Automata review

Automata's industrial-chic split-level space.
Automata's industrial-chic split-level space. Photo: Christopher Pearce

5 Kensington St Chippendale, NSW 2008

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Opening hours Lunch Sat; dinner Wed-Sat
Features Accepts bookings, Accommodation, Bar, Licensed, Degustation, Events, Groups
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Clayton Wells
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 8277 8555

The most delicious dish I ate last year wasn't a truffled sea urchin tart, or a highfalutin piece of beef. It wasn't grilled lobster, heritage-breed pork or whole coral trout. It was a bowl of perfectly ripe, hand-peeled grape tomatoes, lightly pickled in a sweet sherry vinegar at Automata.

The little red orbs were clustered in a chilled broth that smelled like an Italian nonna's backyard (thanks to actual crushed tomato stems, no less), sporting flavour of rousing clarity. No smoke and mirrors, just beautiful produce expertly handled to become the best version of itself.

Clayton Wells has been using familiar ingredients to create knockout dishes like this since the chef opened Automata, beneath Chippendale's The Old Clare Hotel, in 2015. The only problem was that after a course was removed from the menu, it would never be seen again.

Scallop with oyster emulsion, marigold and caviar.
Scallop with oyster emulsion, marigold and caviar. Photo: Christopher Pearce

"For a long time, I was about constant change and never repeating a dish," Wells tells me tableside at lunch on a drizzly Saturday. "But as the restaurant has evolved, I'm now inclined to let a few favourites return; the tomatoes are coming back." Okay, phew.

In the meantime, you can book a seat at the finer diner's canteen-style table for my favourite dish, so far, of this year: raw scallop bathed in neon-orange marigold oil, and blessed with luscious depth from an oyster emulsion. 

For years, Wells only offered a five-course tasting menu for about $100. When COVID-19 hit and Automata's guest capacity was halved, dishes were added and prices were raised to maintain a pre-pandemic level of revenue. A $195, eight-course menu proved so popular it has become permanent.

Yellowfin tuna with kanzuri, peach and chardonnay vinegar.
Yellowfin tuna with kanzuri, peach and chardonnay vinegar. Photo: Christopher Pearce

That scallop isn't even a "proper" course, mind, but more of a warm-up act before a smorgasbord of snacks, including yakitori-style duck heart spiced with curry leaf, and tiger prawns beefed up with XO. We're going to need a bigger carafe of sake.

The menu officially starts with a translucent dice of yellowfin tuna layered with lightly salted peach and a thin jelly of chardonnay vinegar (which looks a bit like a peel-off beauty mask, just quietly). Creme fraiche and kanzuri – a fermented Japanese chilli paste – bring all the components together for slow-building heat and flavours that sharpen with each mouthful.

Curls of semolina strozzapreti pasta and plump mussels shine in a brown butter seasoned with the liquid of pickled mustard greens. Smart. Thrifty. Tasty. 

Blackmore wagyu tri-tip with spring onion, wasabi and lime .
Blackmore wagyu tri-tip with spring onion, wasabi and lime . Photo: Christopher Pearce

Meanwhile, meaty quail is brined and barbecued for the breast to be bolstered by licorice sauce and wild oregano.

Wagyu tri-tip (the full-flavoured cut that is part of the sirloin) is coated with a glossy, shallot-based sauce alive with lime juice and a friendly kick of wasabi.

It's about now you may start to wonder if the six-course option ($165) would have been more sensible, but you know what they say: in for a penny, in for a gloriously messy mango.

Caramelised mango with casabel chilli and finger lime.
Caramelised mango with casabel chilli and finger lime. Photo: Christopher Pearce

The scored cheek is painted with caramelised muscovado, black lime powder and Mexican cascabel chilli, and finished with pops of finger lime to balance the sweetness. A kid who looks about eight wolfs his down nearby with a face covered in sunset-yellow pulp, while sticky mango juice streams down my arms.

With all its polished concrete, steel and recycled motorbike parts, Automata could be a mechanic's tea room from the distant future. However, a warm, family-friendly vibe rises above the cold surfaces, thanks to relaxed, on-message staff and honest cooking from an open kitchen. If you're looking for a place to drop more than $200 a head that also welcomes strollers, this is it.

During the first COVID lockdown, I declared that lengthy degustations would be a victim of the pandemic, but it turns out this wasn't quite correct. While there has certainly been a greater focus on comfort-first a la carte menus, ambitious chefs such as Wells have spent the past two years honing their high-end craft for a return to "normal".

This means fine diners, including Quay and Bentley in the city, are better than ever, and special-occasion restaurants are back in a big way. Good luck scoring a table at Oncore for Clare Smyth's $300 tasting menu at Crown before June.

Meanwhile, I'm already planning my next long lunch in Chippendale. Tiny tomato season is happening any day.

Vibe: Warm and confident cooking with a generous pinch of industrial-chic

Go-to dish: Scallop, oyster emulsion and marigold.

Drinks: A mid-sized cellar of artisan and often natural wines, plus a few grower champagnes, sakes and house cocktails

Cost: Tasting menu only: six courses, $165 per person; eight courses, $195; $100-$140 for matched drinks

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine