Last year, a meal at Automata counted as one of my favourite restaurant experiences. That it gained two chef’s hats in the 2016 Good Food Guide Awards, along with ex-Momofuku’s Clayton Wells lauded as Time Out’s chef of the year was, to my mind, no brainer. As was usually the case, I felt that it had been far too long in between visits, and so made a return visit almost exactly one year down the track. However, it was with a deep melancholy when, on that second visit, I discovered that while fragments of the experience were the same, I was not eating at Automata.
It’s almost as if it’s become something else entirely.
Date Last Visited: 24/09/2016
Address: 5 Kensington St,Chippendale, Sydney, NSW
Highlight Dish(es): steamed hapuka, roasted quail
Automata – 2016 Visit
One thing that hadn’t changed was the interior. This was of course, totally fine – the piston down lights, the machined, raw steel of the wall tables and floor-to-ceiling windows all remain, eliciting the vibe of a mechanic’s atelier. Indeed, you can’t mistake yourself in any other restaurant while you’re inside Automata’s workshop.
Our request for a window seat was granted without a fuss. These wall-mounted tables are the only way you’re guaranteed to have a bit of privacy and isolation – the rest of the seating is of a communal nature.
The one new addition that I may not have noticed on my previous visit was a point of amusement – why hi there, maneki-neko (paw-waving fortune cat). Of everything you’ll observe at Automata, that was definitely the quirkiest – and that’s saying something.
But in any case, onto the food – Automata does a 5-course menu for $88 which was good value in 2015. Now, other restaurants are beginning to encroach on the value perspective. That said, given the restaurant now sports two hats, the price is one I’ve come to accept for restaurants rated at this level.
Let’s dig in.
We were quickly presented with off-menu snacks of asparagus & wagyu tongue. The asparagus entertained a fresh, raw and cold-ish crunch at below room temperature. The umeboshi was intensely sour while the sesame leaf added a wet, leafy texture. For me, this was just a bit too “raw” and a bit too acidic for my liking. Plus, the chilled serving temperature didn’t quite agree with my palate.
The wagyu tongue on the other hand was delicious, period. It was beefy, well-browned and smoky – packed with flavour. A good part of this was thanks to the goodness of miso, which itself was prevented from being overly salty as the fresh, chewy enoki competently absorbed any excess.
Our first proper course was the stracciatella w/tamarillo & onion. I was a little apprehensive about plating cheese as course #1, but my trepidation was allayed as I tucked into addictively stringy, pulpy and chewy goodness that’s got enough chessy to carry itself solo. The tamarillo was watery and sour, but gone in quick bites, and did a number on cutting through the cheese’s flavour. The wakame seaweed oil was a bit of a secret sauce – it brought forth lots of savoury notes that was a no-brainer combination.
A good start.
However it was at this point, so early during the meal, that we were beginning to detect something lacking with the service. Despite being the first table to be seated, 3 other groups were already getting their second courses long after we had finished our first. Additionally, they got bread before their first course was completed, while our table was left empty. It was also a full 20 minute wait (later timestamp verified) between the first and second courses – which is far too long to go without food when it’s this early in the meal.
Such a gap, should it exist, ought to be at least filled with bread. It was not.
We started getting a little hungry, in an unpleasant “come on, where’s our food & bread” kind of way. If everyone was served this slowly it would be a talking point. That we were passed over in favour of other tables was an issue.
Fortunately the next course, when it arrived, was a beautiful plate of bug tail, eggplant puree & dulse seaweed. This was my favourite dish out of the meal that day, and it’s easy to see why. The bug was exquisitely cooked – it was tender, but not so bereft of texture that it was uninteresting. There were burnt ends, smoky bits, and overall was quite sweet. The dulse seaweed was surprisingly rich, with an almost red wine-like flavour that went along with its natural umami. The eggplant puree was so light it almost felt aerated, and thus never stole the bug’s thunder – only added to it.
The most unique touch however, were the capers – these were toasted to the point of total desiccation, which resulted in concentrated pockets of zing that also pleased texturally from a crunch crunch mouthfeel. That was a really nice touch, and I must commend Automata for introducing me to capers prepared this way – ’twas my first time!
