March 3rd, 2017 was not a great day for Sydney foodies. On this day Sepia Restaurant, considered one of Australia’s finest dining venues, announced it is moving to Melbourne. While it has been common knowledge for over a year that the humble – but immensely talented – Martin Benn and FoH Vicki Wild intend to take the restaurant in a new direction once its Sussex St lease expires, the announcement that the institution would move to Melbourne was a pure shock to the system. Good news Melbourne, bad news Sydney. With this, my fifth visit may well be my last as it exists now. Here’s to a farewell for an influential fine dining giant in Sydney.
Melbournians, read on to get a taste of the skill that’s about to hit your city. You lucky ducks.
Date Last Visited: 3/12/2016
Address: 201 Sussex St Sydney, NSW 2000
Highlight dish: scampi, jamon cream, cured pork cheek, kabosu, wood ear mushroom, crackling
Price Guide (approx): $220 plus drinks
Sepia Restaurant – December 2016 Visit
Martin Benn’s mastery of combining Western techniques with the expert dashes of Japanese essence is one that few restaurants in Sydney can deliver. In 2015, the rest of world caught on: Sepia Restaurant was annointed as the “one to watch” in San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best List, taking #86 in a list of the world’s “top 100” restaurants. While I’m not a devout fan of the List and how it works, I wholeheartedly agree that Sepia definitely is ‘one to watch’ (side note: shame that it wasn’t recognised this year.)
That Sepia would announce its closure some time in late 2017/early 2018 shortly after being made visible on the world stage was most poignant. While I’ve visited Sepia numerous times over the years, it would be remiss if I didn’t patronise the restaurant at least one more time before it’s final curtain call – a salute to a canonical example of Japanese-Western cuisine as it stands in Sydney.
When booking Sepia, try to book as far in advance as possible to ensure you get a table. Its flagship 9-course degustation menu ($220) is the only option for Friday and Saturday dinners. A 5-course lunch at other times will run you $195. I think you know what’s good value.
One of my older posts on Sepia proclaimed that the best oysters I’ve had in a Sydney restaurant can be found here. While that claim is strictly no longer true, a half-dozen Sydney rock oysters w/lime & rose vinegar is no less an immensely enjoyable way to start things off, particularly when the oysters impart a most pleasant meaty savouriness on the palate long after consumption.
Snacks comprising of pristine saikou salmon from Mt Cook w/smoked roe, and a moreish bite of cobia & dashi jelly tease with incredible flavour, in a portion that’s got to be deliberately crafted to leave me wanting more. The salmon was soft, citrusy, and refreshing, while the cobia (a type of kingfish) was heavily smoked; perfectly balancing against a breathtakingly light & refreshing dashi jelly.
Oh, Sepia knows a thing or two about tormenting with snacks.
Sepia’s bread service has traditionally been a bit of a downer: it’s often served late into the meal, and only once with seconds requiring a conscious effort in request it. Timings were better this time around, and given that the bread itself was just awesome – an incredibly buttery number served warm – I was most sated.
It’s a great roll of bread, just be sure to actively ask for more – seconds aren’t guaranteed if you don’t!
Sepia’s classic fusion technique is fully extolled with a dish that would be out of place at any other restaurant: tuna w/egg yolk, white cheese & soy sauce.
The ingredient list may raise eyebrows, but hmm, when was the last time I used “heaven in my mouth?” Yep, it’s time to bring the angels back. Princely rich with flavour, I tasted everything: the perfectly pliant tuna, the luscious richness of the egg yolk, the subtle tartness of the cheese, the dense but delicate soy sauce brining that touch of Japanese to the dish, and of course, a small hint of wasabi because hell yeah. Totally my kind of dish.
The next dish isn’t quite as good, but damn it – it’s still going to try and make it rain.
While I’ve managed to avoid the use of the word “umami” up to this point, it’s pretty much impossible to do so when it comes to the umami bomb that is the spanner crab. There’s a bounty of flavour, coming from the fresh crab itself, the pea dust which tastes surprisingly like a vegetal cheese, and then there’s that unadulterated horseradish hit.
A very likable plate, not dissimilar to most of what Sepia has to offer. That said, I felt the spanner crab itself got a little bit lost in the powerful flavours and textures from the other elements in the dish.
