Sparks of brilliance at Sepia

by Forager on June 2, 2009

Since it opened it’s doors at the beginning of May, there has been much foodie interest in Sepia. Headed by ex-Tetsuya’s Head Chef Martin Benn and supported by Daniel Puskas of Oscillate Wildly the talent in the kitchen promises to delight the diners of Sydney with their take on contemporary Australian cuisine. Given the new venture is also partly owned by George Costi of De Costi’s Seafood, I expect fantastic seafood produce to feature in the menu, with hints of French and Japanese inspiration from Chef Benn’s Tetsuya days. We‘ve been looking forward to dining there for a month now and thankfully that day is finally here.

Joining me tonight is the co-pilot, his friend Fine Diner and her partner, S. It’s another wet, windy and dreary night in Sydney so we are relieved to be escaping the weather and greeted warmly by the maître d’. As we settle into the plush seats in the dark and intimate interior of the restaurant, I note that whilst the dark lighting is great for creating mystery, atmosphere and intimate settings – it’s not food photography friendly so I apologise in advance for the graininess of the photos.

Fine Diner enthusiastically tells me there was an article on Sepia in the latest Gourmet Traveller and she’s already excited about specific dishes on the menu. Although this is the first time I’ve met Fine Diner, her reputation has preceded her. She and her husband have eaten at virtually every single fine dining establishment I’ve got on my global wishlist and her food photos make me stare mouth agape in awe, stunned silence and humility all at once. After a quick perusal of the menu, we’ve decided we have to try the degustation with matching wines. Confit ocean trout is on the menu but I’m slightly disappointed that it isn’t part of the degustation as I was curious to see how it’d compare to the Tetsuya’s version, but we’re assured the degustation is the perfect way to experience what Martin Benn has to offer.

First up in the 10 course degustation is an amuse bouche of red pepper nectar with peas and basil seeds. The flavour combination sounds intriguing but sadly, the flavour was too subtle to impress and effectively tasted quite bland and watery.

The next course couldn’t be more different in execution. The confit of octopus with mustard shortbread shiro miso and green apple salad is just divine. The octopus is soft and buttery and goes well with the crumbly mustard shortbread and miso. The apple salad provides just the right amount of crunch to contrast the softness of the octopus. There are audible sighs of pleasure from our table and the disappointm
ent of the amuse bouche is forgotten.

The octopus is paired with a 2007 Valminor Albarino from Rias Baixas, Spain. It is light and fruity with hints of peach and other stone fruits, but I must admit – I’m far from a wine connoisseur so I’m going to refrain from providing wine tasting notes unless there was something interesting of note for me.

A plate of BBQ Silver Lake eel set on sushi rice with confit of leek and licorice powder was set down on the table and the aroma of smoky eel immediately envelopes us. The simple straight line presentation theme appeals to the architect in S – and we all take an extra second to admire the presentation before digging in. The eel simply melts away in my mouth leaving a lovely smoky aftertaste. The licorice powder has a texture like salt but tastes like licorice – not aniseed or fennel but licorice. There is a unanimous groan of approval from our table coupled with appreciative head nodding. This was paired with an Austrian wine – 2007 OTT “Fass 4” Grüner Veltliner and the sommelier tells us it’s matched to cut through the oilyness of the eel.

The yellow fin tuna tatare with avocado cream soy and wasabi jelly arrives in the most impressive and imposing bowl that looks more like a wine decanter. The flavour is just superb: fresh, creamy and the wasabi lifts and compliments the flavour of the tuna whilst maintaining it’s position as a supporting actor – the star here is the tuna and we all agree that this is how we always want our tuna tatare to taste. I want so much more than the morsel given to me.
The matching wine here is a 2006 Pichot “Coteau de la Biche” from Vouvray, France and it was a point of much discussion on the table. The aroma of the wine on the nose is peculiar bordering on offensive. S and the co-pilot get hints of green olive or capiscum but over time the aroma mellows out and is much more pleasant – so much so they thought it was interesting enough to seek out independently. For me, it smelt of burnt rubber… Incidentally, the aroma didn’t transfer to the taste – quite pleasant in comparison.

The Queensland spanner crab and buckwheat risotto with mustard butter and shellfish essence made it’s way over to our tables and even before it was set down I could smell the pungent shellfish essence. This dish really appeals to the Chinese side of me that loves interesting textures in my food. The buckwheat risotto is perfectly al dente and each grain remains individually separated in this risotto as though I’m eating soft barley grains. The crab has that delicious sweetness that can only come from incredibly fresh crab. The shellfish essence is a high impact delivery of all the good flavours of shellfish without that dreaded dead fish pungency – it has a hint of tarragon and brings all the flavours together perfectly. It is my favourite dish so far (but then again, I am a crab fiend so I might be biased). This is paired with a very palatable 2007 Zuani “Vigne” from Colio, north-east Italy where the co-pilot’s Italian heritage is from. It is a blend of 4 varieties – Friulano, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. If I was to buy a wine from the night’s tastings – that’s the one I’d pick.

