Sunday, 27 July 2014

Anniversary dinner at Sepia - 7 June 2014

"Happy birthday!", a waiter said to me, bringing over Sepia's signature chocolate forest dessert accompanied with a brightly lit candle. 

"Ahhh... yes, thank you", I responded hesitantly. 

It seemed like my wife forgot to inform the restaurant that we were celebrating our third wedding anniversary instead of my birthday when she changed the reservation date. 

So why did we have to change the date of our meal at Sepia you might ask. I have always wanted to celebrate my birthday at Sepia, one of Sydney's best restaurants, and I decided that 2014 would be that year. But at the time my wife made this booking (6 months in advance maybe), we hadn't even decided that we would be in Japan on my birthday! So we decided to change our reservation at Sepia to an anniversary celebration instead. You see, I am very organised when it comes to my dining out calendar (I am not this organised with most other things, as my wife will attest). Chances are if you ask me where I will be eating in 6 months time, I will be able to tell you :)  

The Sepia dining room
Just as we were celebrating our anniversary, Sepia too was celebrating an anniversary. Sepia has now been open for 5 years and its rise to the top of the Sydney fine dining scene has been meteoric. In its first year, Sepia was awarded a chef hat by the SMH Good Food Guide, then a second hat in its second year and a third hat the year after, an accolade it has retained since. This is not at all surprising considering that Martin Benn is the chef behind Sepia. We are talking about a man that has worked for Marco Pierre White in London and was head chef at Tetsuya's at the age of 25, so clearly he has been taught by some of the best!

The Sepia bar area
We dined at Sepia on a Saturday night so we had the weekend degustation menu, an 8 course menu for $175 then, now $180 (my wife of course had a vegetarian menu). Some call the cuisine at Sepia "Modern Australian" (whatever that means), and others call it "contemporary". Whatever you wish to call it, it's clear that Benn's food has been informed by his training in French cuisine and his love for Japan. The menu is filled with Japanese touches like nori, dashi, wasabi, green tea, and yuzu.     

Amuse bouche
Sydney rock oysters, lime vinaigrette ($5 each)
I started the meal with a couple of freshly shucked Sydney rock oysters. Though pricey, I would not hesitate to order these again given the high quality of these oysters: super fresh specimens that tasted of the sea. The lime vinaigrette was quite zippy so you don't need a lot of it to overpower the flavours of the oyster.

Parsnip, smoked salmon roe, horseradish creme fraiche
Amuse bouche for me was a cute little parsnip cone filled with globes of smoked salmon roe. This was just incredible: the smokiness of the salmon roe, with bursts of umami as the each roe pops in the mouth, paired the wonderfully with horseradish creme fraiche. Unfortunately this was all over after one bite; I could easily eat a plate of these!

"Cherry tomato"
My wife's amuse bouche was a cute little re-constructed cherry tomato. The cherry tomato was filled with tomato jelly. As my wife put it, it was like eating a sweet, strong flavoured cherry tomato, without the juice squirting everywhere. Yum!    

Course 1
Sashimi yellow fin tuna, house made chevre, avocado, Hatsuka radish, pork crackling
The first course of the night was sashimi of yellow fin tuna, presented as a ring, with a house made chevre, avocado, radish and specks of pork crackling. The tuna was undoubtedly fresh and the chevre was light yet creamy and had a slight lemony tang. The crispy pork crackling provided a great textural contrast with the soft, delicate tuna.   

"Sushi Nigiri" - miso eggplant, pickled cucumber, roasted avocado
My wife's first course was Sepia's re-invention of "sushi nigiri". This was a really clever dish with miso eggplant, pickled cucumber, roasted avocado used as the base and topped with dashi stock jelly and grains of puffed rice for crunch. To the side was a gel of pickled ginger and drops of reduced soy sauce for dipping. Each sushi was superb, but the eggplant miso deserves a special mention. Easily one of the best vegetarian courses for the night.   

