A heritage precinct in Sydney gets a new lease on life with a trifecta of restaurant openings, writes Pat Nourse.
Loh Lik Peng is calmly freaking out. "Frankly," he says, it's terrifying." The hotelier has opened properties and hip restaurants with his Unlisted Collection to acclaim in London, Hong Kong, Shanghai and his hometown of Singapore but even so he finds the prospect of breaking into the dining market of Sydney more than a little daunting. It's all coming to a head this month with the long-awaited arrival of The Old Clare, a mighty ambitious new boutique hotel in the up-and-coming suburb of Chippendale in inner-city Sydney.
The development draws together two heritage structures, The Clare Hotel and the Carlton & United Brewery administration building, which architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer have linked and transformed into a 62-room hotel. It has a gym and a day spa, a rooftop pool and bar and other appealing mod-cons, but the amenities of most interest to Sydneysiders are, of course, the three new restaurants.
"Sydney has a seriously good food scene and as the new entrant there's a huge amount of trepidation about how we'll do," Loh says. "I don't mind admitting that this has in many ways been the biggest challenge for me yet and opening a hotel and three restaurants at the same time probably is a little foolish but it's too late now to think too much about it."
But Loh has been far from rash in his choice of talent, picking three chefs who cover the spread of potential quite nicely: a local, a rising star and a globetrotting veteran with scores of openings to his name. Let's get to know them and their restaurants a little better.
With 50 seats on the second floor and a tasting-menu format, this will be the fanciest of the eateries.
HOW HE WAS CHOSEN "Sam is someone I respect a lot, and I know a lot of chefs he has worked with think highly of him," says Loh. "He's a humble, thoughtful guy; he'll be doing something unique for Sydney, though I will admit I don't quite know what yet."
WHY HE'S DOING IT "It was the opportunity to do something with Peng," says Miller. "Australia, and Sydney in particular, is an attractive place to live and work, and the produce is very different to what I've worked with before. The whole project is really exciting."
WHAT HE'S DOING "I'd call it contemporary casual fine-dining. Multiple servings, some eaten with your hands, some with cutlery, but everything energetic and tasty. Product-driven, with a bit of a vegetable focus."
ON THE PLATE "A dish of turnips, raw and cooked, with truffles and sorrel, finished with a brown butter and passionfruit vinaigrette - taking traditional elements (turnips, truffles) and preparing them in a thoughtful way and then incorporating some new flavours."
TO DRINK "An eclectic mix of organic and natural wine from Australia and the rest of the world, focusing on small Australian producers and lesser-known grape varieties. Further down the track we hope to have beers and spirits made exclusively for the restaurant."
THE LOOK "Pretty clean - lots of wood and stone, quite light, nothing too crazy. Quite simple, but as much as possible is going to be handmade to give a quietly luxurious edge to it. It's the same designer at Automata, Matt Machine, but it'll look completely different."
IS IT FANCY? "Not in a traditional way. It's going to be at the top end of the price-range, but I'm certainly not from a fancy background. I'm from a mining village in Yorkshire, and I want to make it somewhere I want to go. I don't mind spending money if it's good, but I want it to be fun and relaxed even with that attention to detail."
ON THE NAME A small bird that's indigenous to Australia, apparently.
The modern prix-fixe 60-seater, set on the ground floor. Pronounced "aw-TOM-a-tah", but accessible nonetheless, according to its auteurs.
WHO Local boy Clayton Wells, until recently the sous-chef at the three-starred Momofuku Seiobo.
HOW HE WAS CHOSEN "Clayton is an exciting young talent," says Loh. "I've known him from his days at Viajante in London and I was very excited to find out he'd landed at Momofuku here. I feel privileged to be the one to back him; he has great ideas for his restaurant and for me he is the most natural fit for the street."
WHY HE'S DOING IT "This is my hometown, this is my neighbourhood," says Wells. "I've always wanted to open something in Chippendale and eight years later here we are. It's such an exciting area now, it's great."
WHAT HE'S DOING "A five-course set menu that will change frequently. It'll be uncomplicated but inventive food in a relaxed atmosphere. If you want to eat those five courses very fast, you can knock it off in an hour and a half, easy, but if you want to take three hours, you're welcome to do that, too."
ON THE PLATE "It'll be fairly simple in terms of how it falls on the plate. Quail with witlof and a bit of burnt apple and caper purée and caper oil, say, or storm clams on the shell with chilled rosemary-infused dashi and an aerated cream."
TO DRINK "There'll be a small bar. We'll serve snacks there, and the wine list will have an element of the artisanal wines that I like, but I also want there to be something for everyone. If someone wants to come in and drink a pinot from Victoria, it'll be there."
THE LOOK "Our designer Matt Machine works a lot with steel and custom motorcycles; the machinery aspect is part of the look and feel. It won't look like a workshop, it won't be frightening - that's just the aesthetic inspiration. It sounds very masculine, but we're working hard to soften that. We've got a chandelier made from a World War II-era radial engine that Peng found in London, and we'll use other interesting pieces like that."
ON THE NAME With a name like Automata, it sounds like dining in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Will it be frightening? "I hope not. No."
KENSINGTON STREET SOCIAL
The smart-casual international brand, with 120 seats on the ground floor. Following London's Pollen Street Social, Hong Kong's Aberdeen Street Social, and a few more insert-name-here Socials around the globe.
WHO Jason Atherton, formerly head of the original Maze in London, now perhaps the most internationally successful of Gordon Ramsay's protégés.
HOW HE WAS CHOSEN "I've worked with Jason for so many years and across so many places that it was natural for me to ask him," says Loh. "He's obviously an old hand, but Sydney is a new market to him, so I think he's going to be doing simple but tasty food with great cocktails and wines and nothing super-fancy."
WHY "When Peng said, 'We're building this amazing hotel in Sydney, do you want to partner up?' I saw it as a great chance to cook in Sydney among all the big boys here and cook with some amazing produce," says Atherton. "I've been cooking in London for 27 years, a lot of my chefs have been Australians, and they're looking forward to coming back. This feels like a natural progression. I'm just super-excited."
WHAT "You can come to the Social and you don't have to eat. You can just have a beer, hang out, try a cocktail. If you want to come and have two small plates you can do that - hence the Social. If you want us to devise you a small menu, or if you just want to have dessert, it's entirely up to you. It should be the kind of place where you can eat once a week without breaking the bank."
ON THE PLATE "We'll bring things like the squid and cauliflower back-to-front risotto out. We're not bringing Pollen Street Social to Sydney - Kensington Street will have its own personality - but there'll be a couple of things people who know the London restaurant will recognise. Mostly I want to work with Australian black truffles, strawberries from up north in the winter, the seafood. I just want to serve good food at a good price."
TO DRINK "It'll be a 100 per cent Australian list, apart from the house wine."
THE LOOK "It's designed by Neri&Hu, who designed Pollen Street and our restaurants in Hong Kong, so it's modern without being trendy. It'll seem simple, but up close you'll see work has gone into the detail. It's got a beautiful kitchen, too, all open, so plenty of interaction with the chefs. But the restaurant isn't about me or the chef or the sommelier or the mixologist or whatever they call themselves, it's about the customer."
ON THE NAME "It's like baked beans - it does what it says on the tin, and it's easy when you're getting in a taxi. It works."