The generosity of Tim Kirk of Clonakilla and the extraordinary talents of Attica co-owner and chef, Ben Shewry, resulted in a truly exceptional dinner. The fact that only two of the eight wines served were from Clonakilla reflected the theme of wines at the very top end of the Langton’s Classification V, Exceptional.
Thus we had 2010 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling; 2008 Giaconda Chardonnay; 2008 Bass Phillip Premium Pinot Noir; 2008 Wendouree Shiraz; 2009 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier; and 2007 Cullen Diana Madeline. Two outriders were the wine on arrival, Clonakilla’s 2010 Viognier Nouveau and the concluding wine, Morris Rare Liqueur Muscat, the latter not included in the Classification because it (in common with virtually all Rutherglen Muscats) is non vintage.
The Clonakilla viognier ($22) is one of the most immediately accessible and enjoyable viogniers I have seen for a long time. It finds that razor-thin balance between bland anonymity on the one hand, and phenolic, oily richness on the other. Made as if it were a riesling, it was bottled in June, with beautiful citrus, pear and a hint of apricot fruit; has really wonderful mouthfeel and a clean finish.
The Grosset was accompanied by ‘snow crab’, one of those dishes that only Shewry could conceive of and execute, in no way derivative, simply coming out of his imagination (and a fair bit of trial and error in the kitchen in the development phase, no doubt). The presentation alluded to a snow-capped mountain, the snow on the outside of the mini-mountain on the plate a profusion of other textures and flavours hidden underneath. A perfect match with the riesling.
Then followed one of Shewry’s signatures, described on the menu as ‘a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown’. It is a dish which transcends explanation, even belief. How can you make a single, small oval potato taste and feel like this? Sometimes I dilly dally over food where I am too busy talking, and the food is not especially riveting; here, I dillied and dallied by design, stringing out the process of eating the dish and savouring its beguiling texture and astonishing flavour as long as I could. The nutty, layered characters of the Giaconda chardonnay were perfect for the dish.
The Bass Phillip pinot was accompanied by a dish described as ‘pork tail, prawn, onion’. Shewry is economical with his descriptions for dishes which have almost unnoticed complexities, both in appearance and, of course, in their flavour and texture. Heaven knows how many confit pork tails had to be stripped of their flesh for each plate, ultimately coming together in an oblong wedge with a crumbly coating, sitting on a thin apple mousse. The one question I had was the reason for the accompanying two salty prawns.
Beef, sea lettuce and white cabbage followed with the Wendouree shiraz and Clonakilla shiraz viognier. The quantity of each dish in an extensive menu was brilliantly calibrated; the two pieces of beautifully cooked beef, a uniform red to the very edge, yet not cooked sous vide, had so much flavour they carried two massively contrasting interpretations of shiraz without demur. How can you make ‘simple’ triangles of beef fillet taste unlike anything you have previously encountered?
The final dish was ‘lamb, mushrooms roasted over wood, sauce of forbs’. If I remember the explanation correctly, forbs are sour woodland grasses and herbs; soursop, some type of guide. As with so many of the other dishes, you could be given the recipe and technique down to the finest detail, but have no hope of creating a dish to even go close to the quality of Shewry’s. The devil is in the detail, the presentation precisely delineated, beautiful, and yet not tricky. One of the types of mushrooms was a small Paris mushroom, and I would not have believed so much flavour could be infused into such a commonplace and bland mushroom. The lamb was also exquisitely cooked, a variation on the beef theme, yet so different. Vanya Cullen is a soul-mate of Tim Kirk, both obsessed with excellence, and the wine was a perfect match.
I am most emphatically not a devotee of blue cheese, however presented. The menu simply described it as ‘blue cheese, red wine reduction’ which was downright deceitful, for there was a great deal more to it than that. More out of politeness than anything else I cut a portion to accompany the Morris muscat, and before I knew it the dish was three-quarters gone.
All in all, a magical mystery tour of beautiful wines and exhilarating food from one of the very greatest, if not the greatest, of Australian restaurants. Oh, and yes: the 2009 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier ($85, www.clonakilla.com.au) is superb. Plushly textured, with layer upon layer of flavour in what remains a medium-bodied palate, with a wanton display of exotic spices accompanying the red cherry and plum fruit, the finish perfectly balanced. Tim Kirk is not one of those who takes delight in blowing his own trumpet, but he did admit that this might be his best shiraz viognier to date.