201 Sussex Street
Sydney NSW 2000
+61 2 9283 1990
It’s been two months since Marty took me to Sepia for my birthday lunch. Those of you who have been following my Sydney posts will recall how I brought the wrong lens to Sydney and so my photos didn’t turn out so fantastic (or maybe I just happen to be a bad photographer in general – but hey, I’m going with the first excuse, okay?). For that reason, I was initially reluctant to post this review because half the photos didn’t turn out so good. I then thought to myself, well, it would be stupid for me to wax lyrical about one of the most amazing dining experiences I’ve ever had and not written about it. So here it is: The Sepia Experience.
After spending the morning shopping at QVB, we rocked up to our 12:30pm booking at the two-year-old restaurant in Sydney’s Darling Park precinct. Although Sepia is only a baby in Sydney’s ultra-competitive fine-dining scene, it has done brilliantly to casually pick up an elusive three-hat gong in last year’s SMH Good Food Guide AND Vittoria’s Best Restaurant of the Year award. Surprisingly, it isn’t as well-known in Melbourne as Quay, Aria, Marque et al. However, Melburnians will be familiar with the name Tetsuya Wakuda, who happened to train Sepia’s head chef, Martin Benn, once upon a time ago.
According to a quick Google search, the word ‘sepia’ refers to the pigment derived from the ink sac of the common cuttlefish, Sepia, which happens to be a fugly brown-grey colour. The same tone is also used as a filter in iPhone apps to make photos look ‘old’ and subsequently, more visually appealing. Sepia (as in, the restaurant) may be a new restaurant but its atmosphere is very old world. Think sleek black timber tables and tessellating black and white half-circles on the floor, complete with waiters who still call you ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ even though you’ve just walked through the door in jeans, Vans and t-shirts. If life was a Bond film and glamorous and flamboyant Quay was Ursula Andress (the quintessential Bond girl), then Sepia was obviously dark-haired Vesper Lynd, the elegant new school Bond girl who is a match for James himself, yet is still able to hold her own.
Even though Sepia markets itself as a European restaurant, Benn likes to call himself ‘an English guy who cooks Japanese food.’ And nowhere is this more apparent than on the $150 degustation menu, the only dining option available for lunch on Saturdays where Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques make themselves at home with European ones. Bring it on!
With a drinks list as thick as an Isabel Allende novel, the fact that they didn’t really have an impressive whisky list surprised me. Moreover, this restaurant looked like a place where a modern day Don Draper and his homies would enjoy a Scotch or two after a grueling day at work before heading towards Mossman or wherever to deal with his beautiful but pain-in-the-arse wife. However, Sepia makes up for its limited whisky list by boasting a comprehensive wine and saké list. Funnily enough, neither of us ordered a wine or a saké, choosing to go for the cocktails instead.
In keeping up with the Bond theme, I ordered a Vesper Martini, pretty expensive at $26. Meanwhile, Marty was this close to ordering a Manhattan as he loves his whiskies and cocktails (why not combine the two, right?), however, the sommelier suggested he go for the Negroni ($23) as it was not only subtler but matched well with the seafood dishes we were about to consume (he was right). So yes, they weren’t cheap cocktails at all. On the other hand, the wine mark-ups here are less pronounced, however, I have paid much less than $17 for a glass of Dr Loosen Riesling elsewhere.
The bread was delicious and provided regularly during the course of our lunch. In addition, the lovely onion and cream cheese butter was proved to be the perfect accompaniment for all the bread we ate.
We started off the epic degustation with a tiny house-smoked ocean trout, radish and kaffir lime. The trout, presumably bought from the Sydney Fish Market that morning, was amazingly fresh and the fact that it was only very subtly flavoured meant that the smoke and the kaffir lime leaf did not overpower the gentle natural flavour of the fish.