The last of the seafood courses comes in two parts: a crispy skin fillet of Murray cod with warm salad of poached vongole with a soybean clam custard on the side. The cod is well cooked and the skin wonderfully crispy and crunchy. It is a well executed dish but fairly unremarkable compared to our previous dishes. We declare it the “filler dish”. And then I bite through a sand filled vongole. The crunch is so loud it sounds like I’ve bitten into rocks and even my dining companions hear it. Then the co-pilot gets one too. I know it’s not the chef’s fault there is sand in my vongole as it’s always a Russian Roulette risk with sand-dwelling shellfish, but it ruins my enjoyment of the dish instantly. Ugh. On the other hand the soybean clam custard is slippery smooth like chawan mushi but more delicately flavoured. Simple but nice. The matching wine is a light and lovely Italian rosé: a 2007 Cantina Zaccagnini Rosato from Abruzzo.

So far, the courses have been heavily skewed towards the seafood end – which as I mentioned earlier is not a surprise given the connection with George Costi. Now comes the red meat course of seared loin of venison with sansho pepper, caramelised witlof hearts and caper olive and celery jus. The venison is from free range farms in Orange, country NSW and given how lean venison is, we know it’s difficult to cook well. But this is just perfect – the venison is meltingly tender and my knife slides through it with ease. It is just seared and full of flavour. The sansho pepper (the Japanese name for szechuan pepper) crust adds to this with a very subtle but welcome hit of tongue tinglyness – it could so easily have been overpoweringly numbing. I could eat so much of that venison – but it is all gone in a flash. The red wine in the background of the photo is another Italian wine – a robust 2007 Poggio Argentiera Morellino from the Tuscan region of Scansano, Italy.

The pre-dessert is a buttermilk pannacotta with raspberry coulis. The pannacotta is rich, creamy and balanced by tartness of the raspberry coulis. It’s simple but delightful and the perfect sweetness for me. It’s just the pre-dessert and I’m already content. But Fine Diner confides – she knows that the real dessert is worth waiting for.

And worth waiting for it was. The simple title of elements of chocolate with prune and cocoa bubbles doesn’t do this justice. Our table sat there oohing and aahing at the sight of this dessert. It’s an artform of lines and circles and I can’t even begin to imagine what inspired this. We are told that there are layers of hazelnut florentine sandwiched between dark chocolate and chocolate sponge. The mass of bubbles sitting on top was a cocoa mixture bubbled through a pump for hours and then scooped onto the waiting dessert before being served. It’s an amazing myriad of textures, with delicate popping bubbles, crunchy florentine biscuit and soft sponge. The prune works really well with the chocolate, giving it a lifting tartness. It’s a joy to slowly taste and discover the complexity of this dessert.

The dessert was paired with a NV Seppeltsfield 10 year old Tawny port from the Barossa Valley, South Australia. It’s a lovely, rich and full bodied sweetness, and the Fine Diner and I are only slightly disappointed that we didn’t end on a dessert wine.

Finally we ended on coffee, teas and petit fours. Tonight we are offered milk chocolate honeycomb and pear praline. It’s lovely but I am content to end on the taste of that prune and chocolate dessert.

At the end of the meal we sit back and reflect on the dishes presented in the degustation. The verdict is unanimous – this is the next must go to restaurant. Almost every dish in the degustation was a winner for me and the quality, innovation and flavours in the degustation are nothing short of a highly hatted restaurant – dare I say it – perhaps the standards of a 3 hat restaurant. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal, the wine selection and the attentive, accommodating service. And the cherry on top? The degustation was a very affordable $130 and the matching wines only $60 extra. GFC begone!

The only glitch in an almost perfect night came with the return of our jackets. Both S and the co-pilot noticed on some white creamy substances on the collar and lapels of their jackets – a sniff suggested the blobs were either rancid butter or smelly cheese. Hmm… Being only a month old we expect a few hiccups but at the same time, if Sepia wants to be the next 3 hat restaurant in Sydney, those types of mistakes aren’t going to help it’s case. For the sake of Sydney diners my fingers are crossed for Sepia.

Ground Floor Darling Park 201 Sussex Street
(02) 9283 1990

Opening hours:

Restaurant: Monday to Friday lunch from 12 noon
Monday to Friday dinner from 6pm
Wine Bar: Monday to Friday from 12 noon
Saturday and Sunday open for exclusive bookings

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 lili - pikelet & pie June 2, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Great review, I really want to go :) How much was the degustation? I can’t seem to find it anywhere.
PS: The pictures look a-ok!