Course 2
Nameko mushroom, smoked Scarlett prawn, Japanese citrus, wakame, lemon balm
Next came my favourite savoury course of the night: a smoked Scarlett prawn immersed in a dashi stock with slippery nameko mushrooms, yuzu, wakame and sprigs of lemon balm. The prawn was cooked to perfection: plump, translucent in the middle with a beautiful firm, springy texture. The sweetness of the prawn together with the delicate umami of the dashi stock and hints of yuzu was such a beautiful combination. But then again, anyone that knows me will know that yuzu is the one ingredient, when used well, will send me into raptures :) 

House made chèvre, rhubarb, beetroot, rye, native violets
My wife's second course was a flavour and textural delight. The creaminess of the house made chevre, together with the tartness of the rhubarb gel, the sweetness and earthiness of beetroot, and the crunchy rye crumbs was a delicious, harmonious combination.

Course 3
Butter poached Hiramasa kingfish, kabu and chrysanthemum, citrus soy, chickweed
The butter poached Hiramasa kingfish was lightly cooked, yielding an amazing melt in the mouth softness. The kingfish was served with drops of a rich and yummy buttery sauce that was well balanced by the acidity from the citrus soy gel. Yet another outstanding seafood course!

Pearl onions, charred braised leek, garlic flowering chives, young garlic, red onion jus, wasabi
My wife's vegetarian course was unfortunately a bit of a misstep: essentially a plate of pearl onions, leeks, and garlic. In all fairness each of the elements were well-cooked, especially the red onion jus, but when paired together, the strong flavour of each became quite full-on. My wife could only eat a quarter of this dish before I had a crack at finishing it.  Even with my "no leftovers policy" and general fondness of onions and garlic, I found this course quite overpowering. In the end we could only finish half the plate.

Course 4
King George whiting, smoked pancetta, finger lime, lardo, salted kelp, pea flower
Yet again we have another perfectly cooked piece of fish, this time a butter poached King George whiting that was served curled up in a ball. The whiting was delicate in flavour, moist and had a beautiful, soft texture. Then there were bursts of acidity from the pearls of finger lime and hits of  salty, porcine flavours from the smoked pancetta and lardo that brought the whole dish together. Wow, each seafood course was really quite spectacular and unfortunately this was the last of the seafood courses (or so I thought)...

Roasted celeriac, parsnip cream, tonburi, roasted parsnip consommé
Fortunately my wife's fourth course made up for the previous course and the meal was back on track. The roasted celeriac was slightly soft and was served with a light parship cream, crispy root vegetable chips, tonburi (or 'land caviar') and roasted parsnip consomme. A solid vegetarian course indeed!

Bonus course 
We were pleasantly surprised when a waiter brought over two plates of food that were described as "a little something extra from the kitchen". Maybe the kitchen noticed that my wife did not like the plate of onions when it was sent back only half eaten. Whatever the reason, we were very thankful because extra food equals winning :) 
Bonito, flavours of roasted chicken, umeboshi, upland cress, green tea, nori
Some serious knife skills are clearly needed to slice out such a beautiful, long strip of bonito sashimi. Needless to say, the bonito was fresh and high quality. It's the flavours of roasted chicken, where this dish really shines. The flavour of the chicken mousse blew me away. Just think fragant, tasty roast chicken, except in puree form. And crispy chicken skin, who doesn't like that! This dish was also finished with some Japanese touches in nori,  green tea and umeboshi (or salted plum), which I thought worked quite well.

Silken Tofu, pine mushroom, shiso, crystallised wakame
My wife took a spoonful of the silken tofu and immediately said to me, "They should have just served this to me in the first place!". The tofu was silky smooth and just amazing. This pretty little bowl of goodness was filled with umami from soy sauce, pine mushrooms, and crystallised wakame. This was the highlight of the vegetarian menu!
Japanese milk bread and house churned butter
I almost forgot about bread! At Sepia, bread is served after the seafood courses and not at the start of the meal. The Japanese milk bread was awesome, so soft and fluffy! And how cute is that little ball of butter; so  perfectly round that I didn't want to ruin it! And how good was the bread, which was served warm, with some soft, melted butter spread over it! We were both so impressed by this little bun that we couldn't help but ask for seconds.

