Hungry Hinch

A Ripponlea Ripper

Top Chef Ben Shewry Photo Courtesy of: Herald Sun

 

The news came through and I summed up my reaction in less than 140 characters with this tweet:

Congrats to Kiwi Ben Shewry and Attica making top 50 best restaurants in the world. Another New Plymouth boy makes good.

The culinary Olympics news from London was that Shewry and his unique, almost modest,  noshhouse in Ripponlea had nabbed  No.21 position in the  World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards that are judged annually  by 900 food industry experts.

The only other Australian restaurant to make the Top 50 was Quay in Sydney which snuck it at No. 48  after being 29th the previous year. Although they call the list the World’s Best 50 they actually rate 100 eateries. The only other Australian restaurant to rate a mention was Sydney’s Momofuku Seiobo, the work of American chef David Chang. Two other Sydney restaurants were honoured last year -- Sydney’s Marque (61) and Tetsuya’s (76) but missed out this year.

It is a stunning, and well-deserved, success for  young Shewry and his team. And, I’m told, the place is now booked out until about September.

 I dined there, as a birthday treat, four years ago. It’s worth revisiting that review. Here’s what I said back in 2009:

‘The last place on earth I would want to have dinner is at Attica. The last time I was there, there were 43 dead bodies around the place which was a smouldering ruin and the joint was crawling with cops.

Before the brilliant chef at Attica takes a tumble into the truffle oil I should point out I am talking about a different Attica. The over-crowded prison in upstate New York where, during a riot, prisoners reportedly killed and mutilated other prisoners as well as prison staff.

 

It turned out all the victims and hostages were shot by trigger happy coppers who burst in to rescue them. Although I have been to prison in this country I hasten to add that at Attica I was a foreign correspondent. The only overseas journalist who managed to talk his way into the death house.

But I digress. Although Attica in Melbourne is also an unforgettable experience for a vastly different reason. My wife, Mrs. Nosebag, took me there for a surprise birthday present for a milestone birthday. My 65th. And it turned out to be probably the most memorable dining experience I have had in about ten years.  And that from a person who eats out three or four times a week.

That birthday was early February. I am writing this review a month later. The reason for the tardiness is that I know I will struggle for things to say that do the place justice. The dishes are of such complexity and such  myriad textures and tastes, such a mystery of ingredients, that I find myself trying to unravel a culinary Rubik’s Cube.

I don’t even know how to describe food style. Contemporary, I guess, to use a nothing word.

I’ve actually found out more about the place since dining there – which wasn’t hard because I’d never heard of it. And, on arrival, there are few clues about this foodies’ Aladdin’s Cave you are about to enter.

The façade is a fairly nondescript one in suburban Ripponlea.  (I don’t go that far for my holidays!). The courtyard, where we had a pre-dinner drink, was pretty barren and needed some artwork and some shrubs. Inside, the décor, like the menu, is minimalist.  But the food at Attica conquers all.

It’s a good thing the waiters are as well-versed as they are competent when you see menu items that simply say ‘the sea garden’ or ‘snow crab’ or the most popular and spectacular ‘smoked trout broth, crackling, basil seeds, fresh smoke’.

The sea garden has clams, prawns ‘sea flora’ (as in seaweed) sea urchin in a broth with a crest of foam. It brought my only mental complaint of the night. The beautiful heavy soup spoon was so deep and the bowl so rounded that it was physically impossible to scoop up the last vestiges of the precious broth.

 

The Hungry Hinch fresh bread test to signal a good restaurant is passed with flying colours with a plethora of crusty varieties that are so good you have to banish the bread basket.

Then imagine a vegetarian dish described as ‘farro from Mount Zero, sugar snaps, broccolini, pumpkin juice’. And ‘farro’ is not a misprint for a litter of pigs.

They do have pork on the menu though. Slow-cooked free range pork with red onion and apple and tiny pieces of in-house black pudding. For other meat and game eaters there’s wagyu beef and a spice-crusted lamb shoulder and pigeon.

Like with faro, you may scratch your head over shanklish and borage and mojama and quinoa but just ask the walking dictionaries and enjoy. It is not pretentious. And, as The Age Good Food Guide points out, you are not made to feel like ‘you should be kissing the chef’s napkin ring while sitting in some temple to gastronomy.’

Speaking of the Good Food Guide, the 2009 edition gave Attica 17/20, two hats and the Restaurant of the Year Award. It’s deserved. The owners must have given chef Ben Shewry his head. You know his dishes are labour intensive and time consuming with exotic expensive ingredients. And yet the entrées range from $21 to $26 and mains from $34 to $45.

I was shocked when I met the chef. Not only is he young and self-effacing but he only came to Australia from New Zealand six years ago. And he came from my hometown of New Plymouth.  A place where cooking skills were so unknown and fresh ingredients so bastardised and over-cooked that I reckon I didn’t know that cabbage was green and not grey until I left town.

A sweet-tooth’s postscript:  Leave room for dessert. I don’t know how they do it but somehow at Attica they make magic out of chocolate and ‘black salt’.

ATTICA Ripponlea, Melbourne 03 9530 0111 Attica.com.au

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