Impressions from the AGT Restaurant Guide for 2018

Orana – Crab & yoghurt sorbet, codium & sea purslane

My favourite restaurant guide has been released for yet another year. When you narrow down the thousands of restaurants in Australia to a top 100, there are naturally some surprises, but in the end, every single one of those restaurants is a terrific place to have a day or night out.

Getting down to the pointy end is exciting. There are only eight restaurants in the whole of Australia that get three stars. They set themselves apart by doing the basics perfectly, and innovating in a way that is remarkable. They are not always the obvious, but equally, they are certainly not places you stumble over by accident.

Attica – Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Take Orana in Adelaide. If you were to turn up unannounced one evening and somehow get a table, you would initially be skeptical of the price tag, and then be wondering whether you are on “candid camera” as you open your mouth to allow a spoon of green ants to greet your tastebuds. What about Brae in Birregurra, near Geelong. If you were dropped off outside this homestead and farm, you might be searching for the nearest uber to take you back to civilization.

Cutler & Co – Roast chicken, house ground polenta, baby corn & miso

These are not ordinary, everyday experiences. There is a touch of discomfort. It might be the cost, the reverence, the soft gasps, or the sheer oddity of three star dining. But like most experiences, when you are out of your comfort zone, or at least on the edge of it, the memories are bigger than the moment.

Vue De Monde

When Shannon Bennett says that he wants his customers to have a comforting experience, he doesn’t mean eating meat and three veg in your tracksuit in front of the television. He means he wants the experience to be memorable for different reasons, and for his staff to do everything to make such a potentially awkward meal something to aspire to do again, and to relive in stories for the meantime.

Momofuku – beef, radish, fermented black bean

There are the unassuming places. Momofuku Seiobo looks a bit oddly placed in The Star casino and entertainment complex. The Bridge Room is almost quaint. Attica is in the suburbs. Cutler & Co sounds like a ye olde medicinal shop, placed in one of the quieter parts of Fitzroy. They were not dining destinations before the owners set up shop and created something special.

The Bridge Room – Aerated passionfruit, roasted nougatine, passionfruit ice cream, passionfruit seed powder, glass biscuit

Then there’s Quay. That is the one that stands out because it is entirely appropriate. A restaurant overlooking the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House serving food with Ferrari price tags. The achievement of Peter Gilmore keeping this restaurant at the top of its game is surely not lost when you eat at some of its neighbours.

Brae – Egg yolk, potato and jerusalem artichoke, sauce of comte and vin jaune

It is the first time I’ve been to all eight of the three star restaurants. I believe they all deserve a spot for what they have achieved, and what they are currently doing. I love the fact that really none of the top five have a view (sorry Brae, the farm is actually very serene), and I love the fact that with all of these restaurants while the basics are done very, very well; it is the food that is the reason they are so brilliant.

Well done to Australian Gourmet Traveller on a sensational list. A real statement has been made by putting Orana as number one whether the Sydney and Melbourne dominant audience likes it or not. I have never had a meal like it, and that is what separating yourself is all about.

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Attica – Ripponlea – Thursday 28 July 2016 – Dinner

Emu's Egg

Emu’s Egg

Expectations are one of the most important ingredients in any restaurant experience. Try as we might to lower them to a reasonable level, the more hype, and the longer the wait between booking and dining, the more difficult it is to not over inflate. For me, tonight’s dinner at Attica is the most prone to setting expectations to unreasonable levels, so I jotted them down in the hope of being objective.

Cook's Leaves

Cook’s Leaves

There are many obvious, and a few less obvious reasons, why I expect to have one of the best restaurant experiences of my life here. Of course, Attica is Melbourne’s highest ranked restaurant on any number of guides, over a number of years. The less obvious reason is that I already rank Ben Shewry’s temple as one of the top experiences I’ve had in Australia, and around the world. But that was five years ago. Now that it is mentioned in the same breath as some of the world’s greatest restaurants, you hope for the small (but important) improvements you’ve read a little about to take it to the next level.

