"This broth represents the single biggest task in the restaurant," says Ben Shewry. "It takes 10 people two-and-a-half hours to pick these herbs each day so that everything is at its peak." Each quantity of herbs is meticulously selected and placed in Perspex vials. This is why the food at Attica tastes the way it does in 2016, says Shewry: everything is prepared every day from scratch. "All the broths, all the sauces, all the harvesting. For me this is true luxury and the people who love this dish have my full respect."
It's not a difficult dish to love. The Aromatic Ripponlea Broth, as it's called, is a clean, thrillingly clear chicken consommé served with those 30 or so different hand-harvested herbs floating on the top. It's an exquisite, heartbreakingly pretty blend of delicacy and complexity.
The gardens at the historic Rippon Lea Estate, just down the road from Attica, are a wellspring of both inspiration and pleasure for Shewry, who grew up on a farm in the North Island of New Zealand. He took over the kitchens at Attica in 2005, transforming it over the years from a suburban Melbourne curiosity to an internationally celebrated magnet for destination diners, celebrated in the likes of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list and the Chef's Table TV series. It's currently the top-rated Victorian restaurant in the Gourmet Traveller restaurant guide, and looking at it now on the occasion of the magazine's 50th-anniversary celebration of Australian dining, it's clear that Attica's place in the firmament is supported by roots sunk deep in the earth.
Shewry is a chef who believes that kitchen life can only be prolonged by "spending time in the sun and getting your hands in the dirt". Almost every dish at Attica involves ingredients from either the gardens he and his kitchen team maintain or from the Estate's 19th-century collection of indigenous plants.
Leaves of sorrel, mustard, celtuce and broad bean are served with a soured Jersey cream and flavoured with an apple balsamic vinegar from Queensland. A beetroot distillation adds amazing colour to a pikelet made with wallaby blood. Bunya nuts, lilly pillies, Illawarra plum, macadamia and plum pines from Rippon Lea Estate appear from time to time, sometimes whole, sometimes as powders or distillations. It's a remarkable resource.
The dining room is minimally decorated and comfortably upholstered in dark shades. Most of the décor's effects are achieved via pools of light and shadow. At the beginning of the meal the tables are sparsely set with immaculately ironed linen and small feathered baskets woven by the women of Tjanpi Desert Weavers. No cutlery. No wineglasses. An empty stage, pre-show. The drama is dispensed by the kitchen, and it's done with exquisite care.
The interior dining space.
Perhaps the most intriguing and ambitious dish on the menu is a new concoction called An Imperfect History of Ripponlea as Told by Tarts. Each of the three two-bite tarts represents a group that has been part of the history of what is now Ripponlea, the suburb. The first pastry shell is filled with cream flavoured with ingredients that were indigenous to the area and could have been eaten by the local Bunurong people: native pepper leaves, riberries and blood lime. The second, the Sargood tart, is named after the man who built Rippon Lea Estate. It's filled with fresh cheese (Frederick Sargood had a dairy) and flavoured with rosemary from the Estate's garden. The third tart speaks of the suburb's large Jewish population. It's also a knockout. The pastry, made from matzo and schmaltz, is filled with salty minced chicken and topped with a chicken soup jelly that shimmers with flavour. It's the perfect size. You'll wish it was bigger.
Shewry wants his food to speak of place. It took him a while, though, he says, to reference Australian culture because he didn't understand it. Earlier tasting menus at Attica alluded to his New Zealand heritage (his "potato cooked in the earth it was grown" was the hangi distilled onto a dinner plate). But now that he has embraced Australia as home, Shewry is increasingly confident with the local, turning more and more to native ingredients.
The dessert trio titled An Imperfect History of Ripponlea as Told by Tarts.
So there are hand-dived scallops, indigenous to Port Phillip Bay and picked one at a time by hand from the seabed by the one company with a licence to harvest them. They're beautifully formed, small and lusciously textured, their subtle flavour enhanced by lemon myrtle butter. Then there's pearl meat from Broome, lightly poached and dressed with desert limes and sunrise lime oil and then layered with slivers of pala, also known as indigenous nutmeg.
Wattleseeds appear in the damper, part of another Shewry crusade. The seeds signal the endgame for the Attica bread course. Shewry has tried bread made from milled indigenous grains and seeds and wants the bread at Attica to be made exclusively with them. "Native grains," he says, "are the future of Australian bread."
The best of the new dishes illustrates most clearly how the Attica menu of the future is shaping up. There's a sense of play and humour at work but it's also one of the greatest dishes Attica's ever served, second only to the menu stalwart salted kangaroo meat with bunya bunya in terms of its flag-waving Aussieness.
Emu's Egg is served in an emu's eggshell set on a bed of native grasses. Inside is finely chopped emu meat cooked with potatoes, scrambled emu egg, dried emu yolk and pineapple sage leaves from the garden. There's a nice sense of Australiana that comes from the egg "bowl", but also from the dish's foundation: trad Aussie café-style meat-eggs-potato comfort.
The Emu's Egg, presented on a bed of native grasses.
The menu now brims with Vegemite (in the crust of a pie filled with saltbush and lamb) and homages to avocado on toast, pikelets, mint slices and Fantales ("Cheftales", chocolate and caramel lollies wrapped in waxed paper printed with "who am I?" information about chefs who Shewry admires). But there's no cringe here, cultural or otherwise.
After the signature between-course trip out to the backyard to discuss herbs with the chefs over a cup of tea and a snack (it's a little cheesy, but it works) there's desserts like Granny Smith apples, precision-cut into little stacked cones, teamed with a sauce of lightly fermented pineapple juice, anise myrtle oil and finger limes. Again, it's a combination of comforting and beautifully balanced complexity.
Granny Smith with a sauce of lightly fermented pineapple juice, anise myrtle oil and finger lime.
Wine matching is now more straightforward, maybe less theoretical than it's been in the past. There are still some lofty pours on offer, but the mix of interesting names and smaller labels in the local wine section (2006 Yarra Yarra Syrah Viognier, 2008 Crawford River Riesling, 2015 Brash Higgins "ZBO") really gets with the food agenda rather than competing with it for attention.
Attica seems more lively, less buttoned-up, and more fun than in the past. It has a capacity for 300 diners a week and every week 300 diners pay $250 each for Shewry's food, almost as much money as is charged by any restaurant in Australia. Most people wait months, sometimes more than a year, for a seat. Occasionally a table will cancel but the space is always quickly filled.
It's been more than a year since Shewry assumed ownership of the restaurant, buying out the previous owners. The change has energised him anew, broadening his perspective.
"It's cool to be the outright owner," he says. "It's amazing; it's been a lifelong dream to do this. One of the reasons to buy Attica was so that I could manifest all the different ways to make it better - and I'm really serious about making it better because I know that I'm in here for the long haul. One of the coolest things is how it's invigorated me. I feel like the restaurant is a year old again. Every day is super-exciting, in a different way."
Shewry tells me he and his wife, Natalia, have just bought a house around the corner. He's excited that his family will be moving from coastal Victoria on the other side of town and settling closer to Attica. He's warmed by the prospect of the Shewry clan becoming part of the group of people who have influenced the history of Ripponlea.