There are some things you just can’t put on a fine-dining menu. You’d be hard pressed to find someone willing to pay $95 for sandwiches and eggs from Automata. Clayton Wells, owner of the acclaimed restaurant on Kensington Street, wants to make serious sandwiches and eggs though. That’s why he’s opened A1 Canteen across the road in mid-2018 – a cheaper, more casual spinoff from his original.
A1 presents a skilful but unpretentious blend of cuisines and ideas. But as you’ll gather from a quick, cursory glance at the menu, the dishes here are far less abstract than at its big sister. For breakfast you’ll find speedy bacon-and-egg rolls and grilled mortadella and fermented chilli sandwiches, which can be eaten in or taken away. Curried scrambled eggs with two of LP’s sausages are presented beside an English muffin, and tarts and cakes are made by Wells sister-in-law Samantha.
Lunch and dinner are entirely different affairs. The midday menu is “worker inspired” with a list of playground-style sandwiches, grown up. The rest of the menu is structured like an old-school salad bar, with choose-your-own protein options (maybe braised lamb shoulder with za’atar and tahini or smoked chicken) and salads (freekeh and fermented pumpkin, or a simple bitter leaf and herb mix with blistered grapes).
At dinner, A1 becomes a bistro. The lights come down and the concept is more formal – but nothing on the plate is unrecognisable. It’s all about big, bold cuts of meat – from a hanger steak with mushroom caramel, to a whole roasted flounder with Espelette butter and curry leaves. Clever snacks decorate smaller plates including Tua Tua clams with anchovy butter and pickled beets. Add to that a short wine list and batched cocktails by manager Rachel Trewin – and you’re in business.
Although the brief here seems fixated on accessibility and informality, Matt Darwon’s design is oddly corporate. That’s not to say it’s bleak, boring or uncomfortable, just that the colour scheme and materials – black, grey and white with concrete, steel and glass – feel like a Bauhaus-inspired CBD foyer. Pay attention to the expensive chairs – Wells picked them himself.