Course 5
Charcoal grilled David Blackmore wagyu karubi, Japanese pickles, miso mustard, ice plant
Now I move onto the meat courses. Cubes of charcoal grilled David Blackmore wagyu karubi (short ribs) were stender with a bit of chew, fatty and coated in an absolutely delicious sweet, sticky sauce. The miso mustard was interesting: probably more miso in flavour with only a gentle heat and a hint of yuzu, I think. The Japanese pickles and ice plant were all good, refreshing and provided texture. Whilst I thought this dish was quite enjoyable, I felt the seafood dishes did it outshine it.

Slow roasted Japanese pumpkin, brown butter and rosemary vinaigrette, roasted buckwheat cream, rolled oats, fennel and pumpkin seeds
The Japanese pumpkin course was another of the favourites in the vegetarian menu. Pumpkin was presented in two ways: one was slow roasted and sliced thinly, whilst soft in texture retained some bite and the other was a puree, which was intense in flavour and gorgeously smooth. The brown butter and rosemary vinaigrette was deliciously nutty and great with the sweetness of the pumpkin. And rolled oats, fennel and pumpkin seeds with pumpkin? Excellent! 

Course 6
Seared Mandagery Creek venison, sansho pepper, roasted artichoke, pumpkin Shiraz leaves
My last savoury course arrived with leaves, made from pumpkin and Shiraz, draped over a strip of seared Mandegery Creek venison, which had a lovely red hue from sansho pepper. The venison was nice and not too gamey, but I thought the venison could have done with a bit more seasoning and could have been more tender. The highlight of this course was the delicious roasted artichoke puree. A good course, but again, didn't reach the high standard set  by the earlier dishes.

Chestnut mushrooms, Jerusalem artichoke, miso mustard, artichoke and pumpkin leaves
My wife's last savoury course consisted of roasted Jerusalem artichokes, chestnut mushrooms, miso mustard and leaves crafted from artichoke and pumpkin. The artichoke was well cooked with a soft, fluffy texture and a crispy exterior, almost reminiscent of roasted potatoes. A solid finish to savoury courses for the vegetarian menu!   

Cheese course
D'Affinois de Brebis, pear jelly, fried walnuts, nashi pear, salted plum, celery (optional - $15 extra)
I am not overly fond of cheese boards but I am happy to try composed cheese courses. I think it's the chef's touch which enables me to enjoy cheese more in composed cheese courses. D'Affinois de Brebis is a soft sheep's milk cheese that is creamy and strong in flavour (for me anyway). I thought the other elements in the dish not only helped cut through the cheese but complimented it well. Sitting on top of the cheese were discs of nashi pear that provided texture and sweetness. I also enjoyed the fried candied walnuts and pear jelly

Blueberry, bee pollen cream, honeycomb, yuzu, lemon thyme meringue
After the cheese course came a pre-dessert, which consisted of a ball of white chocolate filled with an oozing blueberry sauce, bee pollen cream, crispy honeycomb and powdery  lemon thyme meringue. This was a really delicious, refreshing palate cleanser. And did I mention that I love yuzu? 

Course 7
The first dessert, titled simply "milks", was anything but simple. The medley of milk flavours and textures from the milk chocolate, coconut yoghurt, rice milk pudding, goat milk dulce de leche, sheep milk sorbet, milk cake, milk crisp, and yuba was amazing. A smashing dessert!

