When we saw the Chef’s Table episode for Attica, I was impressed. And the continued honors for the restaurant and Chef Ben Shewry have been many — as the current Australasia best restaurant (2017), I literally couldn’t wait to enjoy a meal at the venue. Friends, as I always strive for honesty, I have to admit that after the experience, I’m going to take a break from the World’s Top Restaurants for awhile. I think that I need to start doing more research on my restaurant selections when traveling. It’s not that the food was particularly good or bad, or that there was anything wrong with the service (it was professional, but not overwhelmingly personal), it’s more that for the price point and reputation my expectations were considerably high. Were they too high? I don’t know. As Hubs and I had our best meal of the year (so far) at Test Kitchen (ranked similarly in the past few years), I thought that the experience at Attica would be at least on the same level.
Thus, I walked into Attica like I did to every fine dining restaurant — with open anticipation and optimism. One of the things I like best about dining at restaurants of this quality is knowing that I’m having a meal prepared by an absolute master of their craft. Think about it, there are very few industries in the world where you can directly interact with the best of the best. Perhaps that’s why the disappointment in meals like this not living up to expectation are greater.
So, what led to my disappointment?
- To start, the service delivered more or less where expected — I’ve had more (and less) engaging experiences. Service is more than the icing on the cake at the world’s top restaurants, it can entirely elevate the meal. In my opinion, highly engaged servers move something already incredible to utterly memorable.
- Eating with your hands. While I celebrate the trend of snacks at the start of the meal (ones that involve cutlery or do not), these small bites should not eclipse the meal itself, nor should they be awkward to eat. As I’ve similarly pointed out (at Gaggan especially) that if you are going to serve finger foods, you’ve got to ensure that your guests have clean hands. In this, a cleansing towel (or bowl) could easily be a complement to the start of the meal (instead of the bridge into the mains). Specifically at Attica, the Aged Santa Claus Melon (topped with a ready to stain your face spice blend) was almost impossible to eat and the Pearl Cooked in Paperbark was strangely sloppy to eat with one’s fingers.
- Portion sizes. The first of the main dishes Kangaroo, Wattles, and Waxflower, was, at first bite, quite delicious. And then I kept chewing and masticating and forcing additional forkfuls into my mouth. Defeated by this wall of texture, Hubs and I both gave up halfway through. On the opposite side of this problem were the remainder of the main dishes which were more or less (two) bite size. Balance is key in a meal like this and none of the mains (later courses?) felt like they were portioned correctly.
- No ‘crescendo.’ When indulging in degustation, I believe meals should start and work towards a highlight — either a signature dish or experience. In our case, once we finished the super strangely textured Jumbuck and Tulips, we were quickly hustled outside (?) to see the kitchen (?) and the small garden (?) and delivered Ants in the Garden (a donut that kind of came out of nowhere…?). This visit outside took us entirely out of our element and destroyed any momentum we had built up inside. The courses didn’t top out at anything, mainly just held an average line.
- No cohesiveness. While I believe this meal was intended to highlight Australian/local foods, proteins, and produce, the journey was a bit all over the shop (see, Quay, for a similarly awkward experience). As with above, rather than a steady move upwards, the plates more or less meandered awkwardly around. As opposed to say the wonderful comprehensive menu with Chef Bjorn Franzen (during his stay at the Palazzo Versace) or Dill, Attica’s plates were haphazard to the point that it was unsettling.
- Dishes that didn’t work. Look, in a multi-course meal such as this one, any diner is not going to like everything. In this instance, the texture of one of the ‘An Imperfect History of Ripponlea’ tarts yielded both my favorite and least favorite parts of the meal (the texture in the chicken soup pastry was downright gross, no matter how much technique was involved).
- Lack of traditional elements. Personally, I enjoy both a palate cleanser and petit fours during the meal and missed them in this tasting menu.
- Mixing spirits. While I’m all for drinks that step outside the norm in a tasting menu pairing (freshly made cocktails at Blanco Par Mandiff come to mine), I don’t believe being crazy for the sake of attention gets the job done. I hate to spoil anything for anyone, but essentially, you drink half a glass of wine and then have it topped off with Sake. I just… I don’t see the point.
While I’m choosing to focus on what made this such a ‘meh’ evening, I will mention the technique and presentation of each dish was stellar and at the caliber it should be. However, for the ranking, I have to think that this is a standard expectation.
The price (with wine pairing and a glass of champagne each) came in near an eye-watering AUD1,000 (the most expensive meal we paid for in country). While I never consider restaurants at this level to be a place where I consider ‘value for money,’ I couldn’t help but compare to the pricing (and overall experience) at both Gaggan and Test Kitchen (both of which are far more reasonably priced).
Would I go back? This is another pass. I’m actually a bit upset that we bypassed Vue Du Monde (recommended by numerous friends) to go to Attica. Overall, the price point doesn’t match the experience and quite honestly I’m surprised it continues to rank as highly as it does.