Has there been a more anticipated opening than Automata this year? Clayton Well's first solo venture already had the attention of fellow chefs and food media as soon as it was announced. Originally slated to open in March this year, its delay only increased the sense of hype, pressure and expectation. What would the ex-sous chef of Momofuku Seiobo do with a blank canvas and newfound freedom? Instagram was flooded with pics as soon as its doors were flung open.
Perceval 9.47 French steak knives
We waited two weeks before heading there for dinner, resisting the urge to visit in its first few days. A new restaurant will often take about three months to iron out all its kinks, but we couldn't wait any longer, and to be honest, it feels like Automata is already hitting its stride straight out of the blocks.
Automata (pronounced or-TOH-mah-tah not auto-mah-tah, thanks The Mitchen!) was the first restaurant to open in the redeveloped The Old Clare Hotel. Silvereye, by ex-Noma chef, Sam Miller, opened a week later. The fit-out at Automato is slick and well-considered, with an attention to detail that is immediately reassuring. The Perceval 9.47 steak knives command my attention as soon I sit down. These handmade knives were designed by Michelin-starred chef Yves Charles who noticed his friends would often use pocket knives to eat their dinner because of its sharp blade. They feel great in the hand, evenly weighted with a buffalo leather handle. We even admire the knife rests, each recessed so the blade nestles inside perfectly.
The chandelier made from an airplane radial engine
The 60-seat dining room is split over two levels, each dominated by a long wooden communal table that runs down the middle. Seating is well spaced so that you won't be bumping elbows with anyone outside of your party. The ground floor has Ducatti barrel down lights and a view of the open kitchen but the mezzanine level allows you to dine beneath a pretty amazing chandelier made from an airplane radial engine. The curved ceiling that swoops down to the floor - made from reclaimed Oregon timber that was part of the Old Clare's original rooftop - provides a striking backdrop too, and you can always peek over the balcony for a bird's eye view of the kitchen.
Red witlof and violet mustard
There's only one menu available, an $88 set menu that runs for five courses with snacks to start. Matched wines can be included for an extra $55.
We kick off with red witlof and violet mustard, stripped back so only the most tender leaves at its core are presented. There's no bitterness here, just a delicate crunch anointed with a violet mustard in deep scarlet and a scattering of chopped chives.
Storm clam, rosemary dashi, cream
The storm clams are huge, cooked to a gentle tenderness and topped with a dollop of cream. The dashi reinforces the echo of seawater and the use of rosemary is masterfully subtle, creating more of a tease than overwhelming the palate.
Asparagus, sesame leaf, umeboshi and dulse
It might take you a moment or two to realise that the next course involves asparagus spears that have each been wrapped in sesame leaves, then cut to exactly the same length so they all stand at a uniform height. A pale tinted umeboshi dressing poured at your table doesn't just create theatrics and intimacy of service, but envelopes the table in wafts of pickled plum.
This dish feels like a lesson in textures, the crisp snap of tender asparagus against the thin film of sesame leaf and the slippery crunch of red dulse seaweed.
And in a multi-course meal that showcases a parade of handmade ceramics by Cone 101, this vessel is my favourite of the evening, a smooth and flawlessly turned bowl formed with its own pedestal.
Wholewheat bread and whipped butter with chicken jus
The wholewheat bread with whipped butter is a game-changer. Anything that starts with Pepe Saya butter bodes well but here they add anchovies, sunflower seeds and chicken jus. This sounds like a bewildering combination until you smear it on a torn pillow of soft and fluffy bread and realise the umami hit makes perfect sense.
Staff are so hospitable here they'll eagerly offer you a second serve once you decimate the plate within seconds. I doubt anyone has declined, but even we had to politely refuse when they offered a third helping.
Steamed hapuka, cured roe emulsion and seaweed
We can smell our next dish before it even hits the table. It's the aroma of roasted seaweed that makes every diner lean forward and inhale deeply.
Steamed hapuka underneath the seaweed
We pull back the seaweed covers to reveal steamed hapuka, cooked so each buttery segment flakes apart with just a gentle nudge of your fork. The fish is praiseworthy enough on its own, but then Wells amplifies the experience with a John Dory roe emulsion, seaweed butter, roasted seaweed with seaweed powder and the salty pop of sea blite, a native coastal plant. This dish is the highlight of the night.
Slow roasted quail, burnt eggplant, caper and blackberry
The outer leaves of the red witlof that appeared in our snacks are made use of in the quail dish. It feels a little like Christmas morning as we have to unwrap yet another dish to see what's inside.
Confit quail leg and roasted quail breast beneath the red witlof
We find roasted quail breast - easily the most tender quail you'll ever encounter - with shreds of confit duck leg on a bed of burnt eggplant puree. The braised red witlof provides a welcome playoff against the smoky eggplant, the deep red leaves dusted with caper crumbs and a smattering of blackberry powder.
Inside skirt, shiitake, tamari and walnut butter
There's a meaty satisfaction with the Rangers Valley inside skirt steak, marinated in koji, the rice fungus that's used to make sake, soy sauce and miso. This isn't a flabby sigh of wagyu beef but the kind of flavoursome chewiness that the 9.47 knife has been engineered for. The umami factor is bolstered with shiitake mushrooms and black fungus. The only thing I'm not a fan of on the plate is the walnut butter which has a disconcerting powdery texture.
Pumpkin seed sorbet, bitters meringue and mandarin
Dessert isn't the sickly sweet finale that most people expect but then most of tonight's dinner hasn't conformed to the usual template. The pumpkin seed sorbet is terrifically intense with a silky smoothness that's only marred by the occasional crunch of pumpkin seeds (does Wells have a secret deal as an ambassador for pepitas?). At the bottom of the bowl are puffs of dehydrated mandarin and a mound of blowtorched meringue spiked with Angostura bitters. It's a welcome palate cleanser, unlike most other desserts that leave you feeling bloated with regret at the end of the night.
Petit fours: Fernet Branca jellies and alcohol-free chocolate jellies
Petit fours are intensely alcoholic herbal Fernet Branca jellies, so potent they'll probably vaporise any unwanted bugs in your system. They also have non-alcoholic chocolate jellies that I privately prefer.
Overall? This is clever and well-polished food. There's a thoughtfulness to each dish, one that aims to showcase a specific ingredient with reverence and restraint, without unnecessary distraction or self-indulgent bells and whistles. No, you probably won't roll out of the restaurant stuffed to the gills, but $88 for a meal that surprises, energises and entertains at this level is a steal.
5 Kensington Street, Chippendale, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 8277 8555
Wednesday to Saturday 6pm - 10pm
Sunday 12pm - 5pm
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Momofuku Seiobo, Pyrmont
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10/06/2015 02:48:00 a.m.