While the bug dish was quite delightful, we could not help but observe further aspects of the service to our distaste. At this point, other diners were receiving their third courses, and some patrons even got a re-plate of bread. Readers should note that both me and my dining partner eat very quickly – we simply were not served at the same pace as other diners.
Thankfully, after 40 minutes into our meal (yep, it was literally only after that long), we received bread.
Now, the bread & butter combination at Automata during my 2015 visit was an eye-opener such that I implied it was one of the best bread courses you could get in Sydney. I’m afraid that due to this latest visit, I can’t make those comments any more. First, the bread – it was overly “flour-y”, dense, and the crust was uninteresting, tasting almost the same as the insides. There was very little flavour, it was served at room temperature, and the serving size was on the small side.
But mediocre bread could be saved by an amazing butter – and this was where the Automata of 2015 shone. Unfortunately, the butter was even worse for wear. There was something to be desired in the flavour stakes – with only a decent twinge of umami in the aftertaste. Observe the picture above – I slathered the bread with this new butter, and yet a token hit of anchovy flavour was all I got – no chicken. In reality, there was virtually nothing going on here – a vacuity of flavour, a concoction that was marvellously delightful in texture, but insipid in taste.
There’s something to be said of being shown what once was, only to see how things have been blighted with the passage of time. If this was my first visit to Automata, I mightn’t have thought much of it – I’d have called the bread/butter average, and moved on. However, I’ve experienced what they can do – what happened?
The next dish was a diminutive serve of duck hearts w/onions in a beautiful ceramic bowl. This was quite a tasty dish – the duck heart was perfectly tender and chewy, with a good amount of flavour picked up from the black garlic. The onions were crunchy and fermented well such that they were at the right level of saltiness, and the mushrooms two-ways added a bit of earthiness to the dish. I wouldn’t have picked these ingredients in the same bowl – it was certainly one of the more random-seeming creations, but it worked.
There were two problems: one minor, one major. The minor: the bowl was perhaps the wrong choice of crockery to serve this in – the sides were too high, and so often my cutlery would strike the edge of the bowl as it couldn’t quite reach the food at the bottom. It made scraping out the last tidbits far more difficult a job than it should have been.
The major issue was that our knife, previously used to eat the bug tail dish, was not replaced. We had to lick the knife clean to avoid flavour contamination. You can understand my vacillation in doing so, given the risk of injury, yes?
Our final savoury course – and what I call the “gut-filler” as it’s significantly larger in portion than any previous dish – was a dry aged lamb rump w/XO. Despite the portion ratios being a bit out of whack, I was happy about the size of this one as we were still quite hungry given the miniscule portions in the earlier courses. Fatty in many places, you would think it was a tad too assertive in its richness. However, there was also plenty of soft, tender areas which nullified the potential unctuousness of the dish and gave it oodles of flavour. There was still a bit of chewiness but that’s acceptable with backstrap.
On the flavour side of things, there’s a good amount of XO going on here, which really struck my Asian gong. It was almost the right amount of XO such that it wasn’t too salty, but it was not evenly applied across the lamb and as such, some bites were a lot more “lamb-y” than others.
The best part about the lamb was the crust – caramelised beautifully, with almost a bitter sugar kind of browning, it was drug-like addictive.
The choy sum was also stellar – a good amount of charring almost reminded me of wok hei – the coveted char that makes wok-fried noodles so delicious. They’ve got that down as well, so big points there.
Guess what? That knife, which has been used in two dishes now, was once again the knife for this dish. This was overkill. Also by this point, two separate tables had already settled their bill, and another group was already onto their dessert course. We had a world-record streak of sitting with empty plates and waits between courses.An optional course which once again took a full 20 minutes to arrive was a fleur du maquis w/cherry miso. Cheese dishes are usually hit or miss, and unfortunately here, Automata had missed. Usually, a good cheese either has a really striking/unique flavour or texture. A great cheese has both.
The fleur du maquis here had a surprisingly muted flavour – it didn’t taste exciting, or flavourful. In terms of texture, it was crumbly, didn’t have a good mouthfeel and was overall very dry. The cherry miso helped a lot, and even the salted lavosh was quite tasty, relatively speaking. That they stood out instead of the cheese was telling.
