The Sublime Trailblazer in the Suburbs
Claim to fame: The standard-bearer for haute Australasian
Reason to go: A complex marriage of influences – geographical, historic, emotional – bound together in dishes that are simply delicious
To look out for: A quietly revolutionary approach to sustainability
It’s the year 2005. Attica takes on a new head chef, a 28-year-old guy from rural New Zealand called Ben Shewry. He’s had a little experience in some serious kitchens, but nothing earthshattering, and it’s his first time really running the show. Entrées cost $17, main courses are $25. The high street of the deeply suburban neighborhood of Ripponlea is known for its bagel shops and its post office, and that’s about it.
The food is eclectic: here’s a confit shoulder of lamb, shredded and crusted with Middle Eastern spices, and a plate of peas, artichokes, labne and oloroso dressing, but over there (courtesy of the chef having spent time with David Thompson at Nahm in London), is a wedge of watermelon topped like ma hor with fried shallot, prawn floss, chilli and sugar. It’s a suburban restaurant, but it punches above its weight.
Fast-forward slightly more than a decade and there’s still not that much going on along Glen Eira. Not much except for the little (or currently not so little) eatery that is now widely recognized as one of the world’s best. Attica has just emerged from a thorough refit, gleaming with Mid-Century furniture, some of it from cult Australian designer Grant Featherston. Ben Shewry is now the owner of the restaurant, and stands here today having gone public about his battles with depression and the trials of owning a celebrated eatery, and coming out the other side the better for it. The set menu is $250 a head. It’s a suburban
restaurant, but it’s representative of a nation that punches above its weight.
From his early eclecticism Shewry has forged a cuisine of his own that is today about expressing a notion of Australia that combines indigenous ingredients, local culture and his own experience as a migrant.
His eye is as keen for product as it is for talent and design: the scallops native to nearby Port Phillip Bay are dived by hand and the chef has his kitchen pay the divers the compliment of recognizing the care they take in their work by letting the shellfish shine, flatteringly framed in a lemon-myrtle butter.
Few restaurants in Australia, let alone the wider world, make a feature of the meat of the pearl oyster (dressed with desert lime and native nutmeg) or kangaroo (served raw with bunya bunya nut). Huge ebony-shelled emu eggs set on native grasses might appear in one menu scrambled with potato and pineapple sage and on another as a dessert, sweetened with indigenous sugarbag honey and a pickle made from quandong, Australia’s native peach.
Over a dozen or more courses diners meet figures from Ripponlea’s history, whether it was the landowner of the estate, referenced through the dairy that was his metier, or the neighborhood’s Jewish community, touched on with a tart made from matzo and schmaltz and topped with chicken-soup jelly. But through it all, the personality that stands out is Ben Shewry, generous, inquisitive and only just getting started.