Chippendale’s hottest new restaurant is everything we hoped it would be – in fact, it’s much more - Time Out Sydney

automata review

We’ve been waiting a long time for this restaurant to open. Automata is the brainchild of ex-Momofuku Seiobo sous chef Clayton Wells, a man who has popped up in various guises over the past few months, briefly showing off his skills in restaurants across the city from ACME in Rushcutters Bay to LuMi in Pyrmont. His first solo venture is situated in Sydney’s suburb du jour, Chippendale, within Sydney’s hottest (newly refurbed) lodgings, the Old Clare Hotel on Broadway. With one of our most exciting chefs in tow, this is not just an opening; it’s the opening.

It’s all the more so because this place isn’t even that expensive. Sure, it’s a set menu so you don’t have much of a choice once you’re in there, but five courses plus snacks will set you back $88 – and that ain’t bad for a dego (Momofuku is currently at $185 pp). Matching drinks are an additional $55, and we recommend you go for it. The sommelier here, Tim Watkins, has worked at three of Sydney’s greatest wine restaurants (Monopole,Ester and Pilu at Freshwater) and the man’s a bloody genius. The drinks he selects heighten every dish, bringing with them something new to the food, without feeling intrusive.

But first, we recommend you start with a Negroni. It’s called a No.5 here, and is a blend of Australian-made Four Pillars gin, Tempus Fugit Gran Classico bitter and Maidenii Classic vermouth, which lends to the drink its citrusy notes, balancing the punch of the harder liquor. It works with the snacks that come out first – dry, crisp salmon skin topped with dots of salty creamed fish, and nubbly little clams served in their shells with smoky, creamy dashi sauce, infused with the woody scent of rosemary. Ignore the spoons – the shells are the only cutlery you need for supping these guys right up.

The first dish-proper is an aesthetic plating of perfectly sliced little logs of crunchy, just-cooked asparagus, each enveloped like cigars with sesame leaf. On top are draped fine silks of dulse seaweed, purple in colour and robust, almost sea-urchin-like in flavour. A tart umeboshi plum stock is poured over at table. Served alongside is a slightly sweet Mioya Shuzo sake from Ishikawa in Japan, somehow drawing out the oceanic qualities of the seaweed even further.

Balance, by the way, is a big thing here, and the next dish epitomises this approach. The kitchen is wide open to the restaurant, and we see chefs dipping large sheets of seaweed into a container (full of what turns out to be dashi) and then draping them across various plates. These are then brought over to us, and the smell of the seaside is instantly intoxicating. Fork through the compressed seaweed and underneath you’ll find tender steamed white hapuka fish, creamy cured roe emulsion (like a taramasalata) and little pops of native sea blight. It’s got umami, crunch and cream, and is undoubtedly the dish of the day. The only thing that makes it better is the paired wine, a Brian ‘field blend’ skin-contact orange number from Tassie that is fizzy, yeasty and totally reflective of the savoury overtones of this dish.

And we’re only on the third course.

Quail cooked to such softness that it is verging on gelatinous comes in a burnt apple sauce, the slight bitterness of which plays off the witlof encasing it. Leaves of the witlof are placed onto the meat to look layered, as it was when whole – except now most of its bitterness has transformed to sweetness in the braise.

Luke Lambert’s minimal intervention syrah from the Yarra Valley has minimal oak while still retaining its meaty nuances. It’s paired with a slice of inside skirt steak from the angus breed, which isn’t the tender wagyu we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s chewy and firm, caramelised on the outside with a rich, winey flavour. It’s served with contrastingly textural morel, shitake and wood ear mushrooms and an eggplant purée which is moussey, light and soothingly complementary to the rest.

Dessert is small and not terribly sweet: a scoop of creamy, thick pumpkin seed sorbet (reminiscent of black sesame ice cream) with crunches of sour, zingy, freeze-dried mandarin segments and loose, soft meringue imparted with bitters. The deeply herbaceous flavours of the matching white vermouth del Professore adds grassy tones to the dessert.

Here, the drinks, the food, the warm service (led by ex-Moon Park restaurant manager-extraordinaire, Abby Meinke) and the industrial, concrete and machinery-decorated interior merge together into something that feels as if it is resting on the balance of the weighing scales, and is totally level. It’s not a massive feed, and if we hadn’t ordered that second helping of bread (do it; it’s served warm with whipped anchovy butter), we might have left feeling a little hungry. But the bread is complementary – they’ve taken care of that too. And that’s the sort of place this is – grace, beauty and elegance on every level, while still feeling accessible. It’s even rather fun. That’s our sort of restaurant.