Just as this extended chefs tasting menu is a long meal, this is a long review! Attica in Ripponlea, headed by Ben Shewry, is one of Australia’s most lauded restaurants. It’s accolades include Restaurant of the Year (numerous times), Australia’s Best Restaurant, and 21st Best Restaurant in the World. If you haven’t looked into it yet, you also have to book 3 months ahead. Seats are released on a the first Wednesday of the month at 9am, for the 3rd month out. And you’d better be online at 9am because chances are they will all be gone within minutes.
It’s said that looking forward to something (for example, a holiday) gives you as much value as actually partaking in the event, so from that perspective perhaps it’s not a terrible thing. It’s also not a cheap endeavour (currently at $250pp for the extended tasting menu, with matched wines starting from $150pp) so if this is an extraordinary treat for you, it gives you a chance to put your pennies aside. Be prepared that this is some 3.5-4 hour journey, so you may want to aim for an earlier sitting. The Australian wine list is predominantly whites, but even as a dedicated red drinker I did enjoy them as they were all so well matched.
For August 2016, the extended tasting menu included 12 appetisers, 4 mains and 4 desserts, paired with 7 wines and 1 cocktail in the Australian wine matching option.
The opener of Chef’s leaves, grown in local Ripponlea estate, is really a palate cleanser, but the cream and balsamic it comes with was truly heavenly, leaving us wishing we had more to dip into it. The second course of santa claus melon was equally refreshing. From here, we stepped into the renowned creativity with the third course of scallop (or for vegetarians/non-seafood eaters, whipped walnut and pomegranate in a walnut shell) – both presented absolutely beautifully. The walnut cream was creamy and mild, not the slightest hint of nutty grittiness, and the fine handling required to eat it out of the shell with the tiny spoon really forces you to slow down and appreciate it.
Following this was the Attica take on avocado toast. Only on closer inspection do you realise that this is in fact not smashed, but diced with the most incredible precision. It’s accompanied by juicy baubles of finger lime and an assortment of mint leaves. Although it is on a wafer of sorts, this is incredibly thin, so the overwhelming mouth feel is of creamy avocado.
One interesting thing about the experience is that, offering only the tasting menu, there are no section waiters. Throughout the evening we were served by an assortment of waiters, chefs, a sommelier, the host, and even Ben Shewry himself, who has an incredibly gracious and modest air about him, reminding me more of a teacher gently speaking to a young child than anything else – but not at all condescending. And it certainly is an educational experience, with all the staff well versed in the details of the menu, and able to guide you on what they think will push your boundaries as far as you’re willing to go, without going too far, a customer service detail that was greatly appreciated.
Dishes included fresh soft cheese with honeycomb (as always, I do love the simple things done well), house cured pork, wallaby blood pikelets (not nearly as terrifying as that sounds), ‘vegemite pie’, a mussel (or alternatively, oyster mushroom) crumbed in a delicious and light coating, a mouthful of tender beef on bone skewers, and aromatic cold chicken broth with an assortment of herbs and flowers, ranging in strength of flavour but all picked that day.
Even though they have been small bites, at this point we were starting to realise that it’s nonetheless quite a large meal. And then we fell into a trap. Before the mains, we were served saltbush with macadamia cream, and beautiful freshly churned butter with fresh bread. As delicious as this bread is… if you are starting to feel full DO NOT EAT IT. Because there is still so much more to come and you don’t want to fill up prematurely!
Mains.. up first one of the dishes that probably pushed my boundaries a little more, the kangaroo tartare, here not visible under it’s armored coating of purple carrot slices. Yes, this dish is completely raw. I expected it to have a rather gamey flavour, but in fact it was just melt in your mouth tender with a very strong flavour from the native berries and spices in the sauce. I possibly found the flavour a little TOO strong, as some of the berries are quite bitter, but it was a really interesting experience into what can be done with almost exclusively native ingredients.
All parts of the pumpkin was probably one of our favourite dishes, despite being meat-free, and comprised of meltingly soft pumpkin flesh, cream, seeds, and a crunchy crumb from the tough outer skin. As a non seafood eater I did find the third main of Marron to be quite boundary-pushing also, however the flesh was very sweet and fresh and completely without the ‘fishy/seafood’ taste that can be so off-putting.
Last but not least, scrambled emu egg – a dish which is as much about the visuals as the flavour. I can tell you honestly that I never knew emu eggs to be such an unbelievably beautiful colour. Whilst I imagine that only the very best eggs have been retained for presentation out of all the eggs to have been scrambled, the incredible deep green, smooth yet textured, sturdy eggs are really something that warrants picking up and handling, admiring from every angle. The egg is served in a ‘nest’ and accompanied by fluffy potatoes tossed through with fine specks of emu flesh – which somehow tastes oddly like vegemite. Neither of us could finish this course as we were both getting very full.
In great need of a break, it’s pleasing that the first dessert course was a cup of tea and ‘mint slice’ in the ornamental garden behind the restaurant. It’s definitely worth taking a stroll, touching the bushes and smelling the fresh herb aromas. A chef is on hand to keep you company, discuss food, plants, and answer any questions you might have. This is also where you choose your own tulip for the second dessert, Tulips DIY.
These are the filled edible tulip leaves, accompanied by a sweet syrup which I can’t quite describe. Overall the dessert is not as sweet as you would expect, but fresh and surprising. I’m not sure it’s something I would go out of my way to order – the matched cocktail, however, was one of the best I’ve ever had. Sweet, floral, complex, yet also refreshing.
The third dessert, Byron Bay Sunrise, is a tropical concoction of pressed apple cones with coconut and filled with finger lime balls, which basically explode in your mouth with tartness. It wasn’t until the second or third cone that I realised they actually unravel completely into a long, thin ribbon of apple, which is both incredibly impressive and also quite fun. Finally, after 4 hours of eating, drinking, and great conversation, the evening ends with a house made take on Fantales, wrapped instead in biographies of well known chefs.
Whilst the menu changes frequently, and you may not get the same dishes that I had, I can say the best thing about this dining experience is the clear effort that they make to take you on a journey. Every dish is explained in detail – not just ingredients but in some cases history and quirky anecdotes – and if you are nervous about certain foods they will hold your hand (metaphorically) and guide you as to what they think will still give you an eye-opening experience without making you too uncomfortable. As someone who has often feared degustations due to dietary preferences, this was really the stand out for me. It’s an expensive meal, and a long wait, but definitely something to tick off the bucket list, as well as a wonderful foray into the flavours of native ingredients.