The final course on the menu was a dessert of yoghurt sorbet w/jackfruit & meringue
My favourite part of this dessert was how the gummy, viscous and sweetly-toasted meringue interacted with the yoghurt sorbet below to give off a uniquely rich, yet refreshing combination. The jackfruit was also agreeable – fresh, chewy, almost meaty. The lemon and spicy notes of sumac & chervil were special touches that gave a bit of character to the dessert. Overall, while perhaps a bit above average dessert given its accoutrements – I couldn’t help but feel that I was being served simple frozen yoghurt.
So…this is that awkward moment when I’m forced to conclude that my second time at Automata was more disappointing than the first in almost every way, yet in the interim, they gained a second hat. I must have lucked out that day – the service truly left something to be desired (and for a guy who usually doesn’t care about service that much, this is something). But it wasn’t just that – the food was just not as on point as before. Sure, there were standout dishes, but the overall experience was a bit lacklustre, and left me with a feeling of despondence on just how much has changed.
Would I recommend you visit now? Perhaps not, if based solely on my experience. However, I’m no food critic – I didn’t visit multiple times to see if the service/food was a one-off. Some journeys must be taken first-hand; my journey at Automata is however, at an end.
This post update is based on an independently paid visit to Automata.
- Bug tail and lamb backstrap were great dishes that still exemplify Automata’s kitchen talent.
- Aspects of service were hugely problematic – pacing, and customer prioritisation.
- While the dishes overall were nice, they lacked the flair and cavalier nature that made Automata a hit back in 2015.
- What happened to your bread & butter?!?!?!?!
- Getting diners to use the same steak knife for three wholly different dishes is distasteful.
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F6 | S2 | A3
Automata – 2015 Visit
Sydney’s food scene is such that in any given year, it’s a Herculean challenge to even come up with a list of the big ticket items to blather about to your Instagram-loving buddies. However this year, I think we can safely say that the Kensington Street revamp in Chippendale, mere minutes from the CBD, is one of the most sensational transformations we will see in recent years.
A plethora of restaurants, food stalls and mixed use facilities will all spring up – and they’re not no-names either. Think Sam Miller of Noma – Silvereye. Think Reynold Poernomo – the dessert king himself. And while we’re name dropping here, think Clayton Wells – of Momofuku Seiobo.
Let’s talk a bit more about that last one, shall we? Let’s talk about the first restaurant to open up at The Old Clare Hotel – Automata.
When Momofuku head honcho Ben Greeno moved onto potentially greener pastures at the Paddingon Hotel, it seems Clayton Wells also decided it was time to strike out on his own with his first solo restaurant. Of course, with fifteen years in the industry, stints in London hotel restaurants, Quay and of course, Momofuku, nobody would take the man for an inexperienced wannabe.
Naturally, when a chef of this calibre announces his own gig – oh hello Automata – you can bet my automobile that I’ll be banging on the proverbial phone lines to net a reservation. Yes, I know I’ve made a big deal about not visiting restaurants when they’re still in their infancy, but I was swayed by the Momofuku legacy.
Of course, that doesn’t fully explain my through-the-roof level of pure keen. There is oh so much additional motivation: the accessible prices given the food served, the supposed “a little bit loud & rowdy” atmosphere, the elegant and steampunk-ish fittings, and that Automata is hopefully a continuation of the trend on fine dining-quality food, at non-fine dining prices, without feeling like having to whisper to your dining companions.
That’s Automata’s call, and I answer.
The restaurant is simply one of a kind on the design front. The architect mastermind behind it is Matt Machine, who was also responsible for all aspects of Firedoor’s design. The fittings were done by Paul Firbank & Lizzie Gosling – the “Rag and Bone Man” (men?), as it were. They specialise in automobile/machinery-style fittings, explaining the car vibes within – just check out those ceiling lights!
As for the part that matters most, the food is a five course experience (+2 snacks), for $88 (drink pairing +$55). The menu is intended to change on a weekly basis, dependent on what Wells think is best for that period. There is no a la carte, but choice is overrated anyway. Let’s get started, shall we?
