201 Sussex Street Sydney, New South Wales 2000
|Opening hours||L Fri-Sat; D Tues-Sat|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Licensed, Private dining|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9283 1990|
|Free wine for Citibank cardholders here|
Restaurants are a bit like jelly. Some are barely set, wobbling with the winds of change and fashion. Others are over-gelatinised to a rigid formality, with little room for flexibility or movement. Sepia could have gone either way when it opened in May last year.
It was still a tentative dining experience, not yet set, when I got there soon after. The potential was enormous, however, with top seafood supplier George Costi as backer and Martin Benn, cut loose from head-cheffing at Tetsuya's, in the kitchen. But the location seemed undesirably business-like, tables seemed awkwardly placed and the food was a little precious. Neither Costi, Benn, nor his partner, Vicki Wild, had real hands-on experience as restaurateurs. And did I mention the global financial crisis?
One year on and Sepia is a much more confident affair. It's lively from the minute you walk in; with either Vicki Wild or seasoned maitre d' Richard Harris seemingly always lurking, ready to meet, greet and dispatch you to the darkly seductive bar or the two wings of dimly lit brasserie-style dining rooms. The unclothed tables seem provocatively casual until you note the carpet, sink into a wide and comfortable banquette and finger the fine linen; then it just feels contemporary and right.
And the food? The same words keep coming up: smoky, sweet, crunchy, creamy, soft, gentle, toasty, scented, clear, brothy, earthy, floral. The focus is on texture and contrast even more than taste – there's always a crunch, always a cream. It's like the love-child of Tetsuya Wakuda and Rene Redzepi of Noma; a Nordic kaiseki.
A good synergy seems to exist between Benn and co-chef Daniel Puskas, who worked with him at Tetsuya's before heading off to Marque and Oscillate Wildly. Their cooking is precise, pulled back, almost subversively feminine. A relatively simple amuse gueule of a single poached scampi with just a sweep of basil puree, a touch of wood sorrel and toasty crumbs has a sweet, soft, subtlety.
That combination of luxuriant richness and earthy crunch is there again in a pretty dish of butter-basted sea scallops ($27) served on a smooth puree of miso and chickpeas, topped with a foam of milky barley tea and surrounded by a gravelly sprinkle of toasted barley, amaranth and quinoa.
Equally subversive is sommelier Rodney Setter, with an under-the-radar charm and geeky depth of knowledge that make him a formidable dining ally. Who knew a 2009 Domaine Les Hautes Cances Cotes du Rhone Villages Cairanne Blanc would be so refreshingly crisp, or the 2008 Eldridge Estate Gamay ($77) would have the depth and balance most beaujolais can only dream of? He did.
The top Sepia dishes, for my vote, are all fish but there is always something for meat-eaters; this time a highly crafted ball of young Thirlmere chicken breast, wrapped in its own skin and served with a fairy ring of Tassie truffle and a broth of roasted chicken and saikyo miso ($30) that's all warm velvety textures and lilting sweetness.
There are three big hits, including a pretty dish of poached coral trout ($44) served with a lightly poached marron, smooth onion cream, intense shellfish emulsion and glistening pearls of beetroot-infused trout roe.
Butter-poached Murray cod ($44) is the perfect round of fish iced with wakame puree and launched onto the plate with a cracker-crisp sail of puffed, dehydrated cod skin, slightly bitter endive puree, plugs of rich bone marrow and nutty, roasted Jerusalem artichokes. I mean, wow.
And, of course, the "chocolate forest", part of the $130 degustation menu, a dessert surely destined to take over on MasterChef where Peter Gilmore's guava snow egg left off. The dark chocolate twigs, crystallised fennel fronds, chocolate soil crumbs and green tea moss laid over lavender custard, crunchy praline, chestnut cream and soft chocolate mousse, topped with sour cherry sorbet, make it thrilling to eat. It's like sending your mouth on a trek through the undergrowth, each movement finding something that either snaps or squelches.
To finish, a small platter of sweet things includes little French jellies of pear and poire william remarkable for their clarity of flavour and singing sweetness: more of a metaphor, in other words, than petits four.
Sepia scores 16.5 in this year's Good Food Guide. I'm pushing it to 17 here because I don't do half-points and because it just gets better with every visit.