Chicken Carrot

Chicken Carrot

As we walk out the back to the restaurant garden, to be greeted by one of the pastry chefs, and are offered tea and a home made mint slice biscuit (that is delicious), we get a chance to reflect on one of our great meals in the cold winter air. So far, in the lead up to dessert, we have tried twelve snacks, and four courses of savoury dishes. There are highlights; but there are no lowlights. It is hard to imagine being happier with a meal. Attica is putting an emphasis on native Australian ingredients, in a completely approachable manner, with hardly an ounce of pomp.

Catherine with her Cuppa Tea (post mint slice!)

Catherine with her Cuppa Tea (post mint slice!)

Personally I like challenging food that makes you think and take notice, and there are different ways to achieve wonder and awe. At Orana, which also has an Australiana focus, you are presented with ingredients like green ants that do taste great, but are challenging to approach. I think Attica is making you take notice in a different way, with more subtlety, and some familiarity in the flavour combinations.

Gazza's Vegemite Pie

Gazza’s Vegemite Pie

An example that has stuck in my mind for this past week is the saltbush fed lamb pie. Classical Australian presentation (resting on a brown paper bag), the pie has some manchego grated over it, and there is vegemite in the filling with the saltbush lamb. It is brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and I can’t stop thinking about it. There is some challenge in a few ingredients though.

Aged Santa Claus Melon

Aged Santa Claus Melon

To preface, I haven’t mentioned service yet, but our waitpersons use the perfect balance of professionalism and friendliness, along with genuine care. Towards the beginning we have a conversation about the meal ahead. It is the type of discussion that puts you at ease because you realise that your waitpersons are there to guide and improve your experience, and there doesn’t seem to be this overarching will of the chefs being pushed upon you, like some other fine dining establishments.

Salted Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya

Salted Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya

Our waitperson explains that one thing they need to confirm we are comfortable eating is the kangaroo tartare. Here we are talking about raw meat, and a particular meat that isn’t eaten often by most people. We are happy to try it as we trust the ability of the chefs and the quality of the ingredients. Catherine did hesitate though. As it turns out, our first savoury course is one that you really do not want to miss. Cleverly the raw roo is hidden under a beautifully presented collage of thinly sliced red carrots. Not only does the carrot work for presentation, it adds texture to the dish. The roo is beautifully seasoned and it seems this is a terrific way to eat this meat, which is always a difficult one to cook.

Smashed Avo on Toast

Smashed Avo on Toast

An ode to our breakfast culture comes in the form of “smashed avo on toast” with minced avocado, tiny mint, finger lime, and apple, on a crisp cracker. It evokes memories of the first time you tried this now staple café dish, and the intricacy pushes the boundaries of what is already a wonderful classic combination.

Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Alongside the playful, and the intriguing, is the classical. Glorious marron from my home state of Western Australia, is perfectly cooked, and comes with a lemon myrtle sauce, which is a feature ingredient of several dishes, including the equally sublime scallop snack. We were having wine by the glass off a reasonably priced and diverse list, and with this dish the elegant Domenica Roussanne Marsanne 2013 from Beechworth, worked beautifully.

Hand Dived Scallop

Hand Dived Scallop

There were some other wine highlights, starting with the 2008 Lark Hill Sparkling from Canberra, which had the versatility you need with several courses of snacks. The Pinot Meunier Pinot Noir 2011 from Iron Bay Pot in Tasmania was also particularly good with the kangaroo tartare.

Stemware by Zalto

Stemware by Zalto

The famous potato cooked in its own soil has been replaced by an equally gorgeous “all parts of the pumpkin” dish that is a familiar concept having seen a similar focus at O.My recently. Texture from the seeds; richness from the flesh; and complexity from the sour beer cream infused with juice from the skin. It comes together in a dish that makes you feel like Shewry could turn his restaurant vegetarian tomorrow, and it would still be just as good.

All Part of the Pumpkin

All Parts of the Pumpkin

There is little theatrics, but a lot of novelty done in an intelligent way. The wallaby blood pikelet sits atop a playful recipe that is not so much a recipe, but a larrikin’s tale. The crumbed mussels have some extra crunch from the pig face succulent topping, but are not as intriguing as the painted mussel shell. The carrot, which curls when put in freezing water, is presented in a hollow rooster dish, but the flavour of the chicken minced with sorrel, kale and tarragon, is impeccable, far outshadowing any of the fun presentation.

