2015 really seems to be Martin Benn's year. After years making his mark as the Head Chef of Tetsuya's, Sepia - the 3-Hatted restaurant owned by Benn and his wife Vicki Wild - has been named Sydney's best restaurant 3 times in the Good Food Guide in its 6 years of existence, and was voted by a panel of critics, fellow chefs and restaurateurs as the best in the country. Winning the One To Watch Award from San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants will undoubtedly mean Sepia's stature is likely to grow internationally, so our eating excursion to Sydney seemed eminently well timed to dine at what is undoubtedly Australia's restaurant of the moment.
Upon entering the restaurant for Friday lunch, Alissa and I were struck by how beautiful the restaurant's fit out is. Compared to the very unassuming and stark interior of Attica and the decidedly sleek and modern stylings of Vue de Monde, Sepia's Deco-influence look was easily the most luxe and 'Fine Dining'-looking 3 Hatted restaurant Alissa and I have dine at, and would be more comparable to such formally decorated dining spaces as Dum Pukht in Mumbai and the then 3 Star Michelin Caprice in Hong Kong.
Midweek dinners and Friday lunch feature two menus - the full 9 course Tasting Menu (actually 8 with an optional cheese course) and a shorter 5 course menu. Given that the Tasting Menu is often the chef's greatest artistic expression we decided to go with the longer format, however decided that we would skip the cheese course as we had a fairly large dinner at Ms. G's planned for the evening. Our waiter gave us an 'oh we'll see when it comes to it' response to this choice - the first of a few discussions we had with this particular waiter who didn't really say anything wrong, but gave off a certain vibe of smugness that made us feel slightly unwelcome. The waiter then offered us Oysters which we turned down given Alissa is not a fan and I'm indifferent towards them, and knew we had a lot of food to come anyway. Alissa and I also declined Oysters when we dined at Print Hall in Perth for the same reasons, and the staff took it in stride. In this instance, Alissa and I felt a certain judgement from the waiter as if our choice was entirely financial rather than anything to do with personal preference. Thankfully, all the other wait staff were very friendly and attentive, and we found the Sommelier particularly knowledgeable, passionate and engaging.
From flipping through Martin Benn's cookbook, it was fairly clear that seafood is very important in his cooking, and our Amuse Bouche of Salmon, Roe and Sudachi was the first of five seafood courses we would be served. We were immediately drawn to the dish's bright vibrant colour, and found that it was similarly bright flavourwise, with the Salmon tasting cured and the Sudachi (a Japanese Lime) providing a nice citrus kick. With the salty pop of the Salmon Roe filling, the flavours did well to whet our appetite.
Sashimi of Yellowfin Tuna, Jamon Iberico Cream, Avocado, Baby Radish, Ponzu, Pork Crackling served as our first course. A bit of tableside theatre was involved as liquid nitrogen was used to freeze apple juice and wasabi, and then ground into a flavoursome snow that gave the dish a nice cold hit. The Sashimi was of a very high quality, and its deliciousness was only heightened by the fact it was stuffed with the Jamon Iberico Cream! Little crunchy puffs on top resembled brown rice but were actually Pork Cracking, adding an extra level of meatiness and porkiness to the proceedings while giving crunch to a dish that was otherwise fairly soft in texture. With Gels of Avocado for extra creaminess and Ponzu giving the dish a nice salty hit of flavour without being overpowering, this was a really superb and thoroughly contemporary seafood dish.
Dried Bonito is such a key ingredient in so much Japanese cooking, so I was really interested to see what fresh Bonito would taste like as the star ingredient of our next course - Bonito, Fried Potato, Poached Quail Egg, Caviar, Roasted Chicken Powder. The Bonito was really delicious - similar if milder in flavour to the dried flakes I know so well, and with a texture similar to Tuna or Salmon. Beneath the Bonito was a nest of Fried Potato that tasted like a Hash Brown, and as one of my all time favourite guilty pleasures, I really loved this component. With the Fried Potato already conjuring up images of breakfast food, the Quail Egg was cooked until it was just set, and its ooze of yolk only served to enhance the experience. The Yasa Caviar and the Roasted Chicken Powder sprinkled on top seasoned the dish to create a thoroughly enjoyable whole.
