The Kensington Street development in Chippendale, tucked down the end of the CBD, has breathed new life into Sydney. The Old Clare hotel opening brings with it the cachet of three new restaurants, each threatening to top the last. First, Automata from ex-Momofuku Seiōbō sous chef Clayton Wells; followed by Noma and Fäviken chef Sam Miller’s Silverye, and lastly Kensington Street Social by UK chef Jason Atherton.
The timber-lined room is peppered with steampunk paraphernalia, but it’s the long communal tables on both the ground floor, gazing into the open kitchen, and the mezzanine level that gives you a sense that you’re in for something a little unconventional. If dining next to strangers (you actually don’t feel encroached upon) isn’t your thing then there’s some smaller tables dotted along the front of the room, and the bar area.
Continuing the trend of set menus, here it’s five courses plus snacks for $88, which works well for those that tire of long degustations or their high price points. While the a la carte wine list tosses up some interested and varied options, go for the matching wines ($55) from sommelier Tim Watkins and don’t look back. Don’t be concerned that bread and butter doesn’t land on the table when you arrive, as it’s worth the wait when it comes along later on. Soft wholemeal rolls, warm from the oven, are merely there to stop you eating the butter, flavoured with chicken jus and anchovy, with a spoon. It’s good. Good enough to say ‘yes’ to a second serve before the offer is even out of the staff’s mouth.
Savoury umami, bitterness and tartness reoccur throughout the meal; starting with the snacks: tender yet crunchy red witlof smothered with a violet-scented mustard (interesting but not a highlight); and nibbles of storm clam, served back in the shell with a creamy rosemary-infused dashi (very good). Pillars of sesame-leaf wrapped asparagus, draped with ribbons of purple dulse seaweed, packs an umami punch, finished with a tart stock flavoured with umeboshi plum.
The seaweed surfaces again in the best dish of the meal; a fillet of steamed hapuka sits over a john dory roe emulsion, circled by sea blight, and swathed in a dashi-soaked cloak of laver seaweed. Slow-cooked quail is enclosed under a dome of blackberry-dusted braised witlof, the leaves shedding their usual grunt of bitterness, with an edge of sweetness coming in, which pairs well with the bitter sweetness of the burnt eggplant sauce.
Where most restaurants are serving tender cuts of meat, or slow-cooking to the point where you only need a spoon to eat it, here the inside skirt of Rangers Valley angus brings full-flavoured, yet still juicy, chew back into fashion; paired with morel and shiitake mushrooms, and a walnut purée. The savoury sojourn continues, somewhat surprisingly, with dessert: a creamy pumpkin seed sorbet, with crunchy bursts of of freeze-dried mandarin, and angostura bitters flavoured soft meringue. There’s a lurking sweetness, but the final dish perfectly ties up a meal that favours bitter and savoury.
This is a bold meal that doesn’t set out to be crowd-pleasing. Which is not to say that it doesn’t impress or that it’s not enjoyable, but that you’re here for something different, a journey through some of the less travelled tastes. If Automata reflects a new generation of cuisine for Sydney, then I’m on board for the ride. As long as it comes with chicken-jus flavoured butter.