First up – the nibbles. You’re looking at a pair of fried salmon skins w/yuzu kosho & storm clam (hamaguri) w/rosemary dashi & cream.
I knew I made the right call in booking a table at Automata.
The snacks are delicious. The fish skins? Marvelously crunchy, fish-flavoured chips like you wouldn’t believe. Nope – it was never oily. The umami-rendering cream, tasting of a smoked eel (a guess) added oodles of flavour and creamy texture to balance out the crispness of the skin. It is a heaven-proclaimed match. Bloody fantastic.
As for the storm clams? Similarly delicious, if slightly less paradigm-shifting. This is my first time eating storm clam as far as I can remember. First impressions were how juicy and chewy the meat was. Bouncy, springy and delivering briney, flowery flavour with each and every bite. The dulse on the bottom was a nice presentational input, eliciting the feeling of the natural environment from which the clams came. Our server told us this dulse was inedible, but I sure was tempted.
After all, I didn’t want this sensation to end. A very Japanese start to the meal that’s already got me thinking “Clayton’s got this in the bag”.
If there was a weak dish in Automata’s menu (at least this week), it would be the asparagus. Hah, who am I kidding – sure it may technically be the weakest dish of tonight, but boy, was it still moreish.
This drifts over to the “sweet & sour” side of the flavour wheel, brought on by a concentrated plum jus redolent of autumnal sweetness, mixed in with an almost fish sauce-like level of saltiness that oddly enough play together quite nicely. As we only began to find out, Wells is all about unexpected pairings that make you think “now why hasn’t that been done before?”
This flavoursome liquid supports an array of chopped asparagus spears, rendered to a perfect, crispy crunch with every bite. This may be the most consistently crunchy asparagus I’ve had. The silky rubbery dulse on top (yes, this time it’s edible) added a smooth, textural foil on top of all the crispness we got from the asparagus.
It’s a pretty good dish then, so why is it the weakest? Because you’ve yet to see the rest of the menu.
I was literally wondering where the bread was at this point and BAM – here we have it. A small loaf of house-baked wholemeal w/anchovy & chicken-infused Pepe Saya butter. Posters on Instagram describe this combo as “that bread and butter tho”, and I wholeheartedly agree. The bread’s already very tasty – served warm (points!), & fluffy, but it’s the butter that really shines. Pepe Saya is a known quantity – he’s simply the best in Sydney. Infuse the best with anchovy & chicken jus, whip it up and you’ve got a beast that I would say is an improvement. It’s light and airy, and full of deliciously briny flavour from the anchovy & chicken. Very unique, totally works.
How I know the butter passes the proverbial test? I kept eating it even when there was no more bread. Yeah, that’s how it is.
Should I call it? I think I should call it.
I’ll call it – best dish of the night. Possibly one of the best seafood dishes this year, actually.
On the face of it, when the steamed hapuka was plated before us, it was literally a black & green mound on a white plate. It was ugly duckling-level of ugly, such I didn’t even take a photo of it. However, in a refreshing twist to food that looks better than it tastes, this dish completely turns that on its head. Flip open the seaweed on top and you will behold a perfectly-cooked wreckfish, tender enough to separate with the flat side of a spoon, delicious enough to swear loudly over and over again declaring just how good it is.
I’m glad there were no kids sitting near us, even if it is rowdy Automata.
This dish is absolutely top notch, and handily sets a new benchmark for steamed fish. Easily. That perfectly-flavoured, perfectly creamy roe emulsion with its brilliant umami, the chewy and ocean-like seaweed, that perfect portion size…
…wait, I don’t mean the last one. The portion size is all wrong – because there was not enough. I don’t think a whole hapuka would have been enough.
I’m Still Hungry.
I’m still reeling from the hapuka, as I could taste it in my mouth for many minutes afterwards. I honestly didn’t think it could be topped, and while that did bear out to be the case, the two meaty mains to follow are nothing to scoff at.