Next, we had the seared swordfish belly, oxtail consommé jelly, yuzu, daikon radish, native finger lime, sprouting lentils, toasted amaranth and shaved Katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). I’ve had swordfish several times in the past and on more than several occasions, I’ve found the fish to be too ‘meat-y’ and thus, not particularly fun to eat.
Not this time, though. The swordfish portion was contained (i.e. small) and seared for only the briefest of moments so that the inside was still slightly raw. The ingredient list may sound exhausting on paper, but each one actually played a significant role in making this little dish so great. The oxtail consommé jelly ribbons, so delightfully slippery, clashed beautifully with the crunchy daikon pieces and toasted amaranth (a grain not dissimilar to quinoa) while the shaved bonito flakes provided entertainment in the form of umami.
Next, we had a vegetarian course: grey ghost mushrooms, roasted celeriac, goats milk curd and whey, tarragon buckwheat and borage (i.e. those pretty blue flower). I love mushrooms and celeriac so I knew I was going to love this dish before I even got to taste it. What I particularly liked about it was that the goats milk curd came in foam-form. Now, foam may be a bit passé at the moment but I think that the use of foam in this case was perfect for only a subtle touch of goats milk was required to perfume this already earthy dish. Any more cheese and it would have been overkill, I reckon.
So far, we had enjoyed every single dish so when our shaved cuttlefish, heart of palm, Jamon Iberico, mandarin, licorice, wild rice, sorrel and sea urchin cream arrived, we knew it was going to taste as good as it sounded. Okay, scratch that. The dish tasted BETTER than it sounded. It was amazing. Mind-blowing. Epic. Magnificent. Looking very much like the Arizona dessert in spring, the dish was all manners of creamy, earthy, spicy with a little bit of sweetness thrown in for good measure. The delicate slivers of cuttlefish (a nod to the restaurant’s name, perhaps?) blended well with the sea urchin cream while the crunchy grains of rice provided some crunch. We wanted more!
The coral trout was also pretty damn good. Roasted in kombu and presented with Hijiki (a brown seaweed), lotus root, smoked bone marrow and a barley milk tea foam, this dish evoked a lot of ‘oohs’, ‘aahs’ and ‘Glen McGraths’ from the table (okay, fine, from me). The fish was beautifully and perfectly cooked. It was so soft, so tender and so buttery. I dare say that I have not had fish that’s been cooked any better than this.
Eating the fish was akin to literally plucking something from the sea and eating it fresh. Not only was the fish ridiculously fresh, the two different types of seaweed used in preparing this dish heightened the sea flavours. I also liked that the blob of smoked bone marrow added a bit of earthiness to the dish. I didn’t, however, think the barley milk tea foam added much to the dish except to make it look a bit prettier.
We had another epic dish that came in the form of a poached corn-fed chicken breast, Saikyo miso mousse, sunflower seed butter, slowed cooked quail egg and crispy fried nori potato. Marty and I both thought that the dish looked like a nest, which is very fitting even that it contained both chicken and an egg. There were no ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ questions as we both dug into the crunchy nest, which was made out of crispy potato flavoured with nori.
The contents of the nest were creamy, providing a lovely textural contrast with the crunchy ‘nest.’ The miso mousse was deliciously rich and creamy, especially mixed in with the gooey quail egg and sunflower seed butter. Meanwhile, the chicken breast pieces were poached perfectly. Marty said that the breast meat was ‘somehow gelatinuous’ and eloquently described the dish as ‘freaking amazing, man.’ It’s not easy to make a chicken dish taste so good, but this one blew us away like dynamite – even if it was a bit rich.
