attica: heartfelt and thought-through

So! This is going to be a food review. Which is not something I will do very often, or possibly ever again, but most of my foodie friends are in the UK and I miss them and I wish we could take them to this restaurant, so this is a sort of long-distance dinner.

Last Thursday, J. and I celebrated our ninth anniversary* by having dinner at Attica, which we last went to in 2009. Since then it has (FINALLY) got three hats (the top rating) in the Age Good Food Guide, and shown up 53rd in the San Pellegrino Top 100 Restaurants list (the second-highest ranked restaurant in Australia). It is also pretty much my favourite restaurant in the world. We had the eight-course vegetarian tasting menu, and (SPOILER): it was gorgeous.

[I have put this under a fold now!]

First of all: bread.

(Sorry, I forgot to rotate the photo before I uploaded it.) Rye sourdough, with rich yellow Jersey-style butter – unsalted, with pink salt on the side – and also with smoked emulsified olive oil with black salt on top (that’s the other little dish in the photo). Absolutely beautiful bread, elastic and chewy with a fantastic crunch. J. fell in love with the olive oil (so good!), but I alternated it with the butter (so classic!).

Then! Our first pre-starter. It came to us looking like this:

Walnut shells

and when we opened it up we found this:

Walnut puree, with snow peas (and tiny flowers). As so often, the pre-starters were one of my favourite things – I suppose it makes sense to showcase your style at the very start, it’s sort of a little advert or mnemonic for the whole meal? Anyway, this was just beautiful: the peas were incredibly fresh and crunchy, and the walnut puree was subtle but rich, and did you see how they are in little walnut shells? With little flowers?

The second starter was

flash-fried shiitake mushrooms in … some special kind of crumb, which I didn’t write down, with a mushroom leaf on top. (This is one of those things that some people can taste and some people can’t, apparently: J says the leaf tasted of mushroom, but to me it was just a pleasant sort of, well, leafy taste). This was completely different from the first pre-starter, but just as good: intensely mushroomy, amazingly crisp, salty and good.

And then on to the actual eight courses of the menu! (Captions will be what the menu actually reads, then descriptions under the photos.)

First starter: Textured Cauliflower with Horseradish.

We had this last time we were here and it was one of my most vivid memories from three years ago. And it was even better than I remembered. Apparently there is cauliflower in here somewhere, but I didn’t recognize it, which is good because I abhor cauliflower. Anyway, also in there is: grated apple; goji berries; dehydrated coconut; verjuice ice; and puffed rice. And then over the top is horseradish ‘snow’. It is in the shape of a volcano in New Zealand (the chef, Ben Shewry, is from NZ), and it’s an amazing montage of flavours and textures and temperatures. The verjuice ice is sharp and cold, and the powdered horseradish melts on your tongue.

Starter 2: Leek, Lovage, Mustard Oil

Steamed baby leeks with lovage puree and little mouthfuls of mozzarella. The lovage is a very up-front taste, but it fades very fast and then the full sweetness and freshness of the leek comes through it, and the mozzarella holds it all together. This was so good.

Middle course 1: A simple dish of Potato cooked in the earth it was grown

We had this before when we were here, but I don’t remember the little pool the potato is sitting in now: it’s smoked goat’s curd with coffee and coconut husk ash, garnished with flash-fried salt bush leaves. The tastes of the goat’s curd and bush leaves were amazing, strong but complementary and really well-balanced, but I wasn’t sure about how it went with the immense simplicity of The Potato (which was also gorgeous, but subtle – I mean, it’s a potato). Having said that, after I finished the dish I was left with the taste of potato in my mouth, thinking ‘Wow, usually I don’t think potatoes taste of anything but they really, really do and they are delicious’, so possibly it needs the goat’s curd/bush leaves to bring it out by contrast? In my memory, the 2009 version of this dish was literally just a potato, but I suspect I may be wrong there.

