If someone had told me years ago that the Old Clare Hotel would become the most sophisticated venue in Sydney, I would have laughed in their face. Today, however, I'm just hoping they let me inside.
The first restaurant to open in the Old Clare complex is Automata, which marks the debut solo opening for ex-Momofuku Seiobo sous chef Clayton Wells. We're given a dining room that looks like a luxury spaceship, filled with sleek polished metals and machinery-styled fittings. I can't wait to see where this meal takes me.
The decision-making process is fairly straightforward: there's one option, a five-course, frequently changing degustation ($88), which is pretty reasonably priced as far as degos go. If you can afford to, splash out and get the matching drinks ($55), which will have you sipping umami-based sakes and spirits alongside thoughtfully chosen boutique wines.
The meal kicks off with a starter of storm clams swimming in a fishy seawater made from rosemary dashi and ground nori; it's a much more delicious mouthful than you'll find at the beach. It's followed with a clean and cleansing serve of blanched asparagus rolled in sesame leaf and topped with umeboshi plum stock, poured at the table.
Dish number two takes a bolder step forward. A meltingly tender hapuka fish is served with creamy roe emulsion and little pops of sea succulents, draped in a melty sheet of dashi-dipped seaweed. The dish combines silky textures with umami punch to create an absolute knockout of a dish.
It's about this time that the bread and butter arrive. I wouldn't bother mentioning it except it's pretty much the best butter in the entire world. This ambrosia of the gods is made by whipping butter with chicken jus (chicken jus), anchovies and sunflower seeds until it's as light and fluffy as Chantilly cream with just a hint of nutty crunch. Well done, Wells.
Mid-way through the meal, they bring out a big steamed cabbage leaf. Thanks for that. Wait, there's more underneath! Phew. Talk about an Instagrammer's worst nightmare. Concealed beneath a head of braised purple witlof is a slow-roasted quail and creamy smear of burnt eggplant puree.
The final savoury dish is a slab of Rangers Valley skirt steak served with morel, shiitake and wood ear mushrooms in a brown butter and tamari sauce. Skirt is the unlikely hero of the day; it's expertly flamed to create a rich, winey caramelisation on the crust while staying moist, pink and tender within. The meal concludes with a scoop of not-so-sweet pumpkin seed sorbet, served alongside freeze-dried mandarins and meringue with a hint of Angostura bitters. The flavours are quite savoury, but it makes perfect sense within the context of the meal.
As we leave, we're given two green chartreuse petit fours. I warn you now: consume at your own risk. Chewing on one unleashed a burst of freshness not akin to chugging a bottle of Listerine; it completely wiped my body clean like a herbal nuclear explosion. With no trace of the meal left at all, I started to question whether the dinner even took place. The Old Clare Hotel, the most stylish restaurant in town? Couldn't be.