Course 8
"Winter chocolate forest"
Then came the "winter chocolate forest", Sepia's signature dessert which changes with each season. Much like the milks dessert, the many different flavours and textures at play is stunning. A smooth, glistening quenelle of blackberry sorbet was perched on top of a forest floor of soft chocolate, hazelnut and almond, lavender and honey cream, caramel and shiso vinegar jellies, green tea, licorice, chocolate twigs, and bronze fennel. The blackberry sorbet was incredible, one of the best I've had in a while: it was refreshing and had a good amount of tartness,  a perfect match with the chocolate. Each bite was amazing and provided something different, depending on what you gather with your spoon from the forest floor. For me, this is one of the best desserts in Sydney fine dining!

Petit fours - after dinner mints
The after dinner mints marked the end of what was a truly fantastic meal to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It's the seafood that ensures I will return to Sepia. The seafood courses are some of the best you will find on the Sydney fine dining scene. Seafood being a strong point is not surprising, I suppose, considering that renowned fishmonger, George Costi, is one of Sepia's owners.

Highlight: Take your pick from any of the seafood courses! The Scarlett prawn dish was my favourite if I had to choose one course.  
Lowlight: The plate of onions, garlic and leeks. Great to ward off vampires but not so good for a date.
Overall: 5 years strong, Sepia has firmly established itself as one of the finest restaurants in Sydney. The food is sophisticated and delicious; the produce is fresh and of the highest quality; and there's a high level of precision in the cooking. You can't go wrong with Sepia if you are looking for a venue to celebrate a special occasion. 8.5/10 (Excellent)

Address: 201 Sussex St, Sydney NSW 2000
Contact no: (02) 9283 1990

Sepia on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sushi Tanabe, Sapporo, Japan - 11 June 2014

My first post from my June trip to Hokkaido is about my meal at Sushi Tanabe in Sapporo. Sushi Tanabe is one of four restaurants to be awarded 3-Michelin stars in the one-off Michelin Guide 2012 for Hokkaido. Sushi Tanabe is located in Susukino, which happens to be one of the largest red light districts in Japan.  Sushi Tanabe is not the easiest restaurant to find due to its small signage, so make sure you have a map and directions with you. Otherwise you may find yourself surrounded by pink parlours and soapland stores...

This takes me to a short story that I wanted to share that makes my meal at Sushi Tanabe memorable for all the wrong reasons. After the meal, I was approached by a man as soon as I emerged onto the street, who spoke to me in Japanese. I had no idea what he was saying exactly, but I had a pretty good idea what he was up to. So I kept walking briskly towards Susukino station, shaking my head and saying no to him. But this man wouldn't give up easily and kept following me, continuing to speak to me in Japanese. After a while, when he finally worked out that I didn't understand a word he was saying, he asked me, "Do you want sex?" It wasn't til I sternly told him to go away did he get the message that I was not interested. Does every guy wandering around the streets of Susukino on their own at night come to Susukino for sex? Can't they be here for sushi?

The sushi counter, which seats around 12 diners
Any way, back to the restaurant. The head chef and owner of Sushi Tanabe is Masashi Watanabe, who previously had a sushi restaurant at the luxury hotel Windsor at Lake Toya (which houses the 3-Michelin star restaurant of French master chef, Michel Bras). Sushi Tanabe is different to other high end sushiyas in that there are three sushi chefs rather than one masterchef that serves the entire restaurant. My sushi chef for the night was Daisuke Fujiwara, who spoke fluent English.

Like other sushi bars, diners are seated around a wooden counter, where the chefs prepares the sushi in front of you. For me this was one of the joys of this meal, it was like theatre. I was enthralled by the sushi chefs' skills through the entire meal. From the meticulous knife skills on display to slice or score each fish to the almost flowing hand motions of the chef when he moulds each nigiri sushi into shape. This was as beautiful as any work of art, I reckon.

Sushi chef, Daisuke Fujiwara
The menu includes a nigiri set menu, three different omakase courses and a la carte choices. For the best experience I went for the large omakase course (16,500 yen excluding tax) that consisted of an appetizer, 5 kinds of sashimi, grilled dish, 12 pieces of sushi, miso soup and dessert. You can choose to replace dessert with "rare fish food", which I opted to do since I was here to indulge in as much seafood as possible (you don't go to a sushi restaurant for creme brulee, right?).
My drink of choice for the night was yuzu umeshu. This was so good; I ordered at least three because yuzu (my favourite citrus fruit)! Refreshing, aromatic and not too sweet.   
So how was the sushi? It was without doubt the best sushi that I have ever eaten in my life (although I haven't had the opportunity yet to eat at any of the 3 star sushiyas in Tokyo)! It helps that Sushi Tanabe is in Hokkaido, the home to some of the best seafood in the world!

Not only was I blown away by the extreme freshness of the seafood, it was the tremendous variety that captivated me the most. This kind of variety is something that I have not encountered anywhere; back at home in Sydney, it's mostly salmon, tuna and kingfish.

Condiments to enjoy with sashimi: micro shiso, lime, sea salt, fresh wasabi
But at Sushi Tanabe, I was served over 20 different items, featuring Hokkaido crab, octopus, Hokkaido oyster, medium fatty tuna, abalone, sea urchin, sea eel and much more. Oh boy, each piece was orgasmic (I mean delicious) in their own way! The progression of the meal and how one course led to another was phenomenal and for me made this the ultimate tasting menu experience!

Then there are the things that the chefs do behind the scene. Each fish is expertly prepared to get the most out of each specimen. Some were served raw, some aged for a few days, some marinated in vinegar and/or salt, and others steamed or boiled. Then the chef would season each piece to perfection with the right amount of tare (sauce), freshly grated wasabi, salt, or lime juice. The level of care and attention to detail was evident with each bite.

And the shari (vinegared rice)! I love eating well cooked rice, and this was no exception. The rice had a wonderful balance of vinegar and sweetness and was served at body temperature. The chef moulded each nigiri into shape so the rice just holds together and collapses in the mouth, such that I could taste each soft, fluffy grain. The combination of the shari with the neta (topping) was sublime; I was in heaven with each bite!

The sushi chef's business card
At the conclusion of the meal, Daisuke-san gave me his business card and asked me to come back to Sushi Tanabe the next time I'm in Sapporo. You can pretty much guarantee that I will be back at Sushi Tanabe if I ever return to Sapporo based on this experience! This meal really opened my eyes to the art of sushi in Japan and the world of high end sushi. I would love to come back to Japan and try other high-end sushiyas like Sukiyabashi Jiro, Sushi Saito or Sushi Sawada to experience more perfection.         

Highlight: Hokkaido seafood at its finest: crab, abalone, sea urchin, oyster, octopus... the list just goes on!
Lowlight: The dude that tried to sell sex to me and wouldn't give up easily as I was making my way back to Susukino station.
Overall: My meal at Sushi Tanabe is easily the best sushi I have eaten so far. The freshness and variety of seafood and the progression of one course to the next absolutely blew me away. This meal was most definitely a 3-Michelin star experience, worthy of a special journey.  9/10 (Outstanding)

Now you can feast your eyes on the best seafood I have ever eaten in my life :)

Appetiser - shrimp, bamboo shoot, scallop, and cold soup with junsai. The shrimp was sweet and a beautiful springy texture. It was served with its head, so I could enjoy all of the goodness inside. The scallop was slightly chewy. I love the texture of junsai: slippery, gelatinous and bursting in the mouth. 

Hokkaido crab (kani) - The first course of the night was one of the best of the night! This was some of the best crab that I have ever eaten and it was clear why Hokkaido is so famous for its crabs. The strands of crab meat were sweet and delicate. The crab was served with its roe, which was rich and so flavoursome. 

Flounder (hirame) - Very mild tasting fish with no overpowering flavours. The flesh was firm and slightly chewy. The freshness of the fish was very apparent with no hint of fishiness.  

Octopus (tako) - Another one of my favourites. The octopus was very tender and not chewy at all. The octopus is massaged for some time during preparation to tenderise the meat. Not only was it sweet, the octopus also had a deep rich flavour that I had never tasted before in an octopus. A Japanese wine jelly was served with the octopus for acidity.       

