Automata and Silvereye restaurant reviews, Sydney

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Andrew Finlayson

The future is already here, William Gibson said, it's just not very evenly distributed. Right now you'll find a potent dose of it in Chippendale. The opening of The Old Clare Hotel has brought with it not one very good restaurant, but two - and there's another on the way. Today we're looking at Automata, a smart-casual number from former Momofuku sous-chef Clayton Wells, where the emphasis is firmly on the smart over the casual, and Silvereye, an ambitious and well-resourced fine-diner from British-born Noma alumnus Sam Miller, which seems intended to drag special-occasion dining away from the double-damask of old to the gleaming unclothed birch of Scandinavia. It's strong stuff, but there's a good chance you're going to want seconds.

Both establishments make full and free use of the vocabulary of contemporary restaurants. Where 10 years ago some fine-diners were still kicking things off with demitasses of soup, saucing with veloutés and leaning on fat to do a lot of the heavy lifting on the plate, these guys like to open with wispy, crunchy, evanescent things, use clear broths for much of their saucing, favour seaweed and mushrooms to enrich their dishes, and create accents of flavour using the greens of the bush and beach. They're keen on powdered produce, dehydrated to concentrate its punch, and they lean as much on smoking, pickling and live fire as they do low-temperature cooking in bags and steam ovens. The plates are bespoke, and the wine lists skew unorthodox and seek to highlight the unfamiliar.

If all this sounds dangerously po-faced, fortunately one of the most appealing things about The New Dining is the enthusiasm of the people serving it. Sure, sometimes it can seem a bit Jonestown, what with the shining eyes and occasional fixity of the smiles, but as long as there's no hint of condescension, the feeling that the waiters are part of the project and engaged with the kitchen rather than simply hired guns usually makes for more personable and informed service. And that goes double when, as at Silvereye, the chefs do the Noma thing and bring the food out themselves, affectless and occasionally sweet in their shyness.

The other straight-up win for the hapless diner in the post-El Bulli restaurant landscape is the advent of snacks. When they're delivered in pacy manner, these profusions of morsels feel hospitable, a party at the table. You're eating with your hands, you're having fun.

At Automata it's a plate of cold clams and salmon skin. Doesn't sound like much of a knees-up at first glance, but the fish skin is fried puffy and crunchy and dressed in salt and vinegar; the storm clams are shucked and dressed in the shell with chilled dashi and a splash of cream. Chef Wells flavours the dashi with rosemary and a little powdered dulse seaweed, so the taste of the clam itself becomes a note rather than the focus of the dish, but the result is surprisingly harmonious.

The first thing to hit the table at Silvereye, meanwhile, appears to be a large pappadum, but turns out to be the meat of pig's trotters turned into a fine and crisp cracker. It's sprinkled with toasted wattle-seed, which gives it a spicy, almost-but-not-quite-burnt quality. It's quickly followed by little cups of pickled leaves freighting chopped raw prawn and powdered dulse served, for reasons known only to the chefs, in a tin biscuit box decorated with a picture of a kingfisher.

Then more things. Sunflower crispbread, aka the world's fanciest Ryvita, is topped with raw and pickled baby zucchini and geranium petals: good. A cigar made of crunchy parsnip skin and filled with a parsnip cream: yep. Fat, pale fingers of white asparagus: okay. Manicured artichoke hearts and emulsified brown butter: fine. "Tommy's turnip tempura": much more like it. Sous-chef Tom Halpin, another Noma alumnus, deep-fries the leaves of baby turnips; the tender bulbs, still attached to the other ends of the stalks, are bathed in a macadamia nut cream. It's a keeper. The red-spot whiting, meanwhile, has been part of the plan for chef Sam Miller from day one. The meat is taken off the small fish, the skeleton is deep-fried, then topped with sea succulents and watercress cream; the head is injected with a cream made of oyster, and the thing is eaten entire tail and all, in two or three intense and crunchy bites. These things are presented variously on plates, pieces of bark and cast-iron. We're a long way from demitasses of creamy cauliflower soup here, Toto.

