Beg, borrow, steal; just make sure you get down to Sepia
Let’s get something straight: Sepia is a fancy restaurant, but there is nothing pretentious about it, and therein lies its magic. When you walk in the doors, you are invariably greeted in the warmest way by co-owner Vicki Wild (who also happens to be the partner of head chef Martin Benn). Seamlessly, you will be unburdened of your coat, and staff will show you to your table to get you settled in with a glass of Champagne. You aren’t given a moment to even consider resisting being completely looked after – that’s how things are done here.
The interior boasts an Art Deco theme – monochrome palette, plush furnishings, soft fabrics versus cold metal. It’s beautiful in the same way that a cashmere coat is: it’s classic. The menu, in contrast, is not. Benn is right on the cutting edge of food right now. Correction: Benn has been on the cutting edge of food for a couple of years; it’s just that the world hadn’t noticed until recently.
Despite growing up in the small seaside town of Hastings in England, the builder’s son developed a love for Japanese cuisine while working at Tetsuya's here in Sydney. That is what you can expect from dining at Sepia: the most seamless sort of fusion. Depending on when you go, you can choose from a nine or five course degustation, and the matching drinks (wines, sake, Madeira) are a delight if you can stretch it. When we visit, the amuse bouche comes to the table as a little pink cylinder made from water chestnut. Pop the whole thing in your mouth and you’ll get crunch and umami from the pulled kombu top, creaminess from very finely chopped raw tuna, and cool respite from crème fraîche. This ain’t your average canapé.
First to land of the plates-proper is a ring of yellow fin tuna, filled like cannelloni with jamon Iberico cream, and topped with edible flowers, dots of avocado cream, baby radish disks and crispy flecks of pork crackling. At the table the waiter dusts on a frozen, wasabi-scented powder. It’s delicate and fine, with the tiniest hint of citrusy ponzu bouncing about on the palate as you eat.
Raw bonito tops a crisp bird’s nest of fried potato strands, and hidden within is a lightly cooked quail egg, the yolk soaking the rest when you cut into it. On top is a little pile of Yasa caviar (sturgeon, and one of the more ethical caviars you can buy). If you’ve never tried it before, we encourage you to take a little by itself and let it melt on your tongue: you’ll be stunned by how buttery, savoury and complex the flavour is. The dish as a whole is Benn on a plate: the English lad’s fry-up of egg and chips, but with the Japanese refinement he’s learnt as an adult. Try it with the hazelnutty 2013 Pizzini Verduzzo from Victoria on the side, its fermenty tones complement the Japanese elements.
Western Australian marron is everywhere right now, and here it is served shelled and topped with shaved Tasmanian black truffle, on a bed of creamy dashimaki tamago (that rolled omelette you get with your sushi). Served with a caramelly Madeira, it’s an unusual pairing, but as with virtually everything here, it totally works. The venison that arrives next is autumn embodied. For all intensive purposes, it looks like the red leaves of autumn have drifted onto your table, but fork underneath them and you’ll find the most vibrantly pink venison you’ve ever laid eyes on, sitting on a bed of smooth puréed roast pumpkin.
Like the rest of the menu, the pre-desserts vary, but the day we’re in it’s a Benn signature, known as ‘The Pearl’. Crack the top as you would a soft-boiled egg and watch the sugar-shell collapse dramatically as its filling explodes onto the plate. The centre is a combination of frozen finger lime pearls and ginger mousse that has been siphoned into liquid nitrogen and smashed up to a powder. It is exactly what a pre-dessert should be: invigorating, with an undertone of heat from the ginger, and is served with a yuzu-infused sake on the side, which brings the refreshment levels to new heights.
Dessert will have you choosing between one of chocolate or one of milk. As you’ll probably be dining with at least one other, we advise getting one of each. The ‘Winter Chocolate Forest’ is the one you saw on Masterchef, and does not disappoint. Designed to look like the forest floor, it’s a rubble of aniseed praline and almond brittle, chocolate crumble and green tea ‘moss’ topped with chocolate twigs and blackberry sorbet, all hiding lavender and chocolate creams at its base. The scent of anise permeates the whole in the most delicate way, and little crystallised fennel fronds recall the frozen hedgerows of colder climes. It’s deeply textural, the elements rummaging about in your mouth, gradually playing off each other as they do so. The milk option, in contrast, focuses on one ingredient, and so you will find fragrant sheep milk sorbet, goat’s milk dulce de leche, coconut milk yogurt and rice milk pudding. It’s topped with shards of ‘milk crisps’ which dissolve on the tongue like butter.
You will leave Sepia full, refreshed, and feeling a little bit like when you come out of the cinema after a matinee. That is, all a bit overcome, facing the world again with fresh eyes, recalling what you just experienced and not wanting it to end. But like anything classic, rest assured it will be there when you want to go back, the staff ready to take your coat and whisk you away to another place. That’s what a fine dining restaurant should do; that’s why you save up and go on a special occasion. But few do it as well as Sepia.