201 Sussex Street Sydney, NSW 200002 9283 1990
|Opening hours||Japanese charcoal-grilled bar menu, Tue to Thu from 6pm; Fri from noon|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
No, Sepia hasn't turned into a Japanese restaurant. But chef Martin Benn likes his yakitori - technically, the Japanese art of grilling chicken (although the term can be used for anything grilled on a skewer). At the heart of the process is binchotan charcoal, which is prized for its subtle smokiness and superior charring qualities. Benn has been fiddling with charcoal grilling in the Sepia kitchen for a while, mainly for his three-hat menu. Now he's broken out his inner Japanese to serve yakitori at the bar, with fine chopsticks and on artisan ceramic plates.
Sepia's lively bar area (in the restaurant entrance) adds a welcome buzz to the restaurant's dark and neutral-toned space, with its pleasant jazzy vibe-y soundtrack.
It's all rather New York. The crowd is mixed: after-work office girls, a lone drinker in jeans and sneakers, a Japanese businessman at the counter. There's sommelier Rodney Setter pouring an interesting glass or two - a Japanese koshu wine, a Greek malagousia-assyrtiko, perhaps a new Italian blend or a Lark Hill gruner veltliner (from the Canberra district). And then there are the skewers.
This is not your hearty, cheap-and-cheerful under $30, full-meal experience. But it can be a way to go three-hat at bargain prices. It would be easy to blow the $30 budget by double that - not least because everything on the yakitori menu looks delicate and interesting. As consolation, a few well-chosen bits of something can be satisfying. And, well, when you do blow the budget, you shouldn't be too disappointed. This is top-drawer snacking in one of our most highly recognised restaurants.
Whether it's the seemingly simple combination of tiny, sweetly smoky spring onions with a dark, sticky soy-vinegar dressing and peppery, herby purple shiso leaves, or the refined umami-ness of shiitakes with the flowery, citrussy perfume of a light ponzu, vegetables are the way to start. Follow with gingered curls of soft baby squid, or a single scampi, with a scattering of gently gritty, dusty-pink scampi salt for dipping - rich, meaty and melting. Alternatively, get your teeth into a pudgy grilled tiger prawn swooshed through tingly Japanese mayo.
And then there is the chicken - the soul of yakitori. Here it comes as corn-fed Holmbrae chook meat turned into gently fatty thigh skewers, sweetly juicy batons of breast meat, or teensy, quirky twists of rich'n'crisp chicken skin - each dressed with salt, a hint of sansho pepper or yuzu kosho (citrussy chilli paste). There are other big names around town where you can slide in for a more modestly priced snack: Momofuku Seiobo, for example, with its pork buns (Friday lunchtimes). Plus Bentley, Claude's, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Flying Fish and a few others. Martin Benn is having fun with his more casual side. And so will you.
Do … take time to appreciate the subtlety of this style of cooking.
Don't … underestimate the fill-up qualities of a few fine skewers.
Dish … Tasmania shiitake mushrooms with ponzu.
Vibe … adult, elegant and Japanese. And approachable.
The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food under $30 is on sale now at selected newsagencies, bookshops and at The Sydney Morning Herald's online shop (smhshop.com.au).