2 Iron Chef Shellie June 2, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Looks very fanciful!

3 Stephcookie June 2, 2009 at 10:39 pm

OHH! Everything looks absolutely spectacular, I’m delirious with jealousy right now. The cocoa bubbles! I’ve been really excited hearing about Sepia, glad to hear it seems to live up to the hype. It’s definitely going to be my next special dinner, especially at that price for that quality. Very odd about the blobs on your jacket though!

4 Betty June 3, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Love the presentation of all the dishes. I want to pop those cocoa bubbles! So cool.

5 Simon Food Favourites June 3, 2009 at 4:50 pm

great to see what amazing dishes they are producing. the dessert looks soooooooo cool. pity about the sand in the clam – for a fine dining restaurant i don't think this is acceptable.
s :-)

6 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella June 3, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Looks amazing! I adore the bubbles, how creative is that! Forget foam, we're now looking at bubbles! :)

7 K June 3, 2009 at 11:02 pm

the bubbles are sooo cool!

8 Forager June 4, 2009 at 10:28 am

Hey Lili – The degustation was $130 and matching wines $60 (and as per usual, you can only have the degustation if the whole table has it).

Hey Iron Chef Shellie – It certainly was – probably one of the fancier meals I've had in quite a while.

Hey Stephcookie – It was a great experience and I'm sure there is so much pressure on Martin Benn to perform and meet expectations. Definitely affordable for the quality of the innovation you get. Although, for that price, you don't get foie gras, truffles or caviar (but to have that often seems like a boring ubiquitous mandatory offering for fine dining degustations).

Hey Betty – The presentation and attention to detail was really amazing. Much be the Japanese influence!

Hey Simon – I know what you mean. It really did ruin that dish and I had to (discreetly) spit it out. Totally unpalatable. I think it was a risk for them to go with sand dwelling shellfish as you just can't guarantee no sand.

Hey Lorraine – I knew you'd love the dessert! I think it was the one standout technique we saw that night that we haven't seen elsewhere.

Hey K – They were cool! But don't last long as they starting popping slowly the minute they were plated. I think there might be a bubble phenomenon about to hit Sydney restaurants…

9 Arwen from Hoglet K June 5, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Nice photo of the venison with the wine glass behind. My eyes are also drawn to the chocolate dessert – the bubbles look incredible! It sounds like such an amazing combination of textures.

10 foodie-central June 6, 2009 at 12:12 am

Wow! Your review and pictures are making my mouth water. How cool is chocolate bubbles!

11 Yas June 7, 2009 at 5:16 pm

wooo it looks so great and presentation is very elegant!

12 Forager June 7, 2009 at 11:03 pm

Hey Arwen – Thanks! The dessert was indeed very special, unique and bizarre at the same time.

Hey Foodie Central – Believe me the food was delicious and it was easy to gush about it in the review.

Hey Yas – Presentation was stunning and it was clear they paid so much attention to even the minor details. A pleasant change to the usual home style stuff that I order when eating out.

13 Gianpaolo Paglia August 27, 2009 at 7:32 pm

Hi, I'm the winemaker at Poggio Argentiera, the Morellino di Scansano 2007 that you have mentioned. Thank you for reporting, it's always amazing to see how the wine travels all over and read about people that drunk it all over the world. Surely one of the best things about making wine.

14 Forager August 28, 2009 at 1:41 am

Hey Gianpaolo – You're absolutely welcome! As a winemaker it must be fascinating to see and track your product around the world and to gauge the different reactions from different countries and palates. I wonder how the Australian wine palate compares to the rest of the world and whether certain wine varieties are more popular here. Would love to know!

15 Gianpaolo Paglia August 28, 2009 at 6:07 am

To be honest I've never visited Australia and my export there is just tiny. However, I've gotten the idea that when it comes to old world wines, Australian people want to find some form of tradition in them, either in terms of varieties and/or in term of style. For instance, we were using plastic corks for that wine (the Bellmarsilia) up until three-four years ago and I was told by my importer (Trembath and Taylor) that customers would rather find natural cork on a bottle of Italian wine (or screwcap if one could/would do it. We can't because is not allowed on DOCGs wines).
Anyway, I hope to come and see for myself sooner or later!

16 Forager August 29, 2009 at 2:33 am

Hey Gianpaolo – Fascinating! So we need stereotypical traditional cues to enhance our perception or appreciation of good wines.. Well, marketing works on us then. Australia is fantastic and you should definitely visit if you have the chance!

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