Saturday, September 18, 2010

Melbourne Epic Part Three

Our last full day on Phillip Island started in a very pleasant way - not waking up to an alarm! We chilled-out in the house due to some stormy weather and put on Bolognese sauce in preparation for dinner - this allowed maximum time to cook-down and intensify in flavour.

By lunchtime Iain had formulated a plan to use the left-over dinner from the night before. It turned out to be thinly-sliced duck fat potatoes, smashed up cauliflower cheese, and cheddar grilled on top of grainy toast. A bit of a holiday/heart stopping treat!

 Cauli cheese toasties.

After lunch we headed back to Cowes to have a proper look through the antique shop and purchase the items we had earmarked the day before. Leish got a couple of coats and a new dress and Iain - always thinking about work - bought some little glass bowls with a dessert in mind.

The main street in Cowes

 Nick-nacks and antiques

After a couple of hours sifting through second hand knick-knacks we headed back home and then straight out again to the far west tip of Phillip Island to “The Nobbies”, a few basalt islands that extend from a spit on the ‘mainland’ of the island.

 The Nobbies with Seal Rock last in the chain

The last of these rocks is home to a large colony of Australian fur seals that can be seen with binoculars as they lie on the rocky foreshore.

 Iain's trousers with bird poo on them

The spit itself is home to mutton birds and hundreds of nesting silver gulls that dot the grassy hills and wheel about in the sky, riding the strong sea breeze.

 The cliffs dotted with silver gulls

We stood and took in the rugged coastline and huge Bass Strait swells as they slapped into the rocks. We then made the short drive back along the coast to the Penguin Parade (click here), one of Phillip Island’s most famous attractions.

For a $21 entry fee you are permitted into the vast penguin building set in amongst the sand dunes. You can buy snacks and souvenirs or walk through the penguin information centre before strolling along the elevated duckboards down to the illuminated grandstands that front onto the beach.

You then wait until it is nearly dark while you listen to facts over the PA system about the famous Little Penguins of Phillip Island then, slowly off in the gloom where the water meets the sand, little groups of tiny black and pearly white penguins start to appear. They wait for each other until they feel comfortable to make the dash up the beach to the safety of the dunes. We watched several hundred little penguins brave the beach before we headed back to the dunes to see the birds up-close.

Not as elegant on land as they are in the water, the penguins waddle up to a kilometre through the dunes to find their burrows which each contain a single, large and hungry squawking chick. Photography isn’t permitted at all but the experience is well worth braving a cold night to see.

It was then home to Spaghetti Bolognese and a movie before our last night on the island.

V8 Supercars woke us up the next day as they did their track testing on the nearby circuit. We packed up and cleaned the house before jumping into the car and heading back to the big smoke through drizzling rain.

By the time we had got home it was time to pick up another Tasmanian chef from the airport and head down to St Kilda for a pre-dinner drink at the Melbourne Wine Room (click here) on the corner of Grey and Fitzroy streets.

A group of 6 past and present Tasmanians had a booking at the much-talked-about Attica. After jumping on a tram to get to the nearest train station, it was some time before we realised that the tram was heading in the wrong direction. Now pretty lean on time, we decided to stay on the tram all the way back to Flinders Street station and get the train from there to Ripponlea Station and a short walk to the restaurant arriving about 10 minutes late.

Walking up to the restaurant in suburban Ripponlea, it gives the impression of being just that - a suburban restaurant. Its brown brick exterior displays a subtle sign and a warm glow from behind the curtained windows. We were spotted from across the road and by the time we had reached the door it was opened for us. I should pause at this point to give an overview of Attica (click here). This year they were voted number 73 in the world’s best restaurant awards (click here) and chef Ben Shewry was awarded Chef of the Year by the 2011 Age Good Food Guide as well as being Restaurant of The Year in the same publication in 2009. Obviously we were expecting big things from Attica. Having booked several months ago we were very, very excited. Chef Shewry famously spends hours each morning foraging for ingredients near to his beachside home for use in his clever modern dishes.

 The first taste of Attica!!

Initial impressions of the dining room too are that it is uncomplicated and suburban. A simple mural painted onto one of the walls the only artwork. Exposed drainpipes and a plain sealed concrete floor offset clothed tables and leather cushioned dark timber chairs. The small room is divided by a small bar and a waiters’ station has a partly open kitchen at one end. The kitchen, like the room, surprised us - not a folded steel masterpiece with a bank of blinking LEDs from immersion circulators and combi ovens. The small engine room of the restaurant looks like a kitchen!

