: Attica
Style: Modern Australian, think Bush Tucker Man with Michelin stars
Address: 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea [Google Maps]
Phone: (03) 9530 0111
Hours: Tue-Sat 6:30pm - late
Prices: 5-course Chef's Table $95 (Tue only) / 5-course degustation $125 / 8-course degustation $175
Bookings: Required

Decorative quandongs, surrounded on all sides

A distinctive cuisine of its own is not something Australia is known for. We owe this to being colonized by the British, an empire more adept at imperialism than breakfast, whose botanists declared in the 19th century that while the newly discovered native flora were "eatable," they were not in fact "fit to eat." Until recently, the view that Australian food plants were not palatable went unchallenged, which is particularly tragic if your name was Burke or Wills.

In 2010, Denmark's Noma was named the world's best restaurant and chef René Redzepi's emphasis on cooking characterized by local, natural produce marked a transition away from molecular gastronomy and towards foraging. Out with the alchemists, in with Bear Grylls.

A meal at Attica should be prefaced with context for what is having an impact on the global dining scene at present. The establishment has been awarded a place on the S.Pellegrino World's Best Restaurants list for three years in a row now, but what does this designation actually mean to adventurous gluttons like myself (damned if I'll be drawn into a dissection of the subjectivity of superlatives)? This achievement is what compelled two sets of dining companions to visit, one of whom joined us from overseas. And while the two tasting menus I tried over the past six months polarized opinions at the table on both occasions, our overseas guest certainly experienced something that he could not find back home (where he'll just have to slum it at Alinea) - distinctive, Australian ingredients demonstrating that we have a rich palate of local flavours to play with.

Service is polished but quite easily becomes loose and conversational as our waiter explains the menu to us, while we enjoy thick-cut, fresh sourdough, rich cultured butter and a light, emulsified oil spread sprinkled with mountain pepper. On both visits, someone asks if the quandong table setting is edible (no).

Emulsified oil w/ mountain pepper, salt, cultured butter (Photo credit: Ed Brill)

Emulsified oil w/ mountain pepper, cultured butter, rye sourdough

An array of amuse bouche starters run the gamut from bewildering to delightful. There is too little walnut purée, served in walnut shells, to make an impression, but seasonal asparagus with wattleseed candy is snap-fresh and sweet. Local mussels flash fried and served with sea succulents appear at both meals, but with more fanfare the second time by way of an alarmingly-painted shell.

Walnut amuse bouche

Asparagus w/ wattle seed candy amuse bouche


While in December, the snow crab course was included in our menu, more recently it was offered as an optional supplement. If offered, "No, thank you" is the wrong answer. Of all the dishes I've shared at Attica, this has won universal claim and has to be tried. What we thought would be a plate featuring a specific genus of crab looked instead to be a fresh downpour of snow.

"Snow" Crab

Beneath the mound of what is in fact horseradish powder are layers of soft crab meat, puffed rice, popping salmon roe, verjuice granita, barberries, leek ash and freeze dried coconut. The textures are sumptuous and the dish exciting to eat, especially the warmth from the horseradish with the sweetness of the crab.

"Snow" Crab

At the March sitting, our second course is a pleasant salad of fresh tomatoes, spiced, roasted hazelnuts and a mix of basil from Attica's garden, showcasing the difference in flavour between varieties, alternating collectively between aniseed and pepper.

Tomato, Smoked Sesame, Eleven Basils

Tomato, Smoked Sesame, Eleven Basils (Photo credit: Ed Brill)

So perhaps those British botanists weren't entirely mistaken. On the two occasions I was served the next course, I found the leek to be...a relatively flavourless vegetable taking up valuable real estate that would have been better suited to more protein. The photograph does some justice to the marron, which was provocatively plump and skilfully cooked. Disappointingly, while the accompanying broth was described as being made with chorizo, our table could not detect any smokiness.

Marron, Leek, Native Pepper

Marron, Leek, Native Pepper

"A simple dish of Potato cooked in the earth it was grown"

I remain unconvinced that cooking a potato for eight hours within the dirt from which it sprung qualifies as "simple." I am persuaded however that Attica are serving the best lump of starch I've ever had the pleasure of, creamy and matched with nutty ground coffee, crunchy dried saltbush, smoked goats cheese and coconut ash.

