Cindy took me to Attica for my PhD completion five years ago for one of the most spectacular meals of my life. This year I was out of town for my birthday, and I was thrilled when she forwarded me a booking confirmation for a celebratory revisit. Attica continues to be Melbourne's most awarded restaurant, picking up three hats in the Good Food Guide every year and regularly making it onto "world's best" lists. With all the hype, it's bloody hard to get reservations, so a Friday night table for two was a pretty impressive reflection of Cindy's commitment.
The set menu is the only option at Attica these days, an eye-watering $260 a head for an extravaganza of fancy courses. They have a vegetarian menu as a standard option and will happily cater for vegans and other dietary requirements with a bit of warning. Dining at Attica is an incredible experience - there's a focus on Australian ingredients, meaning you get to taste things you don't often see at fine dining places (finger limes, wattle seed, saltbush, etc etc). There are so many dishes that it's difficult to keep track of everything we ate, but I'll try to give a quick rundown.
The meal starts off with a flurry of snack plates, designed to be eaten with your fingers - you've worked your way through about 10 different dishes before you even start with cutlery. Our meal kicked off with the cook's leaves, a mix of different greens including sorrel and broad bean with a dipping sauce of house-made sour cream and apple cider vinegar - a nice mix of creaminess and bitterness to get things underway.
Next up were a couple of slices of aged Santa Claus melon, with their sweetness offset by a beautiful sour dusting of dried Davidson plum powder.
This was followed by a couple of cute little baby onions stuffed with creamy house-made coconut yoghurt. The root were fried, crispy and delicious - there's a lot of impressive technique going on in the Attica kitchen, even for dishes that look as simple as this.
Speaking of simple, a couple of serves of 'smashed avo on toast' - these were fancied up with some micro-herbs and caviar-looking dots of finger lime.
Next up was a small plate of golden beetroot slices, hot smoked for nine hours to tender perfection.
The next dish was the first that came with a little story - this is An Imperfect History of Ripponlea, with each tart representing a community who have called the area home: the pink tart is filled with native pepper and fruits like lilly pilly to represent the Bunurong people, the green tart with broccoli, walnut cream and English tea represents the English and the yellow tart somehow nodding to the Jewish population of the area. My note-taking didn't keep up with the description given by the staff, and the standard option seems to be chicken, so I'm not sure exactly what the last one was, but I loved the varying tastes and textures across these three little bites.
The next dish was one of my favourites of the night - a vegemite, cheese and mushroom pie. It's a pretty simple dish, but they absolutely nail it, the faint hint of vegemite adding depth and novelty.
The snacks just kept coming - these little baby corns were grilled in paperbark and topped with a macadamia and tofu butter plus some native anise.
They were followed closely by these chewy carrots, cooked slowly on pepper leaf and served with a lovely avocado dip.
The last of our snacks was this concoction - the crispy skin of a Jerusalem artichoke, filled with mushroom shavings, washed rind cheese and lemon thyme.
It's only after you've worked your way through these ten snack-sized courses that you get to the bread - in this case a wonderful wattleseed damper, served with both house-churned butter and a macadamia and saltbush concoction. So good! It was quickly followed by the first of the 'proper' courses - an intriguing combination of smoked eggplant, native wattle seeds, waxflower and bunya nuts, which really highlighted chef Ben Shewry's enthusiasm for native ingredients and flavours.
I love the way high end restaurants focus obsessively on particular ingredients - Attica served up 'all parts of the pumpkin', which combined crispy pumpkin skin, sweet and sour pumpkin seeds, slow-cooked pumpkin flesh and a cream infused with pumpkin juice and Tasmanian ale. This is a lovely sweet and nutty combination of flavours.
Campfire potatoes seem to have replaced previous Attica favourite 'potato cooked in the earth it was grown in'. These are cooked with crispy saltbush and finger lime and slathered in a yeasty butter and aged cheese sauce.
After a couple of heartier dishes, we got something a bit fresher to finish off the savouries - winter peas, shallots and pepper berry ash squeezed between a couple of edible tulip leaves.
Once we finished our drinks one of the waitstaff invited us to take us on a walk out to the kitchen garden. This felt a little forced to us, with a bit of awkward small-talk about how the staff are like family - I'd have preferred a quick rundown of the garden. Luckily the awkwardness was broken by a serve of delicious little jam doughnuts served with gumbi gumbi tea.
We returned inside to work our way through the desserts, starting with creamy camel milk ice with dulce de leche, finger limes and native honey.
This was followed by a creamy whipped emu egg custard served with Daintree chocolate and quandong, served on a nest of native grasses.
By the end of the meal I was a bit overwhelmed by it all (the matched wines probably didn't help), so it was fantastic to end with something cute and simple like these Attica cheftales, Shewry's take on Fantales, complete with chef-related who-am-Is on the wrappers. A lovely way to wind things up.
Drinks-wise, I ordered the matched wines which, at $185 was probably wasted on me. Cindy took on the more interesting matched non-alcoholic selection ($85), getting to try fascinating drinks like carrot, pepperberry and mushroom juice and peppermint tea infused with rosellas and Davidson plums. We also had lovely gin and tonics to start with, and I finished with one of their filter coffees (which, to be honest, they should really throw in to the $260 set menu rather than charging an extra $5 for).
Eating at Attica is a heck of an experience - there are so many dishes, with so many interesting ingredients, flavours and techniques that it's hard to pick out a favourite (although I think the vegemite mushroom pie might sneak in). I had a wonderful time, but I couldn't quite shake the nagging feeling that this time didn't quite measure up to the heights of our previous trip, which remains probably my favourite ever high-end meal. The focus on native ingredients means things get a little bit repetitive - quandong, saltbush and finger limes appeared several times each - and some of the more performative parts didn't quite work for me. Service was slick and friendly without being totally relaxed, and the prices really are exorbitant - can any meal really be worth nearly $1000 for two people? If any meal ever is, it might be this one.
Read about our two earlier visits to Attica here and here. Since we were last there, there have been two vego reviews, both of which were positive - see Nouveau Potato and The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry.
The non-vego reviews are mostly positive - see raves at Gourmet Chick, The City Lane, Ministry of Gluttony, Go Chiso, notundelicious, kT eats the world, Memories of a Gourmand, Food, Eat, Repeat, Finding Resonance, kit & kafoodle, Queen of bad timing, The Escort and the Thief, Ferris Wheel Flights, For Food's Sake, The Epicurist, BLK's Food Blog, Sarah Cooks, Gastrology, Redheadeats, I'm Still Hungry, The Peckish Connoisseur, The Foodie World, A Girl Has to Eat, Mab vs Food, shiitake and stuff, Le Bon Vivant, Almost Always Ravenous, off the spork, The Epicurean of Southbank, Barley Blog, I'm So Hungree, let me feed you Melbourne, foodie mookie, whatimdrinkingatthetime and alifewortheating.
A few people didn't think Attica measured up to the price-tag - 15,000kms of Food, dining with simmybear, The Pursuit of Chubbyness, 1001 Dinners, 1001 Nights, A to Za'atar were disappointed, and Snow Crab Nebula were utterly scathing.
Accessibility: Attica has a couple of steps on entry. It's quite spacious inside. The toilets are up another couple of small steps, although once you get there they're pretty spacious. Lighting is low with spotlights centred on the tables. There's full table service.