74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea (map)
I'd been lucky enough to dine at Attica twice before - but never on a Tuesday night, when the regular degustation menu is replaced by the Chef's Table five course degustation of dishes that head chef Ben Shewry and his team are testing and developing. The experimental Chef's Table menu is cheaper than the regular degustation, at $95 per head (or $150 per head including matching wines).
I'd been meaning to go on a Tuesday for aeons, and one day late last year something snapped and I made an impulsive reservation for four people on the next available Tuesday night after my trip to Japan. I reasoned to myself (correctly) that I'd surely be able to muster up some dining companions by then who were as keen as I was.
We went along two weeks ago, on the 24th. All of us, bar our designated driver, selected the $150 option with matching wines. As we drank our aperitifs (I had a Lighthouse and tonic), dining companion Matt confessed to us that he had been DREAMING of the smooth, creamy olive oil emulsion served with bread at Attica.
I don't blame him. It's to die for.
The meal started with a course that wasn't listed on the menu: two plump Sea Bounty Blue mussels from Port Phillip Bay, sitting in a modest quantity of simple shitake, bonito and soy broth. Umami KAPOW.
"Leeks and green sauce" was all the menu said about the next course. It turned out to be tiny leek stems standing upright amongst dollops of outrageously fresh fromage blanc (that the kitchen staff had made just that afternoon) and a pesto-like combination of purslane, lovage and dandelion. The leek stems were topped with dabs of macadamia nut oil and sprinkled mountain pepper, and the dish was finished off with a few foraged purslane and lemon thyme leaves. Matched with the Sutton Grange 2009 Fiano, a Southern Italian varietal increasingly grown in Australia.
This course and the next one were my two favourites: intricately composed without feeling muddled, and showcasing really top-notch produce.
By way of introducing the next course, our waiter explained that Ben is playing with the idea of taking the iconic Snow Crab dish (recipe - in Spanish - on the Madrid Fusion website) off the regular menu, and this is one of his alternative ideas.
It starts with a generous scrape of labne, then a layer of bell horn pepper. Add smoked black sesame seeds, spiced hazelnuts, scooped pulps of black russian tomatoes, black cherry tomatoes and juicy shreds of snow crab. Top it with tiny basil leaves from ELEVEN different varieties of basil, and you have one very special dish.
Upon reading the dish description I'd been curious about how the acidity of the tomatoes and the strong basil flavours would work with the delicacy of the snow crab but to my surprise they married perfectly, underscored by the creaminess of the labne. Matching it with a glass of savoury La Goya Manzanilla was a great addition too. I'm practically drooling at the memory of it: I've had the regular Snow Crab dish at Attica twice before, but I'd swap it for this one in a heartbeat.
It was at this point in our meal that our table was invited to tour the kitchen garden. A private tour by Ben Shewry of Attica's kitchen garden? My dining companions and I, all food nerds, leapt at the opportunity and we were led through the tiny, orderly kitchen in the middle of service to the back garden (formerly the car park). Ben showed us around and chatted amiably with us about what he's growing, both in the planter boxes on-site and in the 300sq metre plot leased from the National Trust at the nearby historic Rippon Lea Estate.
At the former site it's mainly herbs, including TWELVE varieties of basil and a mushroom plant from Papua New Guinea whose leaves - bizarrely - really do taste like a button mushroom.
We returned to our table for our next course, and couldn't help but smile at the ballsy simplicity of the "Fried King George Whiting". No micro-tweezers required to assemble this dish! Just a fillet in potato and wheat starch, fried for a minute and 20 seconds at 200 degrees and served with a minimalist cheek of lemon. It came with a glass of the 2010 Sato Riesling 'Petillant Naturel', a fascinating natural wine made by a Japanese former investment banker turned winemaker in Central Otago. He adds no sulfur during the wine-making process until just before bottling, which stops oxidation but not the ferment - giving the finished product a slight fizz. We loved it.
The meat course was beef tongue that had been poached then hot smoked. It was served with a mirepoix, tomato, white wine and beef jus, little strips of dehyrated wagyu and a couple of bitter leaves. This course didn't resonate with me as much as the others did, though I loved the matching of Best's 2010 Dolcetto.
The dessert was described simply as "Lemon Honey", but turned out to be a whole lot more than that (much like Attica's long-departed, fondly-remembered "Terroir" dessert). The base was a lemon honey cream, covered with shards of blackcurrant meringue, fresh raspberries and a green ice that looked too light to be made from sorrel (and turned out to be made from lemon thyme and fennel). All this was hidden under a thin plasticky sheet of pumpkin, which had been compressed in honey syrup. And as if that wasn't enough, the pumpkin was covered by freeze dried braeburn apples, powdered and arranged in honeycomb-like formations.
A real treat of a dish: like the Terroir, you could play around with the different flavour combinations, textures and temperatures. Served with the stonkingly good Oakridge Late Harvest Viognier 2009, an ice wine Viognier made from overripe grapes that were frozen after harvest.
It almost goes without saying that the service from the front of house team was exemplary. We loved too that we were seated directly in front of the test kitchen, where we could see sheets of what appeared to be the compressed pumpkin being prepared. Many thanks in particular to Ben for taking the time to show us around the garden.
All in all, it was a sublime meal. I can't wait to go back again.