Melbourne is food obsessed. To walk down the streets of this city is to encounter lines of people waiting - for coffee, for ice cream, to get into all the hot restaurants that take no reservations. Chinatown is packed with people, and if you want to eat well, just get into the longest line you see. It will be good, because people here care, deeply, about what they eat.
But if you really want to understand what Melbourne is all about, there’s no better place to do it than Attica, the strange and wonderful restaurant that Ben Shewry runs. There’s not a restaurant like this anywhere in the world - and I doubt there’s another city which would offer it this amount of loving support.
Because this restaurant is set on redefining the entire relationship you have with restaurants. It is the Marcel Duchamp of restaurants, a place that demands that you do more than arrive expecting a pleasant experience, one that asks you to use your mind as well as your mouth. If all you’re looking for is pleasure, this is probably not the place for you. The food is wonderful, the wines impressive and the service could not be more appealing, but everything about this place is intended to stretch your thinking.
You enter. The dining room is dark, the table bare - a blank stage, spotlit, waiting for the actors to appear. The first thing you get will be a glass - but a glass so light, it is almost as if it does not exist, as if the wine itself is hovering in air. A statement.
Then comes the bread - made with an ingredient whose name meant nothing to me. “It tastes a bit like cocoa,” says the waitress, in her difficult to understand accent. Before the evening is over many beautiful people will have offered you food in a dozen different dialects. This seems deliberate, as if the chef is saying, “This is what Australia is. We are a nation of immigrants.”
There is butter, as yellow as a daffodil, and a lovely heap of salt. And there is a yogurt-like concoction, filled with dried saltbush, a fascinating herb totally new to me.
Now a little dish arrives filled with milk curd. A waiter appears, holding a long honeycomb and scoops some honey out. I frown. I loathe honey. I eat it anyway, discovering as I go that I’ve been wrong: this honey is not achingly sweet, but completely lovely. Am I bewitched? Is this honey special? Is it the moment? I’m not sure, but I happily scoop up every bite.
A procession of tiny tastes appears. A walnut holding a walnut puree and a silky fold of mushroom, delicate as a butterfly wing.
A little black dish, smooth against the palm, holding the tiniest carrots, each one lightly pickled, but tasting mostly of the earth.
An ear of corn, so tiny it would fit right into a doll’s house, the flavor so vivid I find myself eating the silk itself. I've been drinking an Australian Riesling (Zelo ‘Unico’ 2014 from Adelaide Hills), and as I finish the last drop it resonates gorgeously with the buttery softness of the corn.
Sommelier Banjo Plane pours out a new wine -Jauma Autumnal Sun 2011 - McLaren Vale, and I take a sip while contemplating the bright green leaf, the color glowing, that sits before me. I worry the leaf with a fork, and it falls away to reveal a heart of pure snow crab. The leaf is sour, the crab sweet. It is simplicity itself, but it takes my breath away.
Now there is a strange pink wine, slightly thick in color. More forceful than your ordinary charming rose, this Attica x Pyramid Valley ‘Pink Wine’ 2012 from Caterbury, New Zealand is exactly right with the latest dish, a version of steak tartare. These are ingredients I've never before encountered: kangaroo, pickled purple carrots, bunya bunya nuts, berries. The flavors leap across each other, each bite different than the next, and I find myself taking a bite, thinking about it, taking another. Pausing.
Shewry’s most famous dish is the potato, which he cooks in the earth in which it was grown. Mint. Herbs. But mostly the pure taste of potato, and a texture - somewhere between soft and dense - that defies the ordinary nature of a potato. Ceci n’est pas une pomme de terre. With it there is not wine, but "cleansing ale" from Tasmania, which underlines the unprentious simplicity of the potato.
The meal unfolds, dreamlike. Occasionally I watch small groups get up and disappear. Where are they going? And then it is my turn and I find myself outside, where the chef is waiting to show me not only the garden, but the composter as well. Ben opens it up:all the scraps and uneaten food have been transformed into something like loam. I put my hand into this new dirt, which smells faintly of mushrooms. It seems almost magic.
This modest New Zealander was raised in a wild part of the country. As we talk I find that Shewry is a man of amazing modesty, more comfortable talking about his staff and his dreams for them than he is talking about himself. He seems slightly stunned by his own success, determined to do good rather than make good.
Inside again, there is Moon Marsanne 2010 from Nagambie waiting at the table. A waitrees appears with a little package that looks like nothing so much as a piece of a tree. Inside this paperbark wrapping is whiting, topped with pearl meat. A marriage of forest and ocean. Pure. Clean. Utterly delicious.
The most dramatic presentation of the night is an entire red cabbage, its large ruffled leaves a deep purple. The dish, named 142 Days on Earth is an homage to the venerable vegetable. Inside, another mixture of meat, berries, seeds - all utterly unfamiliar to me - and I stretch (unsuccesfully) to identify the ingredients. The flavors ricochet around my mouth, tempered by the Sorrenberg Gamay 2013 from Beechworth. My apologies for the photo; by now it is after 1 a.m. and I am stunned with food, with wine, with the entire experience.
Now there is a small procession of desserts:
Gingered pears with ice cream, served with Maidenii. What's Maidenii? A local Vermouth, made with, among other things, hand picked wormwood, strawberry gum, river mint, sea parsley and wattleseed. Of course.
Finally this playful candy egg appeard. Filled with caramel. Served in a little grass nest. I love the eloquence of this ending: a nature note, a reminder of the garden, and a nod to childhood, when we all learn to eat.