Our next course ostensibly centres around pearl oyster, however, the delicate, thin slices of clam meat are part of a duel triumph shared with a cube of tender pork tail crackling. Complete with dehydrated onion, radish and brocollini stem for colour and bite, a shiitake mushroom glaze finishes off each mouthful with loads of umami.

Meat from the Pearl Oyster (December)

Meat from the Pearl Oyster (March)

The lightness of the last dish sets the stage for something luxurious, which on both visits is a cross section of salt-crusted baked vegetables, succulent leaves and buds, chopped almonds toasted to a golden brown in butter and garlic and a delicate poached egg yolk. Both variations are finished with an immaculately sharp cheddar cream sauce of aged Pyengana and both times, my eyes roll back into my head.

Our "wine" match for the artichoke version of this dish is Chimay's Grande Reserve, which has the depth and touch of bitterness that I'm looking for after each decadent spoonful of Pyengana sauce.

Version 1: Artichoke, salt baked Celeriac, ......

Version 1: Artichoke, salt baked Celeriac, finished w/ Pyengana, matched w/ Chimay Grande Reserve 2010

Version 2: Kumara (sweet potato), Purslane, ......
Version 2: Kumara (sweet potato), Purslane, Pyengana

If the next course appears to be small, then the camera perspective was nothing less than faithful. The menu shifts into welcome, gamier territory and the wallaby is delicious and tender, supported by sweet, earthy flavour from the currants and shavings of bunya pine nut. Sadly, the bite of flesh is all tease, as there's too little meat on our plates.

Flinders Island Wallaby, Bunya Pine, Begonia (Photo credit: Ed Brill)

The beef tongue we were served on our first outing was more generous in quantity and breadth of taste. Having been smoked and poached, the beef smoothly cut away from itself and I made sure to lather it in silky parsnip purée, before inhaling it with the freeze-dried blackberries, pearl onions and lettuce stems.

Beef Tongue, Vanilla, Parsnip, Lettuce Stems

Beef Tongue, Vanilla, Parsnip, Lettuce Stems

As is my habit, I found myself lusting for something deep, dark and chocolatey for dessert, but knew full well that such fare was unlikely to show up. Fortunately, a dessert of strawberries and rhubarb immersed in an intense strawberry oil, dusted with sugar and finished with custard is bright and refreshing, with a long, caramelized finish to the flavour that I couldn't pinpoint.

Strawberries with Rhubarb

Strawberries with Rhubarb

The alternative dessert course of raisins and cheese is visually striking but makes enemies at the table of those who are confounded by the union of the grape flavours, grape juice and cheese. I found it to be light and interesting, with its mix of dried, dehydrated and fresh fruit, however the juice was somewhat off-putting and I might have enjoyed it more had it had a more syrupy consistency.

Raisins, Whey, Hazelnut

Lastly, a second dessert course of jewel-like native fruits, consisting of quandong, lemon aspen, candied hibiscus flower, mongres, native currant, desert lime and custard waterseed, finished with red currant ice, eucalyptus infused sheeps yogurt and honeyed custard.

Native Fruits of Australia

This dessert speaks volumes about why Attica receives the accolades that it does, considering that some people - including myself - find elements of the dish resolutely unpleasant. A number of these fruits are protected and cannot be picked and sold by any old peasant. Attica is engaged in utilizing and promoting little-known native produce and indeed, this is unlike anything else I've come across as my stomach has growled its way around the world. The candied hibiscus is lovely and the thick drizzle of yogurt a harmonious complement as you move around the plate, but some of the fruits are too tart and bitter to be considered enjoyable.

Native Fruits of Australia

With coffee and tea come some unusual petits fours. Doubtless, even the most dedicated forager will not manage to procure beautiful handmade white chocolate eggs, concealing a gooey centre of salted caramel.

White chocolate "Pukeko eggs" filled w/ salted caramel

Winding up on a purported list of the world's best restaurants strikes me as a mixed blessing. In my view, Attica does not occupy the position of Melbourne's best dining experience, however, it does indeed provide diners with a trailblazing experience and their creativity and successes are deserving of recognition. And sampling, if you have an interest in native Australian produce.

Attica on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. You has a great blog. I'm very interesting to stopping here and leaves you a comment. Good work.

    Lets keep writing and share your information to us.

    Nb: Dont forget to leave your comment back for us.