Sepia’s prettiest bowl has to go to the imperador. It’s served with the dead remnants of sake production (aka sake kasu), a citrus-like fruit called shiikwasa (often mislabelled as kalamansi), and very pretty borage starflowers.
The imperador was soft and buttery, easily the best part of the dish. However, the green almonds were extremely bitter, and there was a particularly sharp taste of something I couldn’t quite describe in the broth. A dish that was prettier than it tasted.
It is with great sadness that the best dish on Sepia’s menu is also one of its smallest. A one-bite punch of scampi served with all of the best bits of pork – jamon, pork cheek, and crackling. A perfect dish in every way, it was faultless, as far as I’m concerned. Perfectly cooked everything, enthralling notes of prawn, succulent porcine flavour, and oh my – that guanciale.
I would easily trade half the courses with this one dish, over and over again.
A move to red meat signalled the start of the more substantial dishes, the first of such being 36hr lamb breast cooked on a binchotan grill. This imparted a smoky char to the tender and succulent meat, with well-rendered pockets of fat that exploded and quickly melted away. The flavour was decidedly earthy and salty courtesy of the miso. A bit of crunch on the side helped to cut through the overall richness of the dish.
That said, I’d argue that the portion of lamb is small enough that it would never get a chance to instill a sense of oleaginousness. A good thing.
The final savoury course of the meal attempts to end on a high note, with David Blackmore’s award-winning wagyu in town. Sepia has never actually impressed me with its red meat as much as its seafood. This wagyu continued, rather than broke the trend. Not that the dish wasn’t delicious: with French-style roasted onion and savoury mushroom notes, it makes for a tasty piece of beef, no doubt. However, plenty of restaurants treat Blackmore Wagyu with more aplomb and technique.
The mushroom tuile was an interesting touch: made with reduced mushroom stock and thickened with cornstarch, it’s almost as if beef grew on trees!
An optional cheese course that I highly recommend sharing (unless you’re still starving at this point) is the comte w/pear jelly. A subtly sweet pear sorbet, fashioned to look like the fruit off which it’s based is surrounded with comte forming a bed of cheesy luxuriance. Roasted, earthy walnuts sit below the “pear” and bittersweet endive & celery round out the dish.
You might think it wouldn’t hit the right notes, but the symphony was most pleasing. It’s a dish that has stood the test of time (I had the same dish back in 2014!). It works.
Blueberries & coconut sorbet decorated with purple linaria flowers formed the first proper dessert course. The consistently sweet, almost buttery blueberries were definitely the highlight. The risk of the dessert becoming cloying was mitigated by the inclusion of a tart, refreshing coconut sorbet, and the texturally zingy crumb of crushed gingerbread. The definition of balance.
At this point, we got to choose from one of two options. The first was a minimalistic hemisphere of chocolate w/caramelised apple cream & cocoa nib pecan brittle. Y’all know I love myself some texture, and this is the definitive dessert for texture lovers. All sorts of crunch was represented: nutty, crispy, stiff, crumbly, you name it. Flavours were represented by dark black currants, nutty caramel, and a bit of apple fruitiness – though that last one was so subtle I almost couldn’t taste it.
A dessert that’s much more than meets the eye.
If that chocolate hemisphere was the first choice of dessert, then that leaves no doubt that Sepia’s most famous dish – the chocolate forest was the other option. The Summer variant featured blackberry sorbet, with all the other trappings – various nuts, jellies, twigs/soil and elderflower making their respective appearances.
I’ve always thought Sepia’s forest as an impressive dessert owing to the technical chops required in its creation. However, I’ve never fully enjoyed it as a dish, in the way that critics seem to. It’s a textural marvel that’s for sure, and everybody loves chocolate soil. However to me, there’s an over-representation of chocolate in the dish, and not enough of a ‘petrichor’-esque character that I associate with walking through an actual forest. Also, putting fennel into a dessert did not work for my palate, the liquorice being far too prominent; ’twas malapropos.
I daresay of the two dessert choices, the chocolate hemisphere was my pick.
And that’s it for Sepia. Or is it?
Did you know that the chocolate forest isn’t Sepia’s OG dessert? It’s actually their Japanese stones – moulded charcoal chocolate, perfectly resembling stones from a zen garden ensconce various fillings such as ganache, yuzu cream that gush and rush to fill your mouth with pockets of pleasure. This dessert goes way back, and is so famous that Sepia can never truly take it off the menu – it remains a secret item that can be ordered on request (pro-tip).
