Monday, May 26, 2008

May 24, 2008: Attica

With my birthday fast approaching, Cindy and I sat down for our now bi-annual hunt for a fancyish place with an interesting vego menu to splash out on. Cindy recalled dmargster's recommendation, which had been followed up by raves in The Age, Tomato, Melbourne Foodie and Eating With Jack and rumours of a vegetarian degustation menu, all of which meant that Attica was the venue of choice this May.

While we were forced to cross the river for our fancy feast this time, Attica is conveniently located about 100m from Ripponlea train station, which made getting there relatively easy. The room itself is dark, inviting and sleekly designed. Thankfully, the design isn't just about aesthetics - there's plenty of space and some strategically hung heavy curtains that help the restaurant from being swamped by noise. We had a nice back corner table, and settled straight into our pre-pre-meal bread with exotic accompaniments: smoked almonds, fried brussel sprout pieces and a fromage blanc spread with olive oil and chives. And butter of course.

It's a good sign for the meal ahead when the bread comes out with imaginative and interesting bits and pieces - the crispy brussel sprouts were particularly impressive.

Next up was the pre-meal treat (this seems to be standard practice at fancy degustation places - I don't really get why they don't just include it as part of the menu, but I guess it feels more like a treat when it's 'free'): a twice blanched potato crisp topped with avocado puree and a sliver of compressed pear that had been soaked in dry sherry. The textures and flavours of this little morsel made me wish it was more than bite-sized.

Finally it was time for the meal proper to begin, with both of us lined up for the 8 course vegetarian degustation option (I think Saturday is degustation night), and just me braving the matching wines (I'll be up front now: I'm not a wine expert at all - I enjoyed all of the drinks I was served, but feel utterly incapable of offering any deeper commentary that that).

Course number one (or three, depending on how you count things) was an astonishingly creamy slow-poached egg, served with grated horseradish, crudites and fromage blanc. The contrast between the crispy vegie bites and the creaminess of the egg and fromage blanc was exquisite, and the grated horseradish added a subtle flavour. I think Cindy's problems with eggs probably held her enjoyment back a little here, but I was hugely impressed.

Next up was a multi-mushroom plate: about five different types of gently cooked mushrooms, with some chestnut slivers and a slightly baffling canestrato cheese foam. How do you make a cheese foam? Craziness. The mushrooms had a variety of textures and tastes, and the cheesy foam added a nice contrasting flavour.

The next dish was the only remaining hint of the Thai inspiration in Attica's past - a coconut and galangal soup, poured at the table over sweet corn and garlic. The broth had a wonderful, deep flavour - vaguely reminiscent of our recent Thai broth efforts, but superior in every way. The crunchy corn and garlic provided the texture (and proved quite difficult to scrape out of the bottom of the stylish, but slightly awkward bowls). Outside of the desserts, this was the star of the show.

The obligatory tofu dish was next in line: silken tofu on eggplant puree, with a walnut sauce and some salsa verde. The salsa was the strongest flavour, its tang outshining the smoky eggplant mush. The tofu (as it often is) was really just there to provide a texture to go along with the stronger flavours of its accompaniments.

The next dish had caught my eye on the menu and I had high hopes indeed: smoked beets with jerusalem artichoke custard and apple-glazed shallots. All these ingredients have been hidden by the fancy rye crisps on top. The shallots were sweet and tender, cooked to within an inch of the point where they just fall apart. The artichoke custard was a little too subtle for my palate, but the smoked beets lived up to my expectations.

Our final savoury meal was an autumn vegetable garden with horseradish and hazelnuts. The vegies (lightly charred cauliflower, tender brussel sprouts and some greens) were beautifully cooked, and came out on a rich pumpkin paste, with a sprinkling of nuts. There was also the delicious purply crumbled bits, which we're guessing was some sort of hazelnut and horseradish paste. It was tasty anyway.

On to dessert! First up was the Terroir (which loosely translates as 'sense of place' apparently) - we'd ceased taking notes at this point, and this was laden with ingredients, so I can only give a vague description: there was a lime flavoured jelly and some sorbet hidden under the top layer, which was largely made up of crumbled beetroot cake (I wonder where they get their ideas), sorrel, pepper and some cute little purple flowers. It was full of complex flavours, with the tangy lime jelly distracting us while the other ingredients snuck up on our palates. I wish I could remember more about what was in this - it was truly outstanding.

The final listed dish was this dessert, described as sauternes custard with apple bits and pieces. The apple bits and pieces included some slightly dry little apple crunches embedded in a layer of toffee on top, some custard apple sorbet and some tender apple bites throughout. It's rare for Cindy to be so impressed with non-chocolatey desserts, but this was at least the equal of the terroir - an amazing variety of textures and a wonderful mix of apple-themed flavours.

I was really quite full by this point, so I was glad when the final treats were these tiny rhubarb jubes - a nice light flavour to finish things off. Attica really do put on quite a meal - the dishes combine unexpected flavours and textures without trying too hard to be experimental, meaning there were no real misses across the 8 (or 11) dishes. The savoury dishes were all excellent, although there was a little sameness in styles across them (excluding the broth and the tofu) - I think that's a risk of the vegetarian degustation. The desserts were the real stars - two outstanding, imaginative and refreshing treats. The whole meal was beautifully paced, the service was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable and the food was wonderful. It probably falls a little short of the gold standard but it's still highly, highly recommended.

Address: 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea
Ph: 9530 0111
Price: Degustation menu $110, $185 with matching wines


  1. Thanks for the great review and lovely photos, Mike. From what you say it looks like Three, One, Two has some serious competition for the title of "Restaurant with Best Veg Deg". But now I have a hard decision to make. There's a special occasion approaching and I want to take the family out for a fancy dinner. Attica or Press Club? Your thoughts please.

    P.S. Some observations on my 3, 1, 2 experience:
    - Glad I wasn't paying; the total bill for two was $383!
    - Had a brush with fame - I got to meet and chat with Andrew McConnell
    - Should not have ordered matching wines with the dishes. Not only did I not like the wines but there was simply too much to drink
    - Was seriously unimpressed that one of the dishes - a soup - featured jelly cubes that had been set with - you guessed it - gelatine. This in a VEGETARIAN degustation. I'm still unsure of whether this was a (careless) oversight by the kitchen staff or if they thought customers would not notice
    Otherwise a very pleasant evening was had.

    P.P.S. My tip for where else to go for a great veg tasting menu:

  2. Hi dmargster! Michael's not around at the moment but did see your comment before he took off. :-)

    When we went to the Press Club last year, we only had the set lunch and so have yet to experience the more innovative dinner menu. It's quite difficult, then, to pick between it and Attica.... though I'd probably lean toward the Press Club, since George puts such an emphasis on food and family!

    You got served gelatine at 3, 1, 2? That's really disappointing - I hope meeting Andrew McConnell made up for it. We had beetroot jelly there when we visited and I thought it was set with agar, though my memory can hardly be trusted after all this time. Michael always pressures me to order the matching wines but I likewise just don't have the capacity for it! I still want my stomach and wits available for dessert. :-D

    The Royal Mail Hotel looks lovely - wish I'd forked out for it instead of that ordinary pub dinner last summer. :-/

  3. this looks amazing - love hearing about the bravery and vision in cooking in your fancy meals out! guess I really need to go out there and try it myself when I feel wealthy (just saw dmargster's price)

  4. Johanna, I think the price is a good moderator! (Food without drinks tends to be $90-130 per person.) Visiting such places only occasionally maintains my sense of wonder. :-)