11 Barrack St Sydney, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Lunch Tue-Fri noon-3pm; Dinner Tue-Fri 6-10.30pm; Sat 5.30-10.30pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9262 2624|
Dreams have a way of slipping under, around and through a global pandemic, if they are strong enough.
In 2017, former Wildfire and Ocean Room operator Tonci Farac dreamed of creating Sydney's finest Italian restaurant in the heritage-listed shell of our oldest savings bank, built in 1849.
He engaged a top chef, Matteo Vigotti of Italy's Novecento and Peck, and Michael McCann of Dreamtime Australia, grand master of our most glamorous dining rooms.
Alas, Vigotti was back in Italy in 2020 when the world stopped travelling. It didn't stop the dream, however. More than three years, $6 million and one of Sydney's more complex refurbishments later, Seta has become a reality, with Australian-based chef Giovanni Astolfoni in the operatic kitchen.
After years of hard bentwood chairs in minimalist Sydney dining rooms, sinking into cushioned seating comes as something of a shock.
Seta delivers all the trappings of hospitality – backlit bar, soaring marble columns, and a great wall of wine, complete with library ladder. My horseshoe booth even has its own Murano chandelier, along with dress circle views of the stage.
I say stage, because this is kitchen as theatre. Eight or nine chefs in tall white toques tend a bespoke 10-station cooking suite of wood-fired grill, gas range, induction, plancha, pasta cooker, fryers and refrigerated drawers that cost a cool $400,000. It's like watching The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover while nibbling grissini and drinking negroni.
Cicchetti, or Venetian snacketti ($30), has been reserved as a playground for the chef, who has composed a pleasing rubble of hand-chopped beef tartare under a delicate leaf-shaped parmesan crisp, and a rich and smoky eel mousse sandwiched between crackling-crisp eel and chicken skins.
A third references Vietnam's trung vit lon, or unborn egg, in a flurry of deeply flavoured pecorino foam, burnt onion, stracciatella and chicken consomme that's not half as scary as the real thing.
From the list of crudo, a simple kaleidoscope of fat slices of Hokkaido scallop is sauced with passionfruit and a zesty lime gel ($36), whisking me back to the nuova cucina of 1990s Italy.
Pasta is a must – delicate, considered, and Venetian in style. The only non-seafood one is house-made tortelli cacio e pepe ($39); the pasta finely rolled and the filling a rich but light, warmly peppery cream of pecorino and parmigiano, with a buttery veal jus adding depth.
It becomes quite irresistible. There's a garnish of tender sweetbreads and an apple and horseradish glaze, but they seem like value-added distractions from the main event.
A main course of Maffra lamb rump ($48) also transcends the complexity of its four ways with red cabbage – emulsion, dust, crisp and wedge – and variations on beetroot; the pink meat edged with sweet fat and crisp skin, balanced with an earthy acidity.
For the lamb, head sommelier Filippo L'Episcopo suggests a wine but all I hear is $170, so I talk him down to the 2018 Fattoria Le Pupille Morellino di Scansano ($90), a juicy sangiovese from coastal Tuscany.
French-born manager Yoan Boucrelle reads a table well, stepping in when needed, and as for staff, there seems to be a lot of them.
Desserts from pastry chef Layla Giovannoni are technical and textural, especially the Sud Italia ($20), a deconstructed cassata Siciliana of shaved macadamias, apricot jelly, house-made ricotta and candied orange peel topped with a cremosa of truffled chocolate and gold foil.
Creative, elaborate, indulgent, grand, glamorous, over-the-top – Seta is all these things; succeeding in its aim of whisking us away from the everyday. So much money has been spent, and so much work has gone into the food, that it all clamours for your attention, like actors on a stage.
And there's more to come, apparently – a crudo bar, chef's table, outdoor seating – when really, what's here already is more than enough.
Vegetarian: One entree, several sides, and degustation menu available on request.
Drinks: A lavish wine library houses an encyclopaedic collection of Italian wines and varietals, with a clear obsession for Champagne and Italy's Ferrara vintages.
Pro tip: Slip into a red velvet seat at the bar for a Venetian spritz.