Charcoal Grilled Black Lip Abalone, Yuzu, Dashi Sabayon, Roasted Chicken Skin again featured a main ingredient Alissa and I were less familiar with - other than a vague memory of eating Abalone as a Chinese restaurant years ago, we cannot recall ever eating this much prized mollusc. The Grilled Abalone was interesting - the charcoal grilling gave the Abalone a deliciously smoky flavour and the texture was somewhere between a mussel or squid. This was quite tasty, however it wasn't the kind of revelation that would make me compelled to join the Summer Abalone craziness that happens in Perth. The citrus/vinegary flavour of umami-rich Dashi Sabayon was a highlight, with Alissa describing it as a 'Japanese Hollandaise' and reminding us of the Chawanmushi we had at LuMi earlier in the week. Rounding it off, the Roasted Chicken Skin gave the dish crunch. While expertly cooked and well balanced, this was probably the least memorable of the seafood dishes we tasted and made me wish a different dish we hadn't tried had been included in its place (more on that later).
Usually something I associate with the very start of the meal, Sepia's bread course was served next, consisting of a Japanese Milk Bun...
...served with a perfectly set sphere of butter. With sourdough being something of a standard choice for fine dining bread, it was nice to try something very different and equally delicious. The bun was served warm, and had a light fluffiness and almost damper-like quality about it, and the butter melted nicely when spread on.
Our final seafood course was Soy Cured Black Cod, Sheep Yoghurt, Apple and Yuzu, Horseradish Salt and Seaweed Crisp. The dish was gifted with well balance acidity from the smooth Sheep's Yoghurt and the Apple and Yuzu Gel, and the fish itself was well cooked, with a lovely flakiness. Soy flavour permeated the fish for a good level of salty seasoning that was bolstered by the Horseradish Salt. The Seaweed crisp was the only slight negative, as it needed some coaxing to break, however its crispiness was a welcome component in what was a tasty if not mindblowing fish course.
Our next course of Tasmanian Black Truffle Sushi on the other hand was really mindblowing. The Sushi Rice was well cooked with the right level of starchiness to hold it together and the mayo-like sauce on top gave the dish a lovely creaminess. Of course, the generous serve of Black Truffle shavings on top were the rightful stars of this dish, and even before we'd taken a bite the incredible and distinctive aroma of these lovely fungi filled the air. Taking a bite was even more pleasurable, and though it was all over in two bites this would be one of the most simple and yet amazingly decadent, memorable and effective Black Truffle dishes I've had the great fortune of eating.
After all the seafood and the Truffle Sushi, we moved onto the first of our land meat courses with Roasted Aylesbury Duck Breast, Candied Fuyu Persimmon, Dried Fennel, Wild Strawberry Vinegar, and it was unfortunately the weakest and least interesting dish of the degustation. There were no real issues with any of the components; the Duck Breast was well cooked to a lovely pink colour with the fat well rendered, the Wild Strawberry Vinegar provided some nice acidity while the Fuyu Persimmon tasted like it had been glaced and provided some nice sweetness alongside the dried Fennel. As well cooked as it was, it simply didn't have enough going on to make it really stand out, and Alissa and I were immediately drawing comparisons between this dish and the incredible Duck dish we'd eaten at Cafe Paci just the day before.
Thankfully, our final savoury course of David Blackmore Wagyu Karubi (Short Rib), Hot Miso Mustard, Japanese Pickles, Ice Plant made up for the disappointing duck dish by serving up a seriously impressive beef dish. As someone who is not immediately enamoured with beef but will admit a weakness for Short Ribs, getting a chance to eat 9+ Blackmore Wagyu was a very specially treat. The meat was cooked perfectly, with a lovely tenderness and a nicely glazed exterior, not unlike a good barbecued brisket. The Hot Miso Mustard had a good kick of heat, with the addition of Miso serving to boost the dish's Umami flavour and the Pickled Onion working well to cut through the richness of the meat. One of my pet dislikes in thickly cut cucumber, so I gave that component a miss, however Alissa liked the way the cool juiciness worked as a counterpoint to the heat of the Mustard. The Ice Plant worked in a similar way that we both appreciated, with its mild salty flavour, juiciness and good crunch a well considered addition.
