It is heartening to know that whilst the calibre of a Chef as thoughtful and skilful as Martin Benn showcases his craft, fine dining will never be dead. Does high end dining have to re-invent and adapt itself to the volatile environment in which it precariously co-exists? The answer is a resounding yes, and impressively Sepia has done so without compromising on its own standards, or the expectation of the diner looking for ‘that’ special experience in Sydney.
Starting with the most delicate amuse of ‘Kingfish bacon’, literally the finest composition of both, topped with smoked trout roe. The stunning nuance at play is counterpointed by the relative intensity of the roe and acidic profile of the ponzu. Sepia’s classy interpretation of ‘Sushi nigiri’ follows; an impeccably sourced trio of sashimi tuna, seared smoked ocean trout, and Crystal Bay poached banana prawn. The melodious jazz track in the background sets the perfect tone for a room with a warm New York art deco feel, suiting both the wine bar and restaurant, existing in seamless harmony.
The exquisite butter-poached Port Lincoln squid has a richness that enhances the dishes delicate texture, and is balanced astutely with a touch of yuzu, adding the necessary acidity to the dish. Wild woodland sorrel, lemon and barley miso cured egg yolk garnish a dish; where produce, simplicity and technique are all showcased beautifully. Simply described as beetroot, rhubarb and goat milk, it comprises a stunning beetroot glass like shard, beetroot rye and butter, glazed baby beets, house made chèvre, goat’s milk foam and a rhubarb gel. It is a complex, earthy and sophisticated dish that is indicative of the thought process which underpins the entire menu.
The mouth melting synergy of sashimi Yellow fin tuna, layered with Jamón ibérico is sigh worthy, with poached quail egg adding yet another dimension of richness. Importantly, the background elements of onion cream, puffed buckwheat, shiso jelly, elk leaf, and fresh wasabi, add the necessary context for this dish to shine. The clarity of flavour in the charcoal-smoked freshwater eel is breathtaking, with the yuzu curd cutting across this beautifully. The fresh pistachio, tapioca, licorice, and nasturtium flowers and leaves, further demonstrate an intuitive skill for balance.
The wow factor on the charcoal grilled NZ scampi is simply ‘off the charts’. The dish is without peer in terms of flawless execution and harmony, served on Japanese pumpkin, with a sudachi lime gel, heavenly shellfish mousse, and topped with salted crumb made from the shell of the scampi, with a garnish of shiso. Too rarely I encounter dishes that truly brush with perfection, but this is as close as it gets, where texture and flavours exist in blissful harmony. The well-seasoned herbaceous dish of butter poached QLD spanner crab, with Saikyo miso mousse, toasted quinoa, and delicately roasted garlic; transitions between toasty, creamy and sweet as it dances across the palate.
Vicki Wild, who oversees front of house, ensures the right balance is struck between a service philosophy that has personality, whilst always being entirely professional. It does not miss a beat the whole night, at my table, or at those I can widely view elsewhere from my position. Similarly, wine service is absolutely impeccable under Sommelier Rodney Setter, who has empowered the front of house with both his knowledge and passion. The precision matching is even more impressive when you consider the complex layering of flavour profiles at play here. I have not seen better polished stemware, or a wider range, to allow the optimum expression of the chosen varietal.
Seared and caramelised rolled David Blackmore wagyu beef with earthy chestnut mushrooms, intriguing roasted red onion juice, wasabi fried potato, kombu crumb and citrus soy, resonates with a sophisticated savoury note. Equally restrained is lightly seared (almost rare) Mandagery Creek venison with chocolate boudin noir, shichimi pepper, pickled cherry puree, and coconut yoghurt, which counterpoint and balance the dish. The weight of both dishes is perfect, given the overall flow and pacing of the degustation.
The cheese course of slightly warmed and aged Garrotxa goat cheese, sake and goat milk dumplings, celeriac cream, nashi pear and celery, is both subtle and innovative. The first pre-dessert follows is appropriately named ‘The Pearl’. It is a perfect sphere of intense ginger ale, with frozen yoghurt and a background cream cheese element that balances the sharpness. The next sphere is apple and blackcurrant, which in contrast is far softer in texture, and resonates with a lovely fresh berry profile to cleanse the palate.
Two Autumnal themed desserts begin with an interpretation of an Apple tartlet, comprising layers of apple caramel, white chocolate and yuzu ice cream, buckwheat, and muscovado leaves. Following this is the equally impressive ‘Autumn chocolate forest’, which is as much a textural triumph as it is a dessert. A sour cherry sorbet nests on a myriad of chocolate twigs, soft chocolate, hazelnut and almond praline, and orange and thyme cream. Crystallised fennel fronds, native finger lime pearls, licorice and green tea, add intrigue to what I can best describe as a rather divine exercise in the ‘sweet’ art of foraging.
The signature, yet rather mysterious, Japanese stones are without doubt a conceptual and technical triumph with an unparalleled visual/texture paradox. The painstaking process behind them (see below link) delivers technique, flavour, wonder and pleasure, in a complex but entirely playful manner. The cocoa butter shells, coloured with the ash of Japanese bamboo, and garnished with green tea and black sesame crumbs, are a revelation, with the salted passionfruit an absolute standout on this occasion.
The progression that Sepia has made since it opened in May 2009 is a quantum leap, both in terms of overall refinement on the plate and service standards. With the Industry pedigree and experience of Martin Benn and Vicki Wild at the helm, Sepia was always an inspired ‘work in progress’, and no doubt will continue evolving. As we stand it is a world-class destination restaurant that is accessible for all, and exciting in the boundaries it strives to push. There was a time when Martin Benn existed within the aura of Chefs in the calibre of Marco Pierre White and Tetsuya Wakuda, but that time has long since passed, and his expression on the plate is as prodigious and impressive as his talent always indicated. Sepia is the fitting culmination of Martin Benn’s remarkable journey to date, and yet one still senses the best is yet to come….
Ground Floor, Darling Park, 201 Sussex St, Sydney
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm, Lunch: Friday & Saturday from 12noon
(02) 9283 1990
View how the Japanese Stones are made: http://www.sepiarestaurant.com.au/film.html