Clearly, layering is a recurring technique of Wells. Whether its fish or quail, there’s always a bit of a surprise hiding underneath an initial teaser blanket of vegetables. Witlof is what I see at first, the caper crumbs add a bit of acidity to bring out a bit more sweetness from the leaf. That said, it’s still somewhat bitter, an inherent trait of the purple vegetable. I’m feeling tepid for now, but it’s when we get to the quail that things start to turn up a gear.
I’m sorry, I betrayed you dear reader – I had forgotten to take a picture of the quail within. I don’t have a good reason, but I do have excuse aplenty – it’s a great quail! I generally don’t order quail very much because the hit rate with this gamey bird is below 50%. Automata skews the statistic just a little bit more towards the sweeter end of the spectrum – this is a very fine quail indeed. Extremely tender, I was able to slice through the meat with almost no extra force than the mere weight of my cutting arm. That is a huge deal, given how gamey and tough this chirper can be. Texture? Impeccable.
As for flavour, there are hints of shiitake backed by a very smoky sweetness from the apple puree, which pairs quite well with the natural game-like attribute of the bird. This dish would pair very well with a red wine, *hint hint*.
It is appropriate that as the last savoury on the menu, the inside skirt w/eggplant puree sends me off with a bang. The star here is definitely that inside skirt. Juicy, supple and encrusted by a lovely brown char, this is one heck of a cut. Flavours are very mushroomy, very salty and also quite sweet, thanks to the tamari & creamy eggplant puree.
I was somewhat worried that fungi got so much representation, but my fears were allayed when I discovered just how ready I was to tuck into the shiitake, and even woodear – a fungi which I almost exclusively do not eat under other circumstances. In this case, it added a bit of crunchy texture to the beef that while substitutable with vegetables, didn’t detract at all from my experience. It was almost like a crunchy pig’s ear, and overall the shrooms tasted quite meaty, given just how plump and juicy they were.
It’s definitely the most flavoursome dish of the entire night, but the weak point for me is that when all’s taken into account, it’s unavoidably a very salty plate of food. This is a fault I can’t quite forgive – it can definitely be dialled down a notch or three.
At the very least, the saltiest dish happens to be the one right before dessert. Thank goodness for that.
Upon my first glance of the pumpkin seed sorbet, I could be forgiven to think that this was a pre-dessert, rather than our true blue sweetsplosion. It’s just so small, I could eat it in two spoonfuls! At least, it’s a tasty little morsel, packed with surprise – a pumpkin seed sorbet? I didn’t think that would work, but of course, being proven wrong on food assumptions is a an absolute joy. Creamy for a sorbet, but not too sweet, this I can bet on.
One element I particularly liked were the dehydrated mandarins. Resembling small pieces of honeycomb, these provide a crunchy crumble which quickly dissolves into an acidic zing, helping to cut through the sorbet. The meringue does the opposite of this, which wasn’t really to my palate, but it is creamy and the smoky-sweet notes of caramel make it a good standalone meringue. As for the pumpkin seeds on top? A bit rich – the sorbet is already obviously pumpkin, the seeds add more of the same, and are quite oily to eat due to their high fat content. They can be taken out, as far as I’m concerned.
I had suspected Automata was going to be good, I had not expected it would surpass my expectations. Consistently satisfying dishes is rare in a multi-course set menu, but Clayton Wells and his food mechanics have nailed it. I would have preferred a bit more substance to the dessert, or an extra dessert as the savouries really needed to be “cleared”, but other than that, an overall fine meal – one I’d be happy to pay for again and again.
Automata would definitely be a local haunt, if I lived in the area. Shame I don’t, but perhaps it’s time I considered it 😉
This post is based on an independently paid visit to Automata
Dear reader, you probably haven’t visited Automata yet – GO! And let me know what you think in the comments below!
- Absolutely delicious food, with no deal-breaking weakness in any dish
- Killer restaurant vibe with a punk playlist!
- The saltiness of the inside skirt was intense
- Service was a little “too close for comfort” personal – some waiters got physically very close when attempting to explain dishes, which felt uncomfortable.
- Sodium overload: an extra sweet course, pre-dessert or post-dessert would have been welcome (the main dessert was a bit on the small side)
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F7.5 | S4 | A3