At this stage the Cheese Course was offered to us, and we kept to our word and declined the offer based on the sufficient amount of food we were in the middle of eating and the large dinner we were going to have later. The Not So Friendly Waiter did make us feel a bit like he was trying to convince us to take the upsize in the hopes that we'd been caught up in the moment and part with out cash for the optional extra, but we were simply not interested. That said, there had been an additional complimentary course that the kitchen had given to the tables next to us of Seared Sea Urchin and Smoked Bone Marrow, and as an Uni fan I would have gladly said yes to this extra course even if I had to pay for it - or even better, in the place of the Abalone. A shame then that they didn't give us the option, as if they really wanted a successful upsell, the Sea Urchin would have done the trick.
With the cheese course declined, our Pre-Dessert of Green Tea, Mandarin Sorbet and Lemon Foam was served. This was nice and light palate cleansing dessert, with the Lemon Foam brining a bright acidity while the Mandarin. The Lemon foam was nice, bright and acidic with the Mandarin Sorbet provided some sweetness. With the Macha Powder on top providing some pleasing bitterness, our palates were definitely reset for Dessert Time.
Coming to Sepia, I knew I had to order the restaurant's famous signature dessert of Chocolate Forest, here served in its Winter form - Soft Chocolate, Hazelnut and Almond, Violet Crumble Cream, Blackberry Sorbet, Elderflower and Meyer Lemon Jellies, Green Tea, Licorice, Chocolate Twigs, and Bronze Fennel. It reminded Alissa and I of Attica's Terrior dessert, although this was even more complex than Shewry's already complicated dessert. There was so much going on that I think only a super taster would be able to pick out every single ingredient and component, and I felt the experience was like drinking Monkey 47 gin - you'll be hard pressed to pick out all the component flavours, however everything worked together to create a truly satisfying whole worthy of the fame that preceded it. The crunchiness, good hits of fennel, various flavoursome creams and the chocolate balanced out the sweet and tart flavour of the Blackberry Sorbet, and its stunning visual presentation was the very image of a wintery Christmas. A masterpiece, and my favourite course of the meal.
We had been advised by people in the know that Sepia's former signature dessert of Japanese Stones can be ordered even though it is not on the menu, however Alissa felt like ordering the other dessert listed on the mnue. Simply called Milks, this was an extremely complicated variation on a theme consisting of Milk Chocolate, Coconut Yoghurt, Rice Milk Pudding, Goat Milk Dulce de Leche, Sheep Milk Sorbet, Milk Cake, Milk Crisp, Yuba. This was a veritable celebration of the versatility of milk in all its forms, and reminded me of milk desserts often seen in Asia such as Steamed Milk. Alissa loved the caramelised flavour of the Goat Milk Dulce de Leche, especially up against the Coconut Yoghurt, and the Sheets of dried milk skins that served as the Milk Crisp reminded both of us of White Rabbit Lollies and their edible paper wrapper. With the Tartness of the Sheep's Milk Sorbet cutting through, this was a highly conceptual dessert that was as delicious as it was clever.
Feeling a bit sluggish after the meal, Alissa opted for a coffee while I selected a Gewürztraminer Marc as a digestif with the assistance of the very helpful and enthusiastic sommelier. The coffee was well made as you'd expect from a restaurant of this calibre, and I enjoyed the Grappa-like Marc, though Alissa felt its strong flavour was like drinking solvent!
To finish, Petit Fours of house made After Dinner Mints were served. These were fairly simple and low key as far as Petit Fours go, but as fans of After Dinner Mints nostalgic for the 1990s, we definitely enjoyed them.
The Verdict: Ultimate
Considering the restaurant's recent accolades and being called Australia's best restaurant, Alissa and I had very high expectations for our lunch at Sepia. In a lot of ways it lived up to its promise - the Tuna and the Bonito dishes were right up there with some of the finest seafood courses we have been served at a restaurant of any calibre, and the Black Truffle Sushi and both our desserts would almost immediately qualify the restaurant as one of the best we've been to. The meal was however not without its flaws, with the Duck dish in particular failing to wow either of us, and the main fish course also being less than memorable even if expertly prepared.
Our biggest issue was with the manner of the main waiter who was serving us, as we found him slightly smug and a bit too keen to try to upsell, and it left a bad taste for us. Don't get me wrong - Sepia is definitely worthy of our highest rating, and it would be better than the similarly rated Iggy's in Singapore - however when compared with Vue de Monde and Attica, the former had Sepia beat for its sheer hospitality and friendly but utterly professional service, while the latter was more artistically satisfying. As such, both those other restaurants would rate higher for us, however Sepia is nevertheless one of the finest restaurants we had dined at in Australia.