Tasting menus are feared and loathed by a significant fraction of the Sydney dining community, frequently with good reason. (The mere idea of eating a fish head whole, bones, eye-sockets and teeth, will have more than a few would-be customers choking down a wave of nausea.) But both Silvereye and Automata exploit the format to present effects that couldn't work with à la carte menus.

The first dishes proper at Silvereye, if you can call them that, are barely there, but in the best possible way. Eating them in spring, their evanescence seems like a perfect distillation of the season: a very green arrangement of peas, pale young almonds, small broad beans, crunchy, salty beach leaves and the barest splash of seaweed stock, followed in short order by wisps of salt-baked beetroot. Miller combines the beetroot with blackcurrant, making for a power-chord of flavour, and then riffs around the edges with accents of rose and rhubarb. It's a flash of brilliance, and then it's gone.

The form of the menu allows for these very spare, beautiful gestures that wouldn't quite work as standalone dishes otherwise: a sliver of blue-eye trevalla blackened in a very hot pan and served in a potent broth of long-cooked button mushrooms; a length of oxtail braised with porcini mushrooms and onions in red ale, then baked and plated with a quenelle of burnt radicchio compote made tart with blueberry.

A round of slightly grisly juniper-smoked lamb shoulder, though, presented with nothing more than a spoonful of sauce and some tiny pine cones the chefs found on an expedition to Braidwood and then pickled, seems less like a haiku and more like a thought left unfinished, the meat tender and juicy but without much savour, the pickled pine a perfect, bitter wine-killer.

And you don't want to kill the wine. Chippendale is suddenly a repository of notable wine-pouring talent. Silvereye is managed by James Audas, a wine importer and sommelier in his own right, but the somm duties go to his bearded pal Sally Pettigrew (Sally is short for Sam). At Automata, Abby Meinke, whom you may recognise from Moon Park and Bentley Restaurant & Bar, runs the floor, while the beardy Tim Watkins, a veteran of Pilu, handles the pours with aplomb. You'll see more wines from Australia being pushed to the fore at Automata, which is welcome, but both are firmly about the roads less travelled. They brim with unusual beers, wines from the Jura, wines from Sicily and sakes. You want a vodka made in Tasmania from sheep's whey, you won't leave disappointed.

If you want bread, on the other hand, you won't leave Silvereye happy. And want bread you will. Miller says he's not going to put bread on until he's happy with it, but this place has been many months in the making. This decision carries with it a whiff of the wants of the kitchen being privileged over the needs of the diner. That's something I'd say Silvereye and Automata, chef-driven establishments both, need to handle with care. We live in an era when the chefs run the show, but we're still paying the bills.

At Automata the bread is a highlight, but that could just be the butter talking. The little house-made wholemeal rolls are paired with a dollop of butter that's infused with chicken and anchovy, and sprinkled with sunflower seeds. Savoury, salty, sublime.

Where Silvereye offers a choice of 11 or 17 courses at $140 and $175 (many of those being two-bite snacks), Automata is five courses at $88. I've had meals there (and at Silvereye, for that matter) where I've walked out not quite sated, but the time commitment, the cost and the impact of the food seem to find its best balance at Automata. It seems odd to think of a tasting menu-only restaurant as somewhere you could eat more than once in a month, but the bar snacks at Automata are first-class (fried anchovy-stuffed olives! The surprise success of burrata dressed with shellfish oil!) and the kitchen is committed to keeping the menu moving.

Wells is refreshingly unafraid to kill his darlings. A fine piece of hapuku, steamed just so, given an umami-laden accompaniment of cured John Dory roe and draped dramatically with blanched nori, was unquestionably the hit of the first menu, and then it was gone barely a fortnight later. Elsewhere it's a tweak: the rich, red wine-friendly inside beef skirt paired sympathetically with the textures of shiitake, wood-ear mushrooms and an eggplant purée, gets a successful switcheroo with slivers of poached-then-grilled lamb neck. The coins of asparagus wrapped in sesame leaves that are centre-plate in a pool of plum stock (plum stock!) and fronds of dulse one day, become the support act the next to a very large grilled prawn served with barley miso. The constants here are the close attention paid to the savoury quality of what's on the plate and the acid levels. You get the impression these guys taste their food.

