“So you’re going to get your eyes tested,” my Uber driver enquires? It takes me a moment to understand he’s confused the restaurant name – Automata – with optometrist; er... easy mistake. My own reading of it is a nod to chefs having to be like automatons – robots - reproducing precisely the same dish over and over again.
The restaurant décor is minimalist - all cold, hard metals, engine parts and stark concrete. By contrast, the service team – led by restaurant manager Abby Meinke (ex-Moon Park) - is all about warmth beaming onto your table, like the rays of sunshine hitting our portion of the long, shared communal bench.
Sommelier Tim Watkins (ex-Pilu) discusses wine, sake and beer so effortlessly, artfully weaving tales of terroir and sake brewing techniques into the fabric of your conversation, he feels like another guest. You won’t find his wine matches printed on the five-course Menu ($88/head) either, because Tim is open to tailoring the accompanying beverages to your drinking predilections. So, if you hate Sauvignon blanc – and I mostly do – he isn’t going to torture you with drinking it in the optional Matched Beverage Package ($60/head). And you should order the package merely to ensure Tim’s repeated visits to your table.
Coming up to eighteen months of age, Chef Clayton Wells' much-awarded restaurant is still a relative newcomer in Sydney’s dining scene, but it's easy to see what the fanfare is about. Automata is very much a modern fine diner - Wells has taken on board Sydney’s pointed shift away from fussy, over-styled plating, and our desire to spend less time and money at the table, all without sacrificing produce quality.
Here you will receive five perfectly proportioned courses that shift with produce availability, starting with snacks like guanciale (pork jowl) and smoked enoki, and a sour cherry dish that celebrates end of the season fruit. It’s matched to a sparkling wine – the NV Paltrinieri ‘Leclisse’ Lambrusco di Sorbara ($16/glass) – which will likely renovate your understanding of Lambrusco. Pale pink and savoury with hints of with strawberry fruit and light minerality, it’s got enough dry acidity to cut against the stone fruit’s late-season sweetness – evident even against fermented juice, black garlic and little pickled caper petal caps.
We move on to a pretty white pepper broth poured over freshly picked mud crab, pickled egg yolk and a mound of braised pepitas. The pumpkin seeds yield pleasurably to your teeth, adding a textural element to the elegant broth. We take it with sake – the 2015 Miyako-Bijin ‘White Label’ ($15/glass) – junmai (pure rice) sake. Being unpasturised and unfiltered, it has good, savoury rice characteristics, some apple-like notes and a dry finish - I'd like it even without food.
In the centre of the open plan kitchen, the Big Green Egg might have caught your attention. It’s a ceramic cooking and smoking system designed by NASA (well the ceramic technology it uses is), with a chimney top. Wells uses it to cook your beef heart. Before you screw up your nose, this is a surprisingly gentle dish taking tender heart segments and teaming them with burnt and pickled onions, thyme, mountain pepper and smoked salt. It’s matched by an equally gentle 2015 Claus Preisinger ‘Kalkstein’ Blaufränkisch ($17/glass) from Austria, and some fluffy, brown dinner rolls.
No one at my table professes to be very enthused about steamed fish, particularly after eating the more robust beef heart, but we eat our words when the flavour-packed steamed bass groper lands. The flavour is aided by a creamy cured roe emulsion (think: taramasalata), mussel segments and fermented red cabbage, all sitting in a vividly green pool of herb sauce.
The fish course is larger, designed to fill out the any corners that the bread roll missed, though you can add on an optional Quickes Cheddar ($12/person) course. It’s worth throwing in at least one per table, if only to try the accompanying caramelised kiwifruit condiment - who knew?
While it’s hard to say anything too critical about something as beautifully presented as macadamia sorbet adorned with fresh strawberry scales glued on by crème fraiche, I must confess to wanting more from the vibrant red fruit’s promised kombu marination. Though once my probing spoon uncovered the dessert’s hidden pocket of black sesame, and I’d gotten further acquainted with the matching red rice 2015 Mukai Shuzo ‘Ine Mankai’ ($14/glass) sake, the dessert did win me over in the end.
5 Kensington Street, Chippendale
Ph: (02) 8277 8555