Wallaby Blood Pikelet

Wallaby Blood Pikelet

The other dish that stands out from earlier is the plainly presented pork neck. This is meat that sings. Astounded by the flavour I have to ask how it is done and learn that there is a combination of different cooking techniques over a 24 hour period, including smoking and grilling, to get to the depth of flavour that you only get a small but memorable taste of. We finish our chat outside, cut a tulip for our first dessert course, hand it to the chef, and resume our seats.

Smoked Pork

Smoked Pork

We are at the back of the restaurant in a smaller slightly separated room, laden with black curtains that do a good job to reduce noise levels. You feel a world away from Glen Eira Road outside, and it is a good looking restaurant, without that aspect being a particularly topical feature. It is more about minimising distraction from the food, and the good lighting is an example of the focus.

Tulips DIY

Tulips DIY

Our Tulips DIY comes out as our first dessert. We have just been told that there are only five edible tulip varieties in the world and the rest are very poisonous! Luckily these are edible and the fruit and cream cheese inside is delicious. If we thought that was a pretty dish, the next was almost as pretty, and definitely intricate.

Byron Sunrise and Fresh Coconut Cream

Byron Sunrise and Fresh Coconut Cream

Three thimbles of apple, sitting in coconut cream, make for a more savoury dessert, but one that is still very nice. Crying out for something a bit sweeter, our prayers were answered with a decadent chocolate sponge, soaked in chocolate sauce with a yoghurt ice cream to soften the richness.

Cheftales

Cheftales

Finishing with another playful, and delicious taste, our “cheftales” are another ode to an Aussie classic, but again the take by Attica is better than the original, and comes with a “Who am I?” related to one of Australia’s numerous great chefs. There really has been absolutely nothing that didn’t work tonight. Quality through and through.

Lance Wiffin's Mussel

Lance Wiffin’s Mussel

We go to restaurants for many reasons and we bring our expectations with us. All of my lofty expectations were realised, or even exceeded tonight, and that is no mean feat when you are off to one of the world’s great restaurants. With some good measuring sticks to compare some of the native Australian ingredients and their use (namely Orana and Igni) I can see the subtle reasons why Attica is rated at the top of the pile.
Attica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Expectations

I wrote these thoughts before going to Attica but did not post them prior to dining (on purpose).

I am off to Attica tonight and as you would expect I am excited.

Like the label or not, we have a World’s Top 50 Restaurant in Melbourne, and that is something to be proud of.

What do I expect from tonight? First, I have been to Attica just once, and it was five years ago. AGT tells me that naturally the restaurant has transformed completely (more than once most probably) and does not resemble my previous experience. So what I expect is all completely new dishes and a certain change in inspirations behind the dishes.

After all, Ben Shewry was just becoming a “celebrity” at the time and has only broadened his perspectives since then with more travel, more acclaim, and more focus on his restaurant from a global audience. There have also been changes in the structure of ownership of the restaurant with Ben now the sole owner, and lately the experimental nights have been pulled, most likely to make sure every experience is consistently exceptional.

I don’t read reviews in the lead up, or even try to have a look at the menu. I like the surprise and luckily, there is almost no ingredient I do not like (as long as it is eaten for pleasure, and not other purposes – in Bourdain’s words on food that does not taste good but is culturally important “to make you strong!”) I hope for a sweet dessert thrown in to the lately balanced (read savoury) theme at fine diners.

I hope there is a protein I haven’t eaten often (or at all). I hope that his treatment of vegetable dishes elevates them in the way I know he can (with the now famous potato cooked in its own soil). I hope all of the snacks are sublime (yes, I use that word) and that they are all memorable. I hope service is perfect (not a completely unreasonable expectation in this type of establishment). I hope the coffee is okay.

I’ve already decided I won’t get the matching wines. I like to have wines by the glass that are versatile and can match a couple of courses in a row. When I finish a glass I either know what I would like next having scanned the menu, or I simply go with exactly what the sommelier suggests. Normally the surprise of how much the glass costs on the bill at the end of the night is pleasant, but I try my best not to have a budget (even though I most certainly do).

