You always knew that Auto.Lab in Chippendale wasn’t going to deliver your regular scheduled programming when it came to brunch menus. After all, the Automata spin-off (which takes over Silvereye’s vacant site at The Old Clare) is run by some high-powered talent and they’re not going to resort to lazy avocado on toast and other seen-it-before staples.
Automata head chef Clayton Wells is in charge of the cliche-free menu and he has some co-conspirators with major cred helping him out, too. One-time Young Chef of the Year winner Mitch Orr dropped in two weeks ago, flipping the ube waffle he’d served for dessert at ACME into a landing base for fried chicken and LP’s smoked maple syrup and side-stepping the obvious by serving Cambodian-style barbecue pork neck, garlic rice and pickle salad. This weekend, 2016 Good Food Guide Chef of the Year Pasi Petanen is doing a guest slot, and I’d place heavy bets that he’ll sneak a good amount of rye, lingonberry, food puns and creative flair onto the menu (as was his style at Cafe Paci). I’ll be heading to Auto.Lab for the third week in a row, just to check out his likely great offerings. And O Tama Carey (who landed Time Out‘s Chef of the Year award just before leaving Berta) is scheduled to make an appearance later this month, too – I’ll be redirecting my weekend plans in order to see what she does at Auto.Lab, too.
Not that Clayton really needs other people’s star power, as he’s got enough blockbuster talent to make Auto.Lab worthy of your attention. (But the fact his CV is pretty much a collection point of acclaim after acclaim – see his recent Good Food Guide Chef of the Year and Gourmet Traveller Best New Talent nominations, and his Time Out Chef of the Year win – well, that really doesn’t hurt at all.) So when he comes up with a Watermelon Salad ($11) with creme fraiche, shiso and a heavy-hitting rosemary oil that he only just taste-tested that morning, it’s a no-brainer when the ultra-original combo is blazingly good.
And sure, any cafe can sling mushies on toast, but at Auto.Lab, the Mushrooms On Miche ($16) is actually next level. The bread is topped with more quality mushroom types than you can tally up – oyster, Swiss brown, black fungus, etc – and Clayton doesn’t even bother with boring, standardised buttons because he thinks they’re pretty much the weakest link in the fungus world. He downgrades them into being used only for the nutty, zippy mushroom paste that’s slathered between the miche and mushies. Even then, he elevates them into something flavour-rich and great. These mushrooms on toast deserve the best scorecard you can give them. (And, you can upsize them with LP’s pork sausage if you like.)
Will’s Fried Eggs with Bourbon and Orange-Glazed Ham ($20) was no wallflower-ish dish either. The Kurobata ham, christened with Jack Daniels, doesn’t sound like your everyday breakfast number – and it isn’t. Its full-blast intensity has a special-occasion decadence to it – it’s meant to evoke Christmas ham and, for Clayton personally, the feel of holiday breakfasts. (Minus the food coma and explosive trails of gift wrap.) Will summoned the Baby Gem Lettuce Salad ($10) with pistachio vinaigrette to cut through the high-calorie hedonism – and to re-balance the guilt factor.
Will and Dan argued over the mustard factor in the Salt Beef Bagels ($18); Dan thought there wasn’t enough of a nose-clearing jolt, whereas Will reckoned there was the right amount of zing. We all could agree on the quite obvious merits of the Buffalo Mozzarella ($16), with the straight-up appeal of grilled asparagus and pickled green tomatoes, which turned the contrast levels all the way up on the creamy cheese.
In line with the overeachiever status of everyone involved, Auto.Lab’s wine list is by Tim Watkins, the current Good Food Guide Sommelier of the Year, and the cocktails are shaped by the award-winning team behind This Must Be The Place. Non-boozy options include “Blue Water” ($8), with its palette-bursting shade of blue-ish purple, derived from T Totaler’s blue pea flower tea, lemon and sugar; Ginseng Tonic ($8), Black Radish Kombucha ($10), a smoky in-house ginger beer ($8) and friendly staffer Glenda Lau’s Juice of the Day ($6). For anyone on a caffeine hunt, there’s T Totaler teas and Single O coffee.
And while Clayton’s desserts at Automata can flip your expectations inside out (because they’re wildly different to the typically sweet finales or elaborate sugar blowouts that wind up a meal), at Auto.Lab, they’re straight-up and simple. Think berry or choc tarts – the type of slices you could imagine headlining an afternoon tea.
While Auto.Lab is heavy on the upsides (and a SWAT team of high-grade talent), there is one downside: it’s only around until Christmas eve. So prioritise your available brunch dates and head to The Old Clare as often as you can before December 25 approaches.
Auto.Lab, Level 2, The Old Clare Hotel, 1 Kensington Street, Chippendale, 02 8277 8555, www.automata.com.au/autolab.