Terry Durack
Automata in the Old Clare Hotel in Chippendale.
Automata in the Old Clare Hotel in Chippendale. Photo: Edwina Pickles

5 Kensington St Chippendale, NSW 2008

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Opening hours Sun-Mon Closed, Tue-Thu 6:00 PM – 12:00 AM, Fri-Sat 12:00 – 3:00 PM 6:00 PM – 12:00 AM
Features Accepts bookings, Accommodation, Bar, Business lunch, Degustation, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Romance-first date, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Clayton Wells
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 8277 8555

Butter makes it better. But how many chefs make butter better? They can't seem to leave it alone. They fluff it, whip it, dust it and pipe it until it is something other than, and inferior to, freshly churned butter.

All hail then when you find someone who has made butter better. At Chippendale's new Automata, the just warm, organic, wholemeal rolls come with butter flavoured with anchovy, sunflower seeds and chicken juices. It's like you're slathering them with chicken gravy. Holy cow, it's good.

It tells me that the chef (Clayton Wells, formerly of London's Viajante and Momofuku Seiobo​) is all over the detail at his first-ever restaurant. Mind you, he's had the time. It has been a long three years since Singaporean hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng announced he was transforming the Clare Hotel on Broadway into a boutique residential hotel incorporating three different restaurants.

Smoked eel, black garlic and malt vinegar.
Smoked eel, black garlic and malt vinegar. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Automata is the first of the three, a distinctive, self-contained space in which Fritz Lang meets Mad Max. The two dining floors remain open to one another and to the kitchen, linked by concrete, iron and vintage timber. A highlight of the Matt Darwon interior is the lighting, from the raft of Ducati cylinder downlights over the long central communal table downstairs to the industrial chandelier by British outfit Rag & Bone Man upstairs. The same steely, monochromatic aesthetic informs Wells' five-course tasting menu, which kicks off with additional snacks. Meaty storm clams, steamed and dressed with rosemary dashi and ground dulse (seaweed), are pure umami-by-the-sea, served with salmon skin crisps that look like something the tide brought in, touched up with a lightly citrussy yuzu/chilli ferment.

Smoked eel is a dark, shadowy dish, intuitively teamed with slashes of malt vinegar onions, crisp leeks and nutty black garlic. A shimmeringly lovely fillet of hapuku flecked with sea succulents and paired with an emulsion of cured john dory roe is cloaked by a funereal sheet of mossy, dashi-dipped, laver seaweed. It's dark, primal, theatrical – and as fellow critic Pat Nourse points out, a nightmare for the Instagram crowd. Then more drama, with an architectural dome of steamed witlof concealing tender, slow-roasted quail meat sauced with burnt apple puree. And more, with a back-to-the-dark-side striated square of Rangers Valley inside skirt that has been grilled on the plancha and topped with morel and shiitake mushrooms; a bit of a chew, but juicy with it.

Sommelier Tim Watkins (Ester, Monopole) keeps the natural-leaning, 100-strong wine list to the fresh and zippy, seen most clearly in the intriguing wine-matching offer ($55), which puts, say, a rich, minerally 2011 Domaine Les Chesnaies "Rochette" chenin blanc from Chinon with the quail. Bittersweet Vermouth del Professore Classico from Piedmont's funky Distilleria Quaglia works surprisingly well with the more-savoury-than-sweet dessert of pumpkin seed sorbet with angostura bitters meringue, freeze-dried mandarin (buckthorn juice and pumpkin seed oil; though I'm yet to be convinced that freeze-drying appeals to anyone who doesn't own a freeze-dryer).

Automata's storm clam, rosemary dashi with fried fish skin.
Automata's storm clam, rosemary dashi with fried fish skin. Photo: Edwina Pickles

But, wow. Wells brings new life and energy to the idea of the tasting menu, turning it around in two hours, with food as sculptural and well engineered as the big-investment space.

On the downside, the long, narrow working men's canteen table means manager Abby Meinke and staff have to swoop in from behind each diner with dishes and pours – not good for the easily startled. But what with the black food, orange wines, and Fernet Branca cough-medicine jellies as petits four, it's not a restaurant for the easily startled in any case.

The low-down

Best bit: A degustation menu that doesn't drag.

Worst bit: Food and wine delivery from behind.

Go-to dish: Storm clam, rosemary dashi and dulse, fried fish skin with yuzu kosho