There is a gasp at looking at the per head cost of food here, but I justify it in several ways and put it in the background, essentially as part of the booking process. The other justification is it is not as much as the Fat Duck was (for friends – I didn’t go) and is not as much as most three michelin starred places in France, New York or London.

Consistently exceptional food, perfect service, and versatile elegant wines. That is how I hope I can sum up tonight’s experience. Wish me luck!

Impressions of the 2015 guides – The Age Good Food Guide and the Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide

I am excited. I have been excited for some time having booked at Brae close to five months ago. But now I am heading to The Age Good Food Guide restaurant of the year and on the first Saturday after it has been crowned!

Momofuku's xo, diakon, tripe

Momofuku’s xo, diakon, tripe

It’s a bit of good luck and good planning. There is a lot of ill feeling towards food guides in general, but they are all too often misunderstood. Basically, it gives the publisher a once-a-year opportunity for their publication to be more broadly and generically publicised. It is great for the restaurants who get awards and/or acclaim (hats in the GFG and stars for AGT) and it does help grow their business and the industry, but they completely understand that you need a bit of good luck on top of great execution and a special difference to get an award. It is not scientific, and it is extremely subjective. Like so many artistic awards, if you are towards the top of the tree, you are successful in your own right, and the recognition is a little bit of cream, rather than the objective.

Lake House's Moreton Bay bug ravioli, kim chi, dashi

Lake House’s Moreton Bay bug ravioli, kim chi, dashi

There are thousands of restaurants. To all of those who say guides are irrelevant, I say if you can get a hat or a star, then you are worth trying out. There is no possible way any one person can attempt to try every restaurant in a city (let alone Australia) in the space of a year, so consistency is impossible. However, if several experienced diners have been to the same restaurant, and all have enjoyed their experience and rate the restaurant close to the top of their list, then that is compelling to me. Taking that into account is more important than arguing why one restaurant in the Australian Gourmet Traveller Top 100 is higher than another; as this is not going to bear any fruit whatsoever.

Supernormal's New England lobster Roll

Supernormal’s New England lobster Roll

For any time starved person, whether it be work or family or other pursuits, using a guide is a savvy way to have more positive than negative experiences in restaurants. While guides like AGT are like my bible, it is not a blind following. There are restaurants that are going to be more suitable, more comfortable, more confronting, and more expensive, than the next. You still need to be picky, and match the destination with the company,and with the occasion. That being said, I have rarely been to two and three hatted/starred restaurants and had a mediocre experience.

Cutler & Co's heirloom tomato salad, smoked buffalo ricotta, filo pastry

Cutler & Co’s heirloom tomato salad, smoked buffalo ricotta, filo pastry

I’m pleased the GFG chose Supernormal, which I reviewed recently, as the new restaurant of the year. I love Andrew McConnell’s diversity and the child of Golden Fields is a fantastic place to dine. I’m also pleased that Attica won the AGT restaurant of the year which has been dominated by Sydney over the past decade. I can understand why Rockpool, Momofuku Seiobo (see my recent review), and Quay round out the top four and hopefully my experience at Brae this weekend will measure up to its award as AGT regional restaurant of the year, and fifth in Australia. It is fantastic to see Cutler & Co also make the top ten in seventh (see my recent review). With Attica, Flower Drum, Vue de Monde, and Brae all receiving three hats in the Victorian GFG there is mainly consistency with AGT.

Momofuku's almond, peach, thyme

Momofuku’s almond, peach, thyme

If you were to dine out at restaurants like these every day you would be quickly going broke. We need some diversity in our dining experiences and a quick look at the AGT Top 100 and the hatted restaurants in the GFG provide an excellent array of styles and cuisines. There is traditional and contemporary, expensive and reasonable, formal and informal, institutional and new. It’s exciting seeing the number of restaurants breaking new ground all around Australia and around Victoria.

The growth of the restaurant industry must present a daunting task for the various judges of these guides. The reward for the publisher comes in being able to promote to a broad audience the places that are worth some effort to try, whether it be to get a booking, to drive or fly, or simply wait in line. I applaud those who contribute to these guides, and look forward to ongoing debates about the relevance and accuracy of the guides.