Address: 2o1 Sussex Street, Sydney, 2000
Ph: 02 9283 1990
Chef: Martin Benn
Hours: Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm. Lunch, Friday and Saturday from 12 noon.
A glass of very dry Champagne. A couple of small, succulent oysters. Some light jazz playing in the background. Can there be any better way to spend Saturday afternoon?
How about following this with 13 courses of the some of best food that Australia has to offer? Because that’s exactly what a lunch at Sepia is.
For close to four hours I sat on a banquette in the corner of a casually elegant dining room, presented with food and wine of truly outstanding quality. The food could be called dainty, in that it is high on finesse and detail. But this is not a style over substance situation. Make no mistake, chef Martin Benn still packs in the flavour.
From the start you see that they are doing something very interesting here, when a tiny dish of grilled scampi served in its shell is put in front of you. At first it is a little confusing, as it appears as a scampi tail covered in red dust, and I wondered where the shell was. It only took a bite to realise that the dust was the shell, pushing the flavour of the fish. Although the yuzu mayonnaise didn’t add a lot.
Some dishes had a real sense of humour, such as a pre-dessert that appeared as a strawberry on dirt. When cracked with the back of a spoon it exploded, spilling strawberry sherbet onto the chocolate “dirt”. Sweet and silly, it made me laugh as well as being delicious.
This same sense of fun was in a deconstructed sushi hand roll. With sweet scallops dusted with nori, served with puffed rice, ginger jelly and avocado cream, it kept in spirit with its source material while greatly surpassing it in flavour.
Seafood is a serious focus here, and it is handled with deft touch. Thin strips of butter poached squid are a fascinating texture, flavoured gently with miso cured egg yolk and lemon. In a visually stunning dish, a piece of smoked eel rests beside a pool of bright green watercress sauce. That watercress and some tangy yuzu balancing out the slickness of the eel.
That’s not to say that the complexity of flavour ends at the waters edge. Chef Benn and his team are equally adept with meat, such as with some rich, juicy slices of beef rump. Matched with the deep sweetness of braised beetroot, sharpness of miso mustard and chariness of Japanese charcoal, it was a very impressive piece of meat.
There were some dishes that didn’t hit quite the same heights, however. A butter roasted John Dory in a Shojin dashi with mushrooms and broccoli was a little tough for me, and the flavours a little muted. It wasn’t a bad dish by any means, but it paled in comparison to the rest.
And that’s kind of the point of restaurants at this level. At most good restaurants, most things are good, a few are very good, and maybe one or two are only average. When you go up a tier it’s not that everything is perfect, but that the base quality rises. Most things are very good, a few outstanding, and a few merely good.
But then there is one last category. The really great restaurants should have something to blow you away. They need a knock-out punch, that one dish that lasts with you long after you leave and everything else you’ve eaten that month or year has been forgotten. It’s what you expect from that best.
At Sepia, there’s the tuna.
Those who read my blog regularly might remember that I spoke about the monkfish at Le Bernardin as possibly the best fish dish I had ever eaten. That monkfish now has some competition.
In the centre of the plate sat a deep ruby cube of top grade yellow fin tuna sashimi, layered with tissue-paper thin slices of silken Jamon Iberico. On top, a poached quails egg, oozing with golden yolk. This trio of decadence was the core of the dish, piling richness on top of richness. Cutting through was the freshness of white soy jelly, gentle tang of onion cream, and crunch of puffed buckwheat and red elk. It was outstandingly balanced, the garnishes highlighting the luxury of the fish and ham the way the setting of a ring showcases the diamond.
Most of Sepia’s Saturday menu rotates based on whatever the kitchen has that day, but it seems this tuna dish is almost always included. Be thankful of that. No, change that. Go and eat it, then be thankful.
The food may be the star, but all the supporting acts more than hold up their end of the bargain. The service is professional, friendly, and exceedingly knowledgable, particularly when it came to the excellent matching wines.
All the wines were hits, but two really stood out. The 2011 Dr Loosen Bernkasteler Ley Riesling Kabinett was a hit of fruit, and worked so well with the scallop “hand roll” that I’ve been thinking about trying pineapple with nori ever since. With that beef and beetroot, a berry-centric 2006 Antonio Caggiano ‘Vigna Macchia dei Goti’ Anglianico matched the juiciness beautifully.
Sepia may seem like an unassuming little place on Sussex Street, but there is no question in my mind that it is in the upper echelon of restaurants in Australia. Of course is has a price to match, especially if you get all the extras. But for this level of food, wine and service, it is more than worth the cost.
So I will ask it again.
Is there any better way to spend Saturday afternoon?