Thanks to the rich chicken dish, we were actually almost full by this stage so we sighed with reluctant relief when we were told that our seared Blackmore wagyu beef, nameko mushroom, roasted pickled young garlic and white onion cream, roasted red onion juice, wasabi, potato and kombu crumb was going to be our last savoury dish. For a ‘main’ dish, the beef was pretty tiny but after all we had eaten so far, we knew that we wouldn’t have been able to finish the beef if it was any better. The brisket piece, deliciously fatty and flavoursome, was folded up and mixed with nameko mushrooms and a creamy young garlic and white onion cream. Flecks of potato and kombu crumb provided an exciting crunch to the dish while dabs of wasabi and roasted red onion juice cut through all the richness. While Marty loved this dish, I’m sad to say that it was my least favourite of the day. I’m not saying that it was terrible in the grand scheme of things, but just that I enjoyed the previous dishes a lot better.
There was an optional cheese course, which attracted an extra $10 a head. Although I love cheese, I don’t normally order cheese at restaurants but given that we had enjoyed everything so far, we thought, ‘why not?’
Our cheese course that day was a Saint Agur and mascarpone cheese which was served with crystallised macadamia, celery cress and roasted chicory granita.
Yes, there is cheese in here! To be honest, Marty and I initially struggled with this course. We thought the Saint Agur cheese (a blue) and the mascarpone, both pungent in their own right, clashed horribly with the piquant roasted chicory granita which was sweet and bitter all over. After a while, though, I started to get used to the initially weird combination of bitterness, sweetness, nuttiness and saltiness and decided that I liked it.
Next, we had a palate cleanser which came in the form of a lemon leaf granita, bronze fennel pollen and elderflower. It was refreshing and flavoursome at the same time.
Our custard apple frozen mousse, lime and gingerade with fingerlimes were what the waiter called our ‘pre-dessert’, though I reckon this should have been a standalone dessert. Eating this was like eating a Vietnamese custard apple smoothie – but better. It was creamy and sweet thanks to the vanilla that was infused in the mixture. I also liked that there were little bits of lime and ginger in the mousse to make each spoonful more exciting, while Marty said that the fingerlimes, which were more acidic than normal limes, were like ‘nature’s popping sour candy – awesome.’
Finally, our ‘real’ dessert came and boy, was it jaw-dropping! Called the ‘Autumn Chocolate Forest,’ this dish reminded me of Embrasse’s signature ‘Forest Floor’ dessert which made me wonder whether Sepia had pinched their idea off Nic Poelaert. Brushing glaring accusations of imitation aside, I dug into the ‘forest’ and was spell-bound. The base was a very soft and creamy chocolate mousse and on it, an intoxicating combination of praline and chestnut, lavender cream, pomegranate jellies, green tea, licorice, chocolate ‘twigs’, crystallised fennel fronds and a large blob of blackberry sorbet.
It was incredible. I had admired Benn’s attention to detail in all the dishes we had this afternoon but this one was wow, just WOW. It was sweet, earthy and tangy at the same time without being overly rich. What I liked best about this dessert were the twigs – it was really hard to believe that they were actually made out of chocolate just by looking at them! Eating this dessert was certainly a delight – almost like digging into a small patch of German forest, the same one that Hansel and Gretel once got lost in. Now, all we need is a gingerbread house and we’ll be set.
We were done for the afternoon, but not before taking up the waiter’s offer of coffee and petit fours. I politely declined my coffee while Marty had a cup of long macc, which he said was ‘burnt.’ Ah, Sydney, you do know how to make delicious cups of coffee… sigh. Not even several spoonfuls of sugar (which came in a cute little cup and spoon combo, above) could make it drinkable.
Sepia is definitely deserving of its three-hats with its mind-blowing food and fantastic service. The waiters were professional, friendly and took the time to explain all the obscure ingredients that were in some of the dishes. We loved that every single dish was a beautiful work of art – no sepia filters were required to make them look amazing, because they already were. I also liked that, unlike the rest of Sydney, it isn’t as flamboyant nor does it boast. It is quiet and unassuming but once you take a bite, you’re hooked for life. I still need to make my way through an ever-growing list of restaurants whenever I’m in Sydney before I can think about re-visiting this one. However, I know that I will definitely be back.