If you’ve still got stomach space, now’s the time to fill it with some rocks. This was likely our last visit to Sepia, so why not?
Sepia is not a perfect restaurant, that doesn’t exist. But people like Martin Benn fill a rare void in successfully marrying East and West, elevating cooking to a level that can be considered world-class. Three cheers to Sepia – I can’t wait to check out what their Melbourne venture. All the best in their future endeavours.
- This is East Meets West done right.
- Done right…for the most part: Sepia is experimentally gastronomic, and sometimes the experiments don’t work out.
- Sydney is going to miss you 🙁
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F7 | S4 | A2.5
Sepia Restaurant – 2014 Visit
Having blogged about Sepia Restaurant twice before, I was at a loss on how to work an introduction. But then, only two days after it was crowned “Restaurant of the Year” by the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2014-2015.
There is a certain hearsay that coalesces in the reader’s mind when they see a superlative like “Restaurant of the Year”. It’s quite the accolade to live up to; the experience had better be world-class, right? I decided to treat my parents to Sepia as they just went through a busy period at work. A ‘Restaurant of the Year’ ought to cut it.
With a degustation price of $180 (mandatory Fridays/Saturdays), you don’t tend to make a habit of revisiting a fine dining restaurant like Sepia unless each visit is an courant. This is why restaurants of Sepia’s calibre are on the edge – constantly innovating, risking everything to continually advance culinary art. Despite visiting Sepia four times, I’ve never had the same dish twice (bar certain signatures), and that’s part of the reason why I keep coming back. Fourth time is the new third time lucky.
Sepia’s the only restaurant where I make the conscious decision to order oysters on top of our degustation. I’ve previously mentioned my last post on how good these rock oysters w/lime and rice vinegar are, something that hasn’t changed at all. Still by far the best type I’ve had the pleasure of eating. The sweet and sour nip of the lime + rice vinegar is a combo that cannot be topped.
Perhaps next time we’ll go for a half dozen each instead of a measly two. There will be a next time.
My spirits were instantly lifted upon taking in the aromas of the quail egg w/chicken cream & potato dashi. Even typing those ingredients out gets me hankering. It’s a small portion but packs an extremely hearty punch. Flavours are very much umami thanks to the potato dashi and chicken fragrance.
With soft textures of gooey quail egg that get a foil in the crunchy buckwheat sobacha, it’s one of the best amuses I’ve had.
A sashimi of yellow fin tuna, but with jamon iberico cream?
I just knew this dish was going to assault me with flavour and it completely lived up to that. Tuna does what tuna does best – its texture is beautiful and soaks up all of the flavour of that jamon fattiness. It appears to be piped into the tuna, which is shaped as a torus (circular hollow tube). Every bite is thus full of that umami that Sepia Restaurant is so well-known for.
The central components are so rich that the avocado cream is actually refreshing when taken afterwards. It’s quite airy, so it tastes relatively clean, and once again, throws you a lifeline when you’re on the brink of being overwhelmed.
On the face of it, the bowl of house made chèvre, rhubarb, beetroot, rye & native violets appears to be nothing much more than red dirt.
In taking my first bite, I began to wish that all dirt is secretly like this. It’s a sweet-ish flavour but it’s actually savoury. Texture is king, with crunch coming from all directions. The centre of it is a creaminess that’s got that unmistakable tang of cheese.
If you’re on the same wavelength as I am, you already know that this kind of dish works – crunch, beetroot “jelly” film, cheese. It doesn’t get much more textural than this.
Sepia is on a roll with the savouries, which may seem like an innocuous statement, but I’ve always found non-trivial problems with their savoury courses. Sepia head honcho Martin Benn is avowed for his desserts and not his savoury dishes, so this made some sense. Still, that the savoury courses have so far been one astonishing dish after another is a testament to how much he has improved.
The streak continues with the butter poached spanner crab, which continues the theme of Japanese-influenced dishes. In this wish-it-were-bigger bowl, the star of the show is the lovely spanner crab and all its creamy textures. It’s complemented by the inimitable texture of silken tofu, with flavour brought about by a rather tea-like chrysanthemum infusion which tasted like a dashi. Oh, and those garlic chips…addictive as crack.
Enough talk, more eating.
While not plated in a way that really shows off the miso black cod (actually, I’m not a fan of the plating here at all), it’s a dish that still knows how to deliver. I’ve sung the virtues of miso cod in countless previous blog posts.
