Very humble, oh so wonderful, 3 Hats, and number 32 in The World’s Top 50 Restaurants – Attica, Melbourne, Australia. A well earned and deserved achievement for owner and Chef Ben Shewry and his entire team. A last minute call saying, “We have a table for 2 available, would you like to join as for dinner?” brings an overnight dash to Attica.
We have admired Ben Shewry from afar for some time. Watching reruns of the quiet, humble, “Chef’s Table” episode while patiently sitting on the Attica waiting list, daydreaming of the day we actually get enjoy what he put on the table.
It had been a long week and we were easing into a relaxing Friday night, the night before my loves birthday. I had planned a nice little local luncheon for the next day. But then everything got turned on its head. We got the call! There was a table for two available at Attica the following night. How amazing, a spot at Attica the best restaurant in the Australia on my loves birthday, a significant birthday at that!
“Love can we get ourselves to Melbourne tomorrow?” he asks me. It was suddenly action stations. I am immediately on the phone looking for someone to mind our furry and feathered family for the weekend. “Get us on a plane my darling and a place to stay, I’ll organise something for the pets!”.
I call my daughter “I need a favour honey can you mind Tyra Dog?” “ What? You are where?” She was in Melbourne (getting a tattoo I found out later!) …Now what? Ok my ex sister in law lives over the back fence, I wonder if she is home. “You won’t believe what has just happened, please please can you baby sit furry face?”. Yey the pets are sorted. My love has got plane tickets and a hotel. We are going to Attica!!! Happy birthday my love!
The next day we pack a little overnight bag for our hound Tyra, chicken dinner, pig’s ears, kangaroo straps, yes she is also a foodie! I pile her and her bed in the car and drive her around the block and drop her gratefully to her auntie who I know will absolutely spoil her. The chooks are safely tucked up in their smaller fox proof run with plenty of food and water. We pack our bags and head to the airport for our last minute Melbourne adventure.
I am feeling so excited, I so love spontaneity, living life just saying yes to what feels good. I feel empowered by my loves encouragement and support as I simply decide to be me. Today is another wonderful reminder of how fantastic freedom feels. How fitting that such a special opportunity presented itself on the birthday of the man who taught me spontaneity.
We check in to our hotel and dress for dinner. My love calls an Uber and as we close the hotel room door behind us, my excitement is written all over my face. Our lovely Uber driver chats to us on the drive. She asks when we arrived, how long are we in Melbourne? I love the nonchalant “oh we flew down for dinner!” that is my love’s response and the surprised “Wow really?” from our gorgeous young lady driver…. I love our life
Attica – A journey of exotic surprises and many delights.
We have arrived, Attica! Inside it is dark and moody, several small rooms in an old Edwardian building rather than one vast space. I feel like I am observing the whole experience from a distance. I think it’s a nervous safety mechanism. I am comforted by the monotone palette of greys and whites, it feels so elegant and speaks to me of the power of light and dark.
I paint often in black and white and shades of grey because of the purity, simplicity and clarity of it. It can also be a scary choice, there is nowhere to hide in simple light and darkness.
Powerful black and white landscape photography on the walls reminds us that Ben Shewry is passionately connected to nature. Within the darkness, simply dressed tables are the only thing lit. Pools of light mysteriously illuminate the white square of crisp white linen without you quite knowing where the light is coming from. Before we are even seated it is obvious that the table is clearly intended to be centre stage. Our table is in a little room at the front of the restaurant but away from the first room and bar it feels like a perfect quiet spot. Sitting in the darkness it feels very intimate despite tables being quite close together in the small room.
There is no vase of flowers or candle, on our table we have a small woven basket filled with quandong kernels and decorated beautifully with fine emu feathers. These baskets were lovingly woven by the incredible women of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers .
Another wonderful reminder of what is to come. Ben Shewry is known for his fascination with native local ingredients, inspired by growing up in very remote New Zealand and now exploring what Australia has to offer. He forages regularly looking for interesting edible things wherever they are from within the cityscape to the seashore. I can’t wait to see what he has found this week.
Tonight we are completely in Ben Shewry’s hands. I just love the feeling of surrender and the expectation of surprise with an unknown menu. It’s like taking a new lover, having the courage to give into desire, finding a way to trust and letting go enough to really feel the pleasure. In my mind I see my arms open wide and my face lifted to the sky above, ready to receive.
I can’t quite explain the feeling of actually being here, it’s pinch myself stuff, I’m filled with such nervous anticipation. We start with our favourite aperitif, Martini of course and toast to my loves birthday! And then a plate breaks the trance of imagination and reality takes over as appetizers begin to roll out, one after the other after the other, after the other and at a good steady pace.
