Wednesday, 21 November 2012

I must be a sucker for punishment.
This was going to be my 2nd degustation in 2 days. Yep, I must be mad. Presenting, gastronomic blowout #4!

I was headed to Sepia to celebrate a friend's birthday. Yes, Sixpenny would be a hard act to follow but how could one refuse? It would be rude not to. Anyway, the timing was impeccable. Sepia is just one of those restaurants, easily up there with Sydney big-guns Marque & Quay. I have always wanted to go there and now I had my chance. I was going for the culinary (degustation) trifecta. Wish me luck!

The grand entrance: great big double doors welcome you into one of Sydney's culinary institutions. Photo credit: KE-ZU

Since opening in 2009, the Sepia mantlepiece has gotten rather crowded with all those hats and stars jostling