As explained by our waiter, the miso itself is marinated over four to five days, the fish is poached first, then grilled over charcoal. Suffice it to say, this dish is up there with the rest of them. Why waste words when you can just eat?
Karubi refers to short rib in Japanese. Sepia’s charcoal grilled David Blackmore wagyu manages to capture the beef in a way that somehow invokes both Japanese, as well as Western methods of cooking this sacred red meat.
Miso mustard, where have you been all my life? How could I have not seen this coming – this is the secret ingredient. East meets West, Marco Polo totally didn’t call this one.
Oh, and that beef is insanely delicious as well – it’s David Blackmore wagyu, you know the rest.
My goodness, it’s been awhile since I’ve had a beef dish that good. This is the meat dreams are made of.
Unfortunately, the last dish was so good, the seared Mandagery Creek venison failed to make too much of an impression on me. It was technically cooked quite well, and the raspberry infusion meant some very welcome fruity notes were in each bite.
They should have served this one first, because the wagyu spoiled me for any more meat courses.
The comte & pear jelly w/roasted endive is an optional cheese course, but one which I strongly recommend ordering. That it has stunning looks is only part of the equation.
Shaved comte forms the bed, the fried walnuts can be seen just underneath the cheese (the brown parts), and celery sprigs are dotted about. The “pear” is actually a sorbet, because who wants to actually eat a pear when presented with one?
The fun is when it’s cracked open – I’m not entirely sure on the liquid cheese, but it’s almost certainly gruyere. The pear jelly is in here as well, providing a sweet relish to go with gruyere.
Share this one, because you may just die of cheese overdose if you try tackle it yourself.
Our stomachs are now on our way to obliteration, as that cheese course really took the wind out of our sails. The sweets however, are only getting started, with a pre-dessert of mandarin rose sherbert and blood orange.
Of course, it’s actually way more complicated than that, given that the dish is called “citrus” – there are no fewer than five citrus fruits in the dish. I don’t even know of that many.
The result is not the sour mess you’re picturing – rather, it’s one very effective palate cleanser. As you’d expect, flavours are very sharp, clean, and tangy. It’s heaven for acid fruit lovers.
Yeah – the blood orange and the frosted outer shell combo gives the illusion of an egg when you crack it open. Simply brilliant.
Evidently we were way too hungry (no actually we’re dying by now), so Sepia provides another pre-dessert in the form of a pumpkin cannoli. This was particularly delicious, primarily because it’s not as heavy as most cannoli are.
Rather, the sweetness of the pumpkin ice cream is well-tempered, and more importantly it tasted natural. Pair that with a crispy shell and a slight tease of savoury umami from that miso, you’ve got yourself liquid gold, tasting better than the real thing.
Sure, by this point, we were bursting at the seams. But the finale has inexorably made its way onto our tables. This is Sepia’s signature dessert which needs no introduction, especially as I’ve covered it before, and more pertinently – so has Masterchef.
The presentation is a bit better than it was last time I was here, which is always a plus. Attention to detail is very important when paying this kind of money, so it matters. My parents were suitably impressed as well, and that doesn’t happen often!
With regards to taste, as it was a “winter” chocolate forest, heavier flavours like chocolate and hazelnut make their way into the base creams. The whole combination is Sepia’s ultimate expression of textural harmony – three creams of varying consistency, smooth sorbet, crunchy chocolate creams, and crumble from the chocolate ‘dirt’.
There was one weakness which was difficult to ignore – it got really heavy – mum couldn’t finish it. When you get to this dessert, I hope you’re not stuffed yet, because this will push you over the edge.
Overall, Sepia has definitely improved each time I’ve visited. Their latest menu is full of savoury improvements which, while quite heavy on the palate, nonetheless leave little to be desired. Their mastery of sweets, texture and structure is as impressive as ever, despite there being some issues with heaviness. I’m totally chuffed to have dined at the Restaurant of the Year for 2014.
As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three 😀
- Savoury courses are a string of victories rarely seen in a degustation
- One can’t help but marvel at the textures of Sepia’s desserts
- Impeccable service as expected of a world-class fine dining restaurant
Not so Awesome:
- Watch your bread and appetite – the meal gets filling very quickly
- The winter chocolate forest is too heavy on the creams and chocolate