JUST when you think you have a handle on where the Australian dining scene is at, somewhere new opens to challenge your cherished preconceptions and beliefs.
You thought we were back to old-style, high glamour, three-course dining. You thought communal dining was dead. You thought little creative plates of food that dared you to be bold were old-fashioned, and that big, statement dishes were in.
And then along comes Automata, and you’re forced to think, well, perhaps not.
Automata is the first of three significant restaurants to open in Chippendale’s gorgeously reimagined Old Clare, the property that was the Clare hotel and Carlton & United admin building.
Singaporean backer Loh Lik Peng has poured huge money into the site, and the detail in the redesign is incredible. Automata (its meaning has something to do with robots) has been filled with automotive and aeronautic artefacts recalibrated as contemporary sculptures that affords the space a dark, urbane sensibility.There are two rooms — upstairs and down — each dominated by a long, thin, communal table over which diners face each other. If you’re lucky, you’ll land a spot looking into the kitchen of executive chef Clayton Wells (ex-Momofuku Seiobo).
This is Wells’ first solo venture and his menu is a no-choice five-course affair (six courses if you include the ‘snacks’ to start) for $88. The courses aren’t huge but the cover price isn’t bad value for dishes wrought with such originality and flair.
Start with snacks of chopped storm clam served in the shell with a rosemary-infused dashi, and puffed salmon skin topped with egg emulsion and yuzu kosho (like a citrusy mayo). They are curious, dynamic starters.The menu is set to change fortnightly but expect dishes like tender, pink quail shielded under a protective layer of braised witlof; and gently steamed hapuku draped with ‘laver’ (wilted nori), underneath which john dory roe emulsion nestles alongside kombu butter. This standout dish looks like a mermaid’s cape and tastes like sublime sushi, minus the rice. Brilliant.
A squat fillet of Rangers Valley inside skirt steak, plancha grilled, is so rich it’s like eating farm-churned butter. The beef’s firm texture may challenge those used to fairy floss meat but the combination of offally steak topped with meaty mushrooms — shiitake, king brown, wood ear, morels — makes a thrilling, dizzying finish to the savoury courses.
A disappointment is a rather healthful dessert of pumpkin seed sorbet with sea buckthorn juice and crisp, freeze-dried mandarin. It’s refreshing, sure, but what’s wrong with chocolate for pudding?The wine service of Tim Watkins (ex-Pilu) is as much a highlight as the food; the wines bold and eclectic, the service cheering. The $55 marched wine option is a steal.
So Automata is not for those who like to play it safe. But if you are prepared to leap into the unknown, you may well find the future.