4 freshly picked crispy leaves from the kitchen gardens at Rippon Lea for us to scoop up house made sour cream drizzled with a sweet vinegar. Sounds simple right? But what a opening statement. It just screams fresh! Freshness of ingredients is so important.
Slices of delicious melon that I have never heard of, sprinkled with a davidson plum powder. I can’t figure out what the ageing process might be. The melon is just lovely, it’s a refreshing honeydew sort of flavour, firm dense flesh and the liberally sprinkled Davidson plum powder sharply contrasts with the sweetness of the melon.
Two pretty scallop shells on a bed of pebbles inside a beautiful timber bowl evokes the ocean bed. Opening the shell releases the most exquisite calming citrus aroma. Creamy lemon and lime explodes as we slurp the sweet scallops and their pool of lemon myrtle butter straight of the shell.
Now you don’t have to be a hipster to love avo on toast but this is next level. Beautiful creamy avocado glistening with little beads of finger lime that add a vibrant effervescent zing as they pop in my mouth making me giggle. I haven’t had finger lime before. I am very excited to find out that you can store these little delights in the freezer with no ill effects and just squeeze the little beads out when you need some.
A little mound of soft freshly made cheese (made every week in house) arrives on an earthy grey little pottery plate. It is then decadently adorned with thick golden honeycomb scooped from a fresh honeycomb frame right at the table. Childhood memories of sucking fresh honeycomb and chewing the beeswax into a ball flood back, leading me to taste this magical combination with the innocent wonder of a child.
Thin tender slices of moist, deeply flavored pork neck – smoky blackened edges, sweet pink centre dusted with mountain pepper. This wonderfully juicy meat is somehow light and decadent at the same time.
This dish comes with little pikelets sitting on a floury cookbook and a kangaroo embellished teatowel. Ben has again taken me back to my childhood, to my grandmother’s kitchen where I had a little book where I would write down the recipes my grandmother would teach me, pikelets being one of the first. When I open this cookbook and find the handwritten pikelet recipe I soon realise this is just a bit different.
This recipe calls for Wallaby “juice” and warns against using roadkill! Suddenly feeling comforted has moved to feeling confronted.
The tiny pancakes are topped with a sour davidson plum jam and beer cream to create that authentic look. I take a deep breath and pop one of the bloody things into my mouth…….mmmmm rather beautiful, earthy savouriness and a tender pikelety texture. I’m much quicker grabbing the second one.
A glass chicken is placed before us. Its lid is removed to reveal a paper thin slice of carrot curled around a roll of fresh green herbs, sorrel and tarragon; kale and richly flavoured finely diced chicken. I could eat these by the dozen – so light and fresh but packing a real flavour punch.
Genius! Vegemite pastry! The savoury salty crispy puffs of these little morsels give way to reveal rich gelatinous lamb that melts like velvet.
What a fun plate, a stem of seaweed resembling an ocean flower, the “bloom” a crispy little bite that hides a sweet juicy mussel. A mussel shell on the side is painted with a fantastic portrait of old mate Lance Wiffen himself, Ben Shewry’s Mussel Farmer, a man who Shewry credits as a saviour.
The most exquisite tender layers of beef gathered together on the end of strangely beautiful skewers fashioned from elemental shards of bone. I feel all gourmet cave man!
A delicate chicken consume refined to perfection and perfumed with 26 different herbs and flowers from the garden at Rippon Lea. Such a clever dish – the size of the spoon perfectly considered to ensure each spoonful of the broth was highlighted by a different selection of herbs. And so very pretty. I close my eyes and imagine wandering through the Rippon Lea Garden collecting pretty goodies. It makes me want to renovate my garden immediately.
So a dozen dishes in and apparently that is only the appetisers! It feels like an amazing achievement to have gotten this far and yet it is only the beginning.
Now a bread course can often be a bit of break in the menu, a palate break, simple neutral flavours, a time to nibble absentmindedly while chatting about dishes past. That is what is in my mind when our Wattleseed bread is set before us. I should have known better, nothing that Ben Shewry does is ordinary and this bread course is a dish in itself. The aromatic coffee and chocolate hints of the wattle seed, make this bread extraordinary. Dragging a chunk through a bowl of creamy macadamia topped with crispy smoked salt saltbush lifts it to the spectacular.
This plate is fascinating, visually it evokes dessert. A beautifully deep strawberry red mound sits on an earthy pottery plate. Discs of purple carrot hide the next layer of pink rich kangaroo tartare. Scooping up a forkful I find the puree of Bunya Bunya. This nut from a coniferous native pine is exceptional. It’s hard to describe the flavour as it is quite unique. Think chestnut but somehow fresher! Together these flavours make it something I have never experienced before.