Tiled walls, normal pots, gas stoves and six normal-looking chefs were bustling around getting set up. A tiny pastry section is set off to one side encased with glass for the dining room to see.

One small frivolity is allowed in the pastry section: proudly displayed behind glass on the end of the pastry bench is a vast vacuum-distilling machine. (I will indulge in some chef-talk here for a second) a body of water using induction is kept at a constant temperature. A glass flask is immersed in the water and then placed under vacuum. The vacuum means that the contents of the flask will boil at very low temperatures, 30 degrees for example. Vapours rise with the heat and are condensed within the machine and drip into a secondary flask.

This low temperature distillation enables the chef to create essences of virtually anything without heat destroying volatile fragrances and flavours. These intensely flavoured essences can be added to foods or liquids to infuse amazing flavours that could not be created in any other way. A very cool and very expensive piece of technology.

We were seated against the bar area crowned with gleaming stemmed glasses and served with pre-diner drinks. Joking that an exuberant hand gesture might result in a glass stem shattering disaster. We were very impressed to see that a silent waiter from the other side of the bar had already started to move the glasses back from the edge of the bar out of the way of any good stories being told at the table.

 The glasses in the back ground

Attica on Friday and Saturday evenings runs a degustation menu only so all we had to decide on was drinks. The obvious choice was matching wines, we all agreed and gave the go-ahead to our waiter to begin.

Condiments for bread arrived at the table. House-made butter in a little baquette-shaped mold and an insulated glass containing what we were told was “smoked olive oil that has been whipped”. We were given a moment to ponder these things before warm bread was brought out. A white sourdough and a wholemeal seedy sourdough with sesame seeds on top. Slowly proven, crusty and ever-so-sour the bread was a great start. The olive oil mousse had a strong flavour much like taramasalata, however it melted away almost instantly in the mouth.

Butter and olive oil mousse

 Great sourdough

The first dish arrived as an amuse-bouche. A tiny vegetable salad of heirloom carrots, green cauliflower, broccoli and tat soi leaves and a slender wild onion. It was enriched with fromage frais and hazelnuts. The carrots had been sliced horizontally and very finely to show off their unusual colours. The dish was wonderful in both appearance and flavour. The wild onion snaked its way across the top of the salad much like a spring onion but with a silky oniony tuber at its base. A great start.

 Fantastic amuse bouche

The menu started proper with a glass of ca’ del Bosco Prestige Brut NV from Lombardy matched with one of Chef Shewry famous dishes. Simply worded as “snow crab”. It came with a back story to explain its metaphor and we were given a moment to take it all in. A textural black plate with a wisp of blue glaze dripping from its rim towards its center, and piled in the center a measure of white powder with a hint of colour just visible at its center.

I will apologise here for not being able to list all the subtle ingredients and flavours because there were so many - but here goes:

The white powder made with maltodextrin (the compound that absorbs fat creating a powder that melts away in the mouth) was strongly flavoured with horseradish and capped a pile of soft-picked crab meat. Through the crab was leek ash, finely sliced endive, young coconut flesh and tiny sour red barberries - among other things. Each mouthful was different, but each was sublime. The textures melted like snow leaving behind the soft crab. Justifiably famous, the dish displays a lot of clever technique and many, many ingredients.

 Snow crab

Next, marron tail, with cured beef and wild sea flora. A tiny pile of pink rose petal powder had an umami-flavoured stock poured on to it from a tiny glass beaker turning it instantly red. The marron tail was just cooked, still glassy in the centre. The beef, sliced wafer thin melted on the tongue and the salty seaweed and costal succulents added crunch. Paired with Alberto Longo “le Fossette” Falanghina from Puglia - the wine had an umami seaweed-ish character of its own that matched the dish perfectly.

 Marron tail with the dashi broth flecked with rose powder

The next dish was one we had been hoping was on the menu for the couple of months since we booked the table. “a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth in which it was grown”.  Much written about and much loved by seemingly everyone. On this day the potato was a King Edward. Turned-down to the classic potato shape, the gleaming buttery soft potato is cooked before service for 5 hours in warm earth. Paired with crispy saltbush leaves, goats curd, coconut husk ash, black salt and other concoctions in powder form. The earthiness of the cheese, ash and potato was sublime and the dish was wonderful, living up to the hype. Paired with Domain Pichot “Coteau de la Biche” Vouvray from the Loire Valley - also very earthy and strawy.

