“I love it how, the richer you are, the more likely the restaurants you go to are to be like, ‘Here, eat a stick,’” my 15-year-old son said. We were sitting in the somber dining room of a restaurant in Seoul, and he was over it. The food was precious, conceptual, overwrought. One of the courses was indeed a stick. An actual stick!
It was the fifth such meal we’d had in as many days, part of a trip I took around the globe earlier this year to determine the 30 best restaurants in the world. Along the way, I ate some of the most incredible food imaginable, food that distilled a sense of place so beautifully it gave me a whole new way to look at the culture of a country or city or mountain range, food that expanded my definition of deliciousness. I also ate many, many meals that were very expensive, presented with enough pomp to make me cringe, and utterly lacking in pleasure. Here. Eat a stick.
How do you separate the two? There’s a whole industry, built by PR firms and tourism agencies and willing influencers, that hopes to obscure the gulf between the merely exclusive and the truly exceptional. I’m still not entirely sure I know the formula for spotting that difference. What I can tell you, though, is that Attica is the latter. And if you come to Melbourne, you should eat there.
In fact, it was Attica that brought me back to fine dining during a time when I — a longtime restaurant critic and fanatical preacher of the food-as-art gospel — was fairly convinced that the genre was entirely dead.
My first visit to Attica was in April 2017, on the tail end of a half-decade I’d spent living in LA, a city that was (and is) one of the most exciting places in the world to eat, despite its relative lack of precious tasting menus. In that city, if you’re willing to forgo table service and cocktail lists and occasionally, um, walls, your most pleasurable food moments are likely to happen on a street somewhere, eating a meal that costs $5 or less.
Beyond Los Angeles, the world’s mid-range restaurants were rapidly catching up with their ultra-extravagant counterparts. It has long been possible to get a stellar restaurant meal, with all the trappings, for around $100. The argument for a slightly more lavish meal at four times the cost is weak at best. Even before I spent months circling the globe eating at Michelin-starred joints, so many fine dining meals I’d had as a professional restaurant critic were just kind of boring: pretty plates with nice ingredients that left me feeling simultaneously overly full and weirdly empty.
It was with this attitude that I first encountered Attica, in Melbourne, my hometown. I was there to cover the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, and the Australian tourism folks were pushing Attica hard on visiting journalists. Not that it was a tough sell: Since taking over in 2005, chef Ben Shewry had garnered an international reputation for excellence. The restaurant was a staple of the World’s 50 Best, appearing in 2013 at No. 21 and rising to No. 20 in 2018, before dropping off this year. Shewry was also a pioneer in the realm of native Australian ingredients, seeking not only the ingredients themselves but also the wisdom of the First Nations people who have been using them for millennia. The restaurant’s sole owner, he achieved all of this in a town where chef-owned restaurants are the exception and not the rule. And he did it in a modest room in Ripponlea, a tiny triangle of a suburb six miles southeast of Melbourne’s city center.
But I’d been to plenty of highly acclaimed restaurants, and none of the uber-expensive kind (and make no mistake, Attica is uber-expensive) seemed remotely worth the hype they generated or the cost they incurred. So on that day, at a cloth-less table in the front of the handsomely restrained dark-toned dining room, I braced for the standard procession: luxury ingredients, culinary parlor tricks that doubled as acts of infinite ego, some very well-cooked fish with some nice sauce that I’d be too full to eat but would force down anyway, hoping it might justify the wallop to my personal finances that was sure to arrive with the bill. A stick, perhaps.
I didn’t get any of that. Instead I got cherry tomatoes, smeared with a light miso paste — just enough to contrast with sweetness and tang. But the presentation was more complex. To get to the tomatoes, I had to dig through a large bowl of tomato-leaf clippings, snipped from the plants that supplied the fruit. I was sitting at a table, in a room, but the second I brought the tomato to my mouth, my fingers coated in the intensely specific scent of fresh tomato leaves, I was transported to a garden, a farm, a tomato patch from my past. I could taste the sunlight from that place, even feel it. The dish is simple but immensely clever – it recognizes the specificity and joy of summer gardening, then somehow manages to recreate that sensation in the formality of an upscale dining room.
I nearly wept. And all of my ideas about the worthiness and value of fine dining began to shift, right there at the table.
Was I overly susceptible? Perhaps. I have grown tomatoes every year for as long as I can remember. I’m terrible at it, yet I do it anyway, just for that smell of tomato leaves on my fingers and the promise that I might conjure sweet flesh from the dirt. But there were many more such moments during the meal that that rekindled long-forgotten sense memories from my childhood and channeled pieces of Australiana. The impossibly fine-diced avocado in an undulating wave, atop a cracker and sprinkled with the tiny citrus burst of finger lime and presented as “avocado toast.” A clear soup flecked with flowers and leaves and succulents, each one tasting vividly, distinctly like the unique flora of Australia.
I could taste familiar smells: the Australian forest just after it rained; Victorian springtime; the crunch of leaves under my feet as I walked home from school. I was eating a meal that literally tasted of home, a home that was very rarely considered in culinary terms outside of Vegemite and meat pies. (Not that Shewry was ignoring that side of the equation; the meal included a tiny meat pie flavored partially with Vegemite.)
I have lived much of my life as a homesick Australian, so Shewry’s particular brand of place distillation is especially poignant for me. To the diners around me, most of whom were international visitors, the meal obviously wouldn’t invoke the same intense nostalgia. But if Shewry could conjure my childhood in this meal, it meant he could also translate and celebrate and showcase Australia for other diners.
That act of translation, of revelation, was new to me. Even as someone who mined every meal for deeper meaning, I rarely found it at the fine dining table, which seemed primed only to pamper the braggadocio of the 1 percent. Here was something different, something deeper, something that mirrored the ambitions and accomplishments of ... well ... artists.
That the experience was enrobed in layers of pleasure — the food was delicious! the very good wine made me tipsy! the service was delightful! — all of a sudden made the case for true, heartfelt fine dining stronger, rather than weaker. Like a play; like a novel. Like a poem in edible form.
Since that first Attica meal I have found myself similarly moved at tables in Slovenia and Peru and Mexico, dabbling in flavors that have nothing to do with my own nostalgia. These meals have been driven by intense thought, careful sourcing, years of research, decades of training — the types of things that cannot be achieved without massive cost to the chef and, yes, to the diner.
My son, however, remains unconvinced. After eating all throughout Asia, his favorite meal of the trip was a $15 bowl of ramen. God knows he’s not wrong, but I hold out hope that one day, some restaurant might do for him — a homesick Angeleno living in Australia — what Attica did for me: unite sense memory with innovation and creativity and newness, making him feel connected, nourished, alive, and for a couple of hours, home.
Besha Rodell is a James Beard award-winning writer who has reported on food and culture in multiple cities across two continents. She was the critic at LA Weekly before joining the New York Times Australian bureau as its dining critic in 2017. She also serves as global dining critic for Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure, compiling the 30 Best Restaurants in the World list for the two magazines.
Fact checked by Lisa Wong Macabasco
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter