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

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