Whilst fine dining is somewhat still considered a refined city dweller’s indulgence, Ben Shewry knows too well that it is the specialised farms, with simple and quality produce, that deem a dish memorable. Perhaps the title of his book, Origin, is a hint: food is not just about the moment, it has a history till we meet it fork to mouth. His food is about produce, plain and simple. Whilst others modernise traditional dishes, Shewry starts with a blank canvas and a well-chosen ingredient. The rest is magic (with a bit of hard work and creativity thrown in).
Shewry’s history started on the farm where he grew up in New Zealand. He was determined to become a chef from a young age and later worked under Andrew McConnell, Michael Lambie and David Thompson. His father was an artist, with his painting of Pukeko birds presented to us at the end of the meal accompanied by a touching note from Shewry about family, the birds and inspiration. Shewry is now a name in his own right. He has won the Age Good Food Guide’s chef of the year. His restaurant is ranked best in Australia and 21st in the world.
The degustation is standard with eight courses for $190, or $305 with matching wines. The vegetarian version comes neatly, although somewhat vaguely, printed on a personal menu to take home.
We began with cultured butter from jersey cows served with sourdough rye. The bread was crusty and dense with the full sourness coming through. A delightful ramekin was also presented with macadamia butter. The concept was similar to tahini, whipped and light and runny, whilst softer in flavour. Smoked macadamia oil and dried salt bush (which resembled olives in taste) garnished the top.
As it was a special occasion, we enjoyed a bottle of 1995 Grange Hermitage – very special indeed. The wine was dark red with a brown tinged meniscus. Its aroma was of sage and honey. To begin there was a slight pop of acid juxtaposing greenness but the finish was wonderful with soft oak.
A flurry of waiters served us fresh milk cheese, like yoghurt, with hazelnut oil and fresh honeycomb that was scooped out while we watched. The cheese held a tartness and I continued to chew on the honeycomb wax. There was a beautiful nuttiness to the oil. Three simple but very high quality ingredients put together well.
Leaves were served in a woven twig basket, called mushroom leaves for their evident flavour. A pot of sour cream accompanied them mixed with cauliflower oil and rotten corn. The leaves were crunchy and clean. The cream was tart and refreshing.
A walnut was filled with a lemon bergamot flower, puree and mushroom shavings. I almost ate the surrounding tan bark, but had to remind myself that not everything is edible.
This lesson extended to the next dish which was presented attractively with an artistically painted face on a mussel shell. The morsel was an oyster mushroom, battered and hot with the flavour of samosa and the appearance of crumbly schnitzel. Tasty.
In the meantime, the wine had contained its pop and was more honey-like in scent. Against the food it was tart and unripe with blackberries and savoury. It extended the mushroom flavour from the appetiser.
The first course, after already enjoying mouthfuls beyond the menu, was cauliflower with sorrel and spiced vinegar. The cauliflower was pickled with puffed grains. The sorrel leaves had been soaked in mandarin to give the dish a subtle tang. The flowers were bitter and the crunch of the cauliflower (with the even crunchier hidden grains) was a caution for teeth. This dish, like the tastings prior, was completely unique. The wine was softer with the vinegar dressed cauliflower with a full earthiness on the finish; dirt, tannins then a soft nuttiness. It changed dramatically with the food. Its greenness soon returned with a now milky finish to soft, buttery oak.
‘Ten flavours of St Joseph’s Wort’ took a variety of basils from the garden with black Russian tomatoes, tiny cubes of beetroot, Meredith goats’ cheese, chive vinaigrette and currant juice. This dish was complex with many ingredients, it was also a highlight: beautiful, balanced, sweet and delectable. There was a hotness of the basil, sweetness of the juice and freshness of the blanched, skinned tomatoes. One basil was like aniseed. Another basil tasted like dusty marjoram. The tomatoes were soft in flavour against the sweetness and earthiness of the beetroot. It was a dynamic dish and I loved it. The wine was salty with the hotness of the basil still in my mouth.
Leeks and seaweed butter were next. The leeks had been steamed momentarily and dressed with sea lettuce, brown rice miso and seaweed butter. It was a beautiful combination. The leeks were soft with butter and tangy orange. The lettuce was similar in texture but slightly thinner. This was another unique and truly modern composition. The many flavours complemented. The wine was harsh now with a smoky, tobacco finish.
Cucumbers with holy flax and sauce of burnet followed. The cucumbers were done in chardonnay vinegar. It was brought together with cucumber oil, peas, cream and garlic. It was warm but crunchy and fresh. I did not like this as much as the other dishes, reminding myself that I am not cucumber’s biggest fan. The others loved this for its cleanness.
I was looking forward to the boiled potato with brown butter and mint. It was very different to expected. Nadine potatoes were boiled with ver juice and blanched garlic. Buttermilk was poured over and there were six types of mint. The potatoes were cooked and warm but still crunchy. Instead of an expected more-ish butter, it held a tang of the soured milk with the various mints chipping in. The mints were a similar experience to the basil – some hot, some dusty… I declined to try the wine with this one.
The polenta to come was another highlight. Rather than real polenta, it was corn kernels, flour and syrup to mimic polenta. Pyengana cheddar melted into the top with walnut oil and extremely thinly shaved button mushrooms. This was delicious with buttery corn and a pleasant softness. Fresh tops of lemon thyme added an extra interest. It was a warming dish with simple but delicious flavours. The wine lost substance here.
At this point (between savouries and desserts) we were offered a walk in the garden. We were pulled from the confines of the table to appreciate dining as a whole experience. The little back garden grows many herbs with the bigger garden at Ripponlea producing the rest. We enjoyed salty apple tea and mini cones with red liquorice ice-cream topped with melted Daintree milk chocolate and snap dried raspberries. The chocolate became chewy as it cooled and the ice-cream’s red liquorice taste was apparent. An ice-cream cart is not what one would expect to see in a herb garden; what a pleasant surprising finding.
Back at the table after a lovely sojourn, dessert was blueberries with apple tea and chrysanthemum petals. The blueberries were dried with caramelised apple balsamic vinegar. The fresh cream was churned into fresh cheese with crystallised pink lady apples. It was an intriguing dessert with the petals like a sweet’s substitute for lettuce and a herb tasting of aniseed. The flavours were individual but blended with finesse.
The final dessert was a raw strawberry jam. This smelt delicious with dried and fresh berries, thin wafers of meringue and sour cream. The jam bubbled in my mouth. There were many flavours in this one and I enjoyed them all blended in spoonfuls.
It had been a fabulous meal and as we asked for the bill, the Pukeko birds were brought out, followed soon after by a replica of their eggs – these made of speckled chocolate and filled with pale salted caramel. We were brought back to the meaning of food. It is not just about enjoying the dish, it is about knowing and appreciating its creation.
74 Glen Eira Road
03 9530 0111