Middle dish 2: Tomato, Smoked Sesame, Eleven Basils

Oh, God, this might have been the best course. That’s a long strip of compressed (?) capsicum, and then sitting on it are skinned Black Russian cherry tomatoes, and then just the inside seedy bits of other tomatoes. And little dollops of smoked black sesame seeds. And tiny tiny basil leaves from Attica’s garden. And hazelnuts roasted in spice. And goat’s curd. So there’s a sort of classic Italian basil/tomato/mozzarella salad in there, with a nice Italian pepper, but then hazelnuts and sesame seeds too. Which is sort of typical of Attica’s style, I think – Heston Blumenthal (who’s sort of our default comparison because we watch his TV programme and also we ate at the Fat Duck this year) would have had to be a bit more conceptual or wittier about doing a ‘take’ on the classic salad, and I’m not sure the hazelnut and sesame would have got in there – they’re just there, I would guess, because Ben Shewry (Attica’s chef) thought they would taste good. AND THEY REALLY DO. So in this way, the food here really reminds me of one of my other favourite restaurants, Cafe Maitreya in Bristol (voted the best vegetarian restaurant in the UK several times). The thing with Cafe Maitreya is – well, the food is really fresh and often foraged, which they have in common with Attica, but also, they don’t have a typical ‘shape’ to their dishes (often vegetarian restaurants do either variations on a meat-and-two-veg-style shape, or serve nothing but stew-type shapes). It seems as though Cafe M come up with their dishes by thinking through which ingredients will work together, and designing a whole dish around that. Whereas Heston Blumenthal either tries to do a version of an existing dish, or thinks scientifically in terms of flavour combinations, almost isolated from the actual ingredients themselves. So I think it was around this point in the meal that we decided that Attica is like a combination of the very sincere, ingredient-based, fresh, vegetarian style of Cafe Maitreya with the advanced techniques of Heston Blumenthal (there were all kinds of things we were eating that you couldn’t do with just your basic ‘chop, saute, roast, serve’, home-style techniques/equipment). Hence, basically, our perfect restaurant. (I said this to our incredibly lovely waitperson at the end of the meal and she said yes, she thought the style was ‘heartfelt’ and ‘very well thought-through’, which is exactly right. In fact I’m going to go and make that my title!)

First main: Kumara, Purslane, Pyengana

Kumara is a Maori word for sweet potato, so that is a slab of sweet potato roasted in a salt crust. It’s on a bed of almond-and-garlic bits (technical language deserting me as the meal moves on: in a minute I’m going to stop remembering to take photographs, too) with a warm egg yolk and broccolini buds, and then it’s sauced at the table with a Pyengana cheddar sauce. It’s incredibly, incredibly rich and so delicious – okay, maybe this one was my favourite dish. So many strong flavours, but not competing at all.

Sadly, it filled me up so much that I could only manage a couple of mouthfuls of the second main (this always happens to me on tasting menus: I used to think it was because most meat-based restaurants worry that they can’t possibly be feeding the vegetarians enough and therefore overdo it on the vegetarian mains, but these mains were tiny and it still happened, so it must just be me. I get a bit emotionally overwhelmed at about this point, also.) And I forgot to take a photo of it! Sorry!

Second main: Mushrooms, Mulled Wine, Pearl Onions

[No photo, but you can see a picture of the meat version of this dish in this review, which also has better photos of the cauliflower and potato dishes. It shows the cos lettuce stems & onion slices really well.]

Portobello mushrooms heaped with red grains made of mulled wine and blackberries somehow, with chervil and dill on top, and a little pool of parsnip puree nearby. Then long spear-type things of pickled cos lettuce and halved salad onions. So pretty, and so delicious, and I really appreciated the sharp/vinegary tastes after the richness of the previous main.

And then! Dessert! I forgot to take a photo of the first dessert again: it was also beautiful, and worked as a palate-cleanser, too, instead of there being a pre-dessert. So it was sweet but also savoury-ish. The menu lists it as ‘Raisins, Whey, Hazelnut’, but what it was was beautiful green grapes and pale brown half-raisined grapes (from their garden again, I think), with sheep’s-milk whey and cubes of pale/translucent hazelnut puree, and yarrow. Anyway, it woke me up enough to remember to take a photo of the next and final course:

Dessert 2: Native Fruits of Australia

From the top: quandong; lemon aspen; candied rosella petals; muntree; bush currants; desert limes. Sitting on honey custard & bush currant ice, with a little circle of sheep’s-milk yoghurt flavoured with eucalyptus.

So many different tastes, none of which I had ever tasted before (native Australian fruits are not something you see all over the place here); sharp and tart, balanced by the subtle sweetness of the yoghurt and the custard and the ice. Just beautiful. And it was really nice not to end the meal with a chocolate-based desert, which almost every fancy place I’ve ever been to has done – they’ve often been brilliant, but chocolate never really feels very subtle, so it’s sort of like being hit with this rich, obvious, sweetness after a very thoughtfully balanced menu. A few little chocolates with coffee is a different matter, as is:

Post-desert: ‘pukeko eggs’

Little white chocolate eggs! Filled with salted caramel! Butterscotchy! In a nest!

We had them with mint tea, then rolled satiatedly home THE END.

So, in conclusion, all the good things they say about Attica and Ben Shewry are true, and one day we will take U & M there in return for the many beautiful evenings at Midsummer House and Alimentum, and it will be great.


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One Response to attica: heartfelt and thought-through

  1. nix says:

    sounds amazing! wish i was there with you!

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