A few bob have been spent on the fit-outs. Automata is a tricky space, a wide, shallow shopfront with a central communal table, a mezzanine running over the top. The robotic name is referenced with unfortunate literality. The flanged lamps over the bar are reminiscent of the teleporter in the Cronenberg remake of The Fly, the valve-addled chandeliers are more in keeping with the robot squid things from The Matrix, while the sconce by the front door, perhaps the only feature piece that makes sense in a restaurant context, has an echo of the mise en scène of Prometheus. The men's room offers a surprising grace note: the appearance of the graffiti-splashed 1940s porcelain pub urinals, rescued from the renovation of the public bar of The Clare hotel upstairs, a nice nod to a bit of local history. Piss-elegant.

Silvereye sits on the second floor of the pub bit of the development, and benefits from the gift of great bones. The Deco curve of the corner facing Broadway sets the cues for a largely classic look, tweaked by the centrality of a large and open kitchen and the deployment of lots of nude, Nordic-leaning furniture under large zinc-coloured lightshades. In another perfectly undigested interpretation of a name, the walls are decorated here and there with paintings of the silvereye - Zosterops lateralis - perched and on the wing. Dangerously fine stemware from Zalto gives the tables a hint of luxury.

Both venues are loud, both are still in the process of discovering what music works in a restaurant. Silvereye has the better acoustics, but the greater prevalence of head-scratchers on the playlist (the theme from Shaft, a few bebop tracks that might be better used as car alarms, or to scare away vermin). At the Silvereye price point, it's going to lose them quite a few potential repeat customers. Both places are lit well enough, at least, that you can see your hand in front of your face.

There's a distinct absence of marshmallows and chocolate on the dessert menus. Yoghurt, celeriac, beer and pumpkin seeds are more these guys' speed.

Wells likes to play things acidic: faintly halva-ish walnut ice-cream with aged mirin and pops of blood plum, like a very flash sundae, followed by Dr Henderson jellies - petits fours of the mixture of Fernet Branca and crème de menthe celebrated as a hangover cure by London chef (and GT columnist) Fergus Henderson.

Miller gets major points for the poetry of his cherry blossom ice-cream. The taste of the cherry blossom is hard to pin down, but the crumbly texture of the ice-cream is pleasing, and pumpkin juice provides the surprising flavour counterpoint.

In these dual visions for the future, we see the chef on the ascendant, bringing with them a profusion of international ideas, a shifting palette (and palate), and a hint of cheffy preciousness. The third restaurant at The Old Clare, which opens this month, takes a more diner-driven approach, with chef Jason Atherton saying he's committed to the what-you-want-when-you-want-it school of business. It'll be interesting to see which approach prevails. For now, we have two brilliant new players on the scene. Automata is out of the gate firing on all cylinders, and unquestionably delivers more bang for buck. Silvereye is going to take a bit more time to find its groove, but has the potential to wow with a flavour of its own. We'll see. "The future is inevitable and precise, but it may not occur," wrote Borges. "God lurks in the gaps."



Automata
5 Kensington St, Chippendale, (02) 8277 8555
Licensed
Cards AE, MC, V, EFT
Open Lunch Sun noon-3.30pm, dinner Wed-Sat 6pm-11pm
Prices Tasting menu $88, $143 with wine matches
Vegetarian On request
Noise Noisy
Wheelchair access Yes
Minus Weird space
Plus Food, service and wine all copacetic

Silvereye
20 Broadway, Chippendale, (02) 8277 8520
Licensed
Cards AE, MC, V, EFT
Open Dinner Tue-Sat 6.30pm-9pm
Prices Tasting menus $140 and $175
Vegetarian On request
Noise Good acoustics, questionable tunes
Wheelchair access Yes
Minus Can feel more like a chef's performance than a meal
Plus Fresh, exciting flavours



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