Spanish mackerel - Strong tasting, oily fish that was served with chives and pickles to cut through the richness of the fish.    

Hokkaido salmon (sake) - served with its skin and layer of fat attached, the salmon had a silky almost buttery texture as it melted in the mouth.

Hokkaido sardine, eggplant, shirauo - The sardine was grilled and filled with its roe. The eggplant was pickled. The shirauo was served as a thin, crispy cracker.  

Hokkaido oyster - The oyster was gently steamed. Whilst I usually prefer oysters served natural, the flavour of this oyster was amazing. It was sweet, briney and a lovely oceanic taste. 

Chawanmushi - This is probably the best steamed egg custard that I have ever eaten. It was smooth, silky and slightly soupy. The dashi stock was unbelievably good: sweet and filled with delicate umami flavour. And there were strands of delicious crab inside the egg custard. 

Grilled baby squid - This was the 'rare fish food' that I opted for over creme brulee. It tasted like the dried squid snack.

Squid (ika) - The flavour was sweet and delicate. The squid was scored to tenderise the flesh, which made the squid almost milky in texture.  

Medium fatty tuna (chu-toro) - Check out the marbling of this specimen. Almost like wagyu beef! The medium fatty tuna had a wonderful, well-balanced flavour and melted in the mouth. I'm in heaven now! 

Gizzard shad (kohada) - Strong in flavour like the mackerel, medium oil content, and soft texture. Yum! 

Sweet shrimp (ama-ebi) - Sweet, lovely creamy texture that melts in the mouth. Just divine!

Horse mackerel (aji) - Classic nigiri topping. Fresh, pristine quality, fatty, rich in flavour and  without a trace of fishiness. Amazing!  

Surf clam (hokkigai) - Mild ocean aroma, flesh was soft and chewy. Delicate in flavour and the sweetness of the clam became more evident with each bite. The clam was seared slightly to give a nice smoky flavour.

Snake shell (tsubugai) - Oceanic flavour with mild sweetness and crunchy texture.

Abalone (awabi) - Easily one of my favourite pieces of the night! The abalone was steamed, was so tender whilst retaining a slight bouncy texture and had an incredibly deep flavour. The abalone's liver was pureed to create a dark green sauce that was rich, creamy and paired beautifully with the abalone.

Sea urchin (uni) - I was salivating at the sight of the chef carefully topping the oblong block of rice with tongues of sea urchin. The rich, creamy texture of the sea urchin is heavenly in the mouth. A heavy sweetness and aroma of the sea urchin filled the mouth as I ate it. What else can I say besides, best!  

Salmon roe (ikura) - Oh my goodness! The bursts of umami with each roe bursting in the mouth together with the slighty sweet and vinegared rice and crispy nori sheet... I am lost for words. So good!   

Miso soup - Delicious miso soup with an excellent dashi stock, served with slippery,earthy mushrooms. Supposedly aids digestion of fish at the end of the meal.   

Sea eel (anago) - The sea eel was so soft and melting in the mouth, almost souffle like. Delicious with the sweet, umami sauce and topped with specks of lime zest for acidity. Another highlight! 

Egg omelet (tamago) - This "dessert" piece marked the end of the omakase course. The tamago was light in texture, almost like a sponge cake. The flavour was slightly sweet and wonderfully savoury. Best tamago I have ever eaten!

Kuruma shrimp (kuruma-ebi) extra 1,000 yen - I decided to order another piece from the a la carte menu despite being quite full. I love the bright red rings that form after the kuruma shrimp is boiled. The shrimp was well cooked: sweet in flavour and a nice bouncy texture. I would have liked the flavours from the shrimp head to be incorporated in this piece.   

Sushi Tanabe
Address: 3 Minami 5-jo Nishi, Chuo-ku| New Blue Nile Bldg. 2F, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan 
Contact no: +81 11 520 2202