 The wonderful potato dish

Bass grouper with slightly thickened shiitake broth with minute broccoli buds suspended in it. Topped with wild onion and cabbage flowers and crunchy-fried red quinoa that was reminiscent of popped corn. The pearl-white fish had been oven baked until its edge had gone slightly golden. The silken, intensely flavoured and lightly acidic sauce cut the fish and matched the Prancing Horses “Terroir de Courigs” Chablis perfectly.
 Bass Grouper and the wicked shiitake sauce

The first of the meat dishes was lamb, cooked on the bone before being removed and plated along side “mushrooms roasted over wood, sauce of forbs”. The lamb was soft and very pink, and the hickory smoked pine, slippery jack and Portobello mushrooms were barely cooked retaining their natural texture.

The “sauce of forbs” pulled the dish together in a wonderful way both on the plate and it its conception. Forbs are the tiny buds of grasses  - in this case clover - the first grass of spring and consequently the first grass that a newborn spring lamb will eat. The grass had been formed into a smooth thick puree combined with avocado and smeared under the mushrooms. Its flavour was, as you’d expect grassy, with the aroma of cut lawn. A wonderful expression of spring. And Elysia’s favourite wine match Tapanappa “Whalebone Vineyard” Merlot from Wrattonbully in South Australia.

Lamb, mushrooms and clover 

The last of the savoury dishes was beef flank paired with smashed black sesame seeds, cured beetroot and black potato chips that had first been cooked in squid ink before being crisped. Flank is the steak eater’s preference for obvious reasons. It finds the balance of softness vs flavour. The appearance of the red beef offset by a large curved matt-black plate where the black sesame and black chips were almost invisible in the wrong light. The dish was matched to the very big Bella Ridge Shiraz (2006) from Western Australia’s Swan Valley.

Beef with underlying squid ink that was virtually invisible on the black plate 

Attica's elegant spoons

The first of the sweet dishes was another we had heard a lot about. Simply called “terroir” it is another dish with a metaphorical back-story about Chef Shewry’s old life in his home-town in New Zealand.

The outside of the terrior 

The dish skates the fine line between sweet and savoury so well that some mouthfuls are completely one way or the other and some find an ethereal balance between the two. Comprised of layers like the Earth’s strata, it is topped with a sour wood sorrel granita and wood sorrel leaves representing vegetation. Then a crumbled mixture of dried beetroot cake, freeze dried berries, all topping a smeary blob of yoghurt sorbet. All fragranced with clove and cinnamon, and cubes of kiwi fruit and spiced jelly.

Matched to the Mas Amiel Granache Noir from Maury in France, the wine too, treading the magical line between savoury and sweet. Possibly the biggest revelation for us for the night in its apparent simplicity, disguising clever thought and skillful technique.

 Inside the terrior

Lastly “apple, olive, warm shredded wheat” with Bernandis Muscat Baumes de Venise from the Rhone. Apart from the nice synergy that Elysia and Iain had drunk the same wine nearly exactly a year before while in the Rhone, the wine displayed strong cinnamon and apple flavours which was an obvious perfect match.

A bowl was placed in front of us containing what looked like a single dry raviolo. A waiter clutching a deep and heavy-bottomed glass spooned over hot and fragrant cinnamon and caramelised wheaty/malty and dried olive crumble. Cinnamon filled the air as we broke the pasta-looking skin (made from apple custard) to reveal cold-compressed and shredded celery and apple. Flavours, textures and aromas were used to their full advantage in this dish which was a wonderful end to the meal… or so we thought.

 Beautiful and fragrant apple and cinnamon

After everyone had chosen their favourite digestif, two grassy nests appeared on our table, each containing three eggs. We were informed that this was yet another kiwi reference. Pukeko eggs.

 Pukeko eggs

Each thin speckled chocolate shell filled with a glassy slated caramel filing.

Internal of the egg

To sum up. Life-changing. Never have we been to a restaurant which uses simple ingredients in such a clever and resourceful way. None of these ingredients were fancy, there was no foie gras, truffle or caviar. In fact many ingredients are so humble that they are simply picked on morning walks from where they are growing. The food is clever and modern, the service is lively, friendly and humble with no rock stars on the floor and the dining room is just that, a room with tables and chairs. No flash or wank is involved at Attica, food takes centre stage and the service is the best we have ever had in Melbourne. Get yourself to Attica as soon as you can.

Leaving the restaurant was sad, we all felt like we would have liked to stay forever but the new upstairs bar at Papa Goose (click Here) was calling.

The staircase at Papa Goose

The cab dropped us in Flinders Lane and we ascended the 5 or so flights of stairs to the long timber-floored and wine-racked bar. The Papa Goose dining room has just opened downstairs to rave reviews and the bar is also fresh and funky. We sat on soft leather couches and lamented eating so much before making the decision to cab home.

No comments:

Post a Comment