I’m often perplexed when people are not enthusiastic about food. Of course we need food to live, but it pains me to hear someone say, “it’s just food”. Yes we need to put something in our bellies for nourishment. Yes it is essential for our survival. So why not embrace the beauty of food in the many different forms it comes in?
That is the issue with fine dining restaurants. It alienates people. There’s an aura of pretentiousness, luxury and elitism attached to fine dining. And most importantly for the average punter, it is too damn expensive. Who wants to shell out 200 bucks for an eight-course degustation laced with wankery such as truffle foam and cauliflower puree? Perhaps this is why so many fine diners have closed in Sydney in the past year.
However, there seems to be life in fine dining. Attica in surburban Melbourne is really pushing the boundaries of anything we have ever seen in Australia before. Is it a fine dining restaurant? Yes and no. Yes, because the food is exquisite and calculated, and as cliche as it seems, the customer will get art on a plate. No, because you do not have to wear a tuxedo and cocktail dress to dinner.
We arrive for dinner on a Tuesday, which means we are going to have the Chef’s Table menu ($95) – a five-course meal including dishes head chef Ben Shewry is developing with his team. Our trip is indicative of how far Attica has come. Diners travel there from all over the world just to eat, which is three Michelin star territory.
The dining room is minimal and sleek. It’s fairly dark but bright, white lamps acting as spotlights onto the tables, as if to say it is the stage with the food being the entertainment.
The waiter brings us the house-baked bread, butter and macadamia cream to dip. The bread is wrapped in paperbark, which takes me back to primary school where all the kids would play with it in the playground. I could eat it loaf after loaf after loaf.
The chilled leeks and peas is first course to arrive. The colours on the plate are gorgeous. Perfectly sliced leeks with pea puree dotted around them. It’s simple and so refreshing.
The grilled octopus with sour corn and spicy flowers is just as beautifully presented. The octopus retains its soft form without turning to rubber and the sour corn is a perfect complement.
Shewry’s creativity is eccentuated in the campfire potato dish. I am genuinely confused when the waiter sets it down on the table. Are they serving me a rock? How do I eat this thing? My questions are answered when the waiter lifts the lid of the rock, revealing a delicate potato again wrapped in paperbark. We are told it is cooked in the ground and it certainly isn’t your normal spud.
While the food keeps coming we see Shewry walking around the dining room, talking to customers. We spot him ducking outside to greet who we assume to be a good friend and later we find out it is none other than Rene Redzepi, chef and owner of one of the world’s best restaurants Noma in Denmark.
The fried pork and silverbeet was the dish least resembling any fine dining offering. It was beautifully fried pork coated in spicy goodness and combined with perfectly wilted silverbeet.
I loved the pukeko’s eggs to finish. Chocolate eggs filled with caramel, they are made to resemble the pukeko bird’s egg, an animal which is very common in New Zealand.
Go to Attica. Go there with an open mind and tell me what you think. Has your opinion on food changed? Ben Shewry and his team are doing magical things there. It’s not “just food”. It’s inspired cooking and intertwining elements of emotion in its execution.
You’re not just “eating” food. You’re consuming an element of Shewry’s past and present, including all of his ideas and thoughts presented on a plate. I’m so glad we poached Shewry from our Kiwi brothers.