Automata – 27 September 2015

Kensington Street is getting an upgrade, and I want to go there for one reason: Kensington Street Social. However, since it wasn’t open yet, and I had some spare time, I was very lucky to find out that Automata, another new restaurant on the block, was open for Sunday lunches (the only spare day I had in a short trip to Sydney), so off I went.

The layout, to me at least, felt remarkably similar to Nel, especially when it comes to the open kitchen. The other similarity, I noticed, was the set menu style meals. It’s not quite a grand deguastation, but coming in at 5 courses, it is still an experience. It’s also relatively cheap, and by that I mean sub $100. It’s like a new breed of restaurant has popped up – accessible fine dining as if to appeal to the masses. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but considering how small profit margins are for restaurants, I am a little concerned about their longevity. It’s hard to see how all these restaurants will all remain standing after 5-10 years, if that. But only time will tell.
Onto the food.

Fried salmon skin, yuzu kosho; storm clam, rosemary dashi, cream

That crispy white salmon skin! It was nice and salty and super tasty. And then there were the clams. I’ve never had a storm clam before, and so I couldn’t tell if each shell served multiple clams, or if there were just clam pieces. Though it’d be pretty weird to cut the clam to pieces, so I guess there were simply many clams. That rosemary dashi was quite interesting, it was aromatic and tea-like. I’d never considered adding different flavours to dashi, so that was quite inspiring.

Asparagus, sesame leaves, umeboshi, dulse

What a funky smelling dish. It seems like fermentation is the flavour of the month (I say this because I also recently had some miso butter corn from Single Origin Roasters). The umeboshi was quite pungent, sitting in between the asparagus and sesame leaves. The dulse (seaweed) was very pretty, and mixed with the umeboshi and the plum sauce, actually had a bit of an oceanic quality to it.

Wholemeal bread with butter

Bread courses are so interesting. I love it when each restaurant serves up the bread and butter because when it’s different, it’s different. This butter… wow this butter! It was seasoned with anchovies, sunflower seeds and chicken jus. That made it so addictive, I made sure to heap it all onto the bread!

Steamed hapuka, cured john dory roe emulsion, seaweed

This ugly looking thing? A delicious steamed hapuka was underneath! It was cool watching the chefs plate up this one – the cream first, spread with the back of a spoon. Then came the sea blite (yes I love recognising native greens!), before the fish was placed on top, roe emulsion, then a sheet of seaweed was dipped in what I believe to be dashi, before being folded over the whole thing like a piece of cloth, and then finished with a sprinkle of the green stuff.

This fish was pretty amazing, somewhere between that of a cod and a patagonian toothfish. Very nice, firm but fatty. The fish itself was kept light and natural, while it was the sauces around it that added flavour to it, and the roe and seaweed gave it that lovely umami boost.

Quail two ways, witlof, burnt apple, capers

These witlof leaves were amazing as they were again draped over the meat and had a slightly pickled flavour, and that sprinkle of caper crumbs added nice bursts of saltiness. There was braised quail leg, which was shredded and placed on top, and then slow roasted quail breast at the bottom, which had a strong gamey flavour, and was just barely cooked – it was closer to the rare side which was quite interesting. Then the burnt apple sauce at the bottom balanced all of it out with its subtle sweetness. The flavours worked, but it wasn’t my preferred style of quail.

Inside skirt, shiitake, morel, wood ear, tamari and brown butter.

Watching the chef cook the skirt steak was super cool – placed on a sizzling hot plate then weighted down with pots and pans. I was very impressed with how this was cooked – medium rare with a decent amount of fat. All the skirt that I buy don’t have as much fat, and I can’t seem to cook it like this. My piece was also noticeably sinewy. I didn’t mind that, but I did think it was an interesting cut to use. Interesting in a good way, since I personally am not a fan of prime cuts (flat iron is my favourite for its tenderness and natural marbling).

The mushrooms were interesting because from what I’ve seen on Instagram, it’s whatever they have, so I managed to get some morel! I believe it’s my first time eating that kind of mushroom. The flavour of the sauce was a bit too much for me though, being very strong. Possibly also because it was a more asian flavour, and if it tastes remotely like anything my parents cook, well, my parents cook it better. But the steak was nice!

Pumpkin seed sorbet, bitters meringue, mandarin.

While it’s a sweet dessert, the sorbet has a good dose of savoury flavour to it, making it incredibly balanced. The sorbet itself was too heavy for me though, even when lightened by the airiness of the meringue and freeze fried mandarin. The flavours though! That sweetness was just right.

Overall, it was quite a nice experience – also because I got to watch the chefs in action. I really, really, really like watching chefs. Though it’t not surprising given how much I cook. The way everything is organised, the concentration as they plate, is just amazing.

Overall, the food was very interesting, all different styles and a good balance of raw/seafood/vegetarian/red meat/heavy/dessert. I personally like sweet, dainty desserts, so the sorbet (and only the sorbet) threw me off, in a way it was a lot like Momofuku’s pear tart.

The place isn’t too bad for the price ($88), but compared to Nel ($35), I’d rather spend less money and get something similar (plus I have a thing for nose to tail stuff). The sub $100 dining range isn’t really for me – I like to splurge, or be super cheap, but it’s definitely a great entry-level fine dining experience for the average person. These restaurants work well with the leverage of social media, but for the number of seats they have, I think they need to pull a national/international crowd to keep afloat. But hey, I’m no restaurateur so I can’t say for sure.

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