This dish is just one example that speaks to Ben Shewry’s deep commitment to respecting an ingredient and to exploring every edible thing mother nature provides. Pumpkin a simple veg, some old school cooks would even say its stock feed not for humans to eat. Here Ben has used every bit of the pumpkin – a slice of 12 hour slow roasted flesh is sweet with deeply developed flavours, the seeds have been roasted crispy and nutty the finishing touch a decadent pumpkin cream. Yep all parts of the pumpkin!
I love the vibrant orangey red of the WA Marron such a happy colour. Marron is one of my favourites, firm and subtly sweet this one is cooked to perfection. The pearl meat adds another wonderful dimension with its contrasting texture and flavour. Lillypilly is quite a surprising accompaniment, I usually think jam when I think about it but here is refreshing a subtle sort of flavour, maybe nashi pearish? A unique and delightful plate!
This plate is just gorgeous. The jumbuck is rich and gelatinous and just melts in my mouth. Fragrant citrus hints from the waxflower oil balance the richness of the meat and desert oak seeds bring little pops that remind me of crackling on pork.
What a wonderful collection of main dishes and now a perfect place in the menu for a little break. Our waitress asks us to follow her. Hang on a minute it can’t be over yet surely? No, she is taking us to see the garden, fantastic!
At the rear of the restaurant there is a fabulous little garden with raised beds full of herbs and veggies, it’s as pretty as a picture. And here under the stars, surrounded by leafy goodness we are served our next course. Cuppa Tea and mint slice in the Garden it is a beautiful relaxing moment and ingeniously puts just enough space in the evening for us to be ready for the last stage. We return to our table energised and ready for more.
Delicate long ribbons of granny smith apple are beautifully wrapped around a creamy curd centre and served in a pretty golden fermented pineapple juice broth. It sparkles with little droplets of Anise Myrtle oil and glossy beads of finger lime. It is so fragrant and the explosion in my mouth as the flavours combine and the finger lime bubbles burst through the pineapple, takes me straight back to memories of eating pine lime splice icecreams. I am filled with happiness and childish fun!
Our final dessert – Whipped Emu Egg with Sugar Bag – it looks very beautiful, a deep green emu egg sits in a grassy nest as though it has just now been whisked from beneath its mother. The egg is filled with a beautifully fluffy zabaglione textured whipped egg and as I scoop a spoonful of it I discover a rich chocolate delight hiding below it. It is at once simple and rich, an exquisite dish.
And then a little wooden box is placed before us. We take the lid off to reveal a very Aussie take on the Petit fours – Cheftales! Ben Shewry’s version on my childhood favourite lolly – Fantales. Only his have wonderful stories of different chefs for us to figure out. And unsurprisingly, while his remind me of the chewy tooth sticking chocolate covered caramels….they are so,so much better!
This has been a most magical experience and a very very special evening. We have tasted such an array of unique Australian flavours, finger lime, bunya bunya nuts, wattleseed, lillypilly, waxflower, mountain pepper, desertoak seed, lemon myrtle. Explored so much of Australia’s rich and diverse produce; Marron, scallops, mussels, wallaby, kangaroo. Ben Shewry has done so much more than present the best of Australia’s flavours. He references place and he has moved me through time, grounding me in childhood memories, making the new and exotic, somehow comforting and familiar.
As a lover of food and travel I have always wondered what it means to be an Australian. Other countries have seemed to me to have a clear identity a culture a cuisine. I have always felt a little lost in that way and it is a lonely feeling not having a clear sense of cultural identity. Ben has somehow connected me tonight to being Australian. For the first time I feel like there is something special and unique about being Australian and I think this is the closest i have felt to what might actually be an Australian cuisine.
You know I have just realised how often I have called Ben Ben, not Chef Shewry, it’s because he has made me feel like part of the family not a patron at his establishment. He has put so much of himself on the plate that he now feels familiar.
I leave tonight with old memories bubbling away – making pikelets with my grandmother, sitting on her back step with a tea towel tucked in my Tshirt, licking the frosty pine lime coating off my splice ice cream and car trips with my Pa (the lolly master) trying to sing “there’s a hole in the bucket dear Liza dear Liza” while my teeth are stuck together with caramel fantales.
I am also filled to the brim with new memories that I know will be equally unforgettable. One of the most special new memories being celebrating my love’s very special big birthday in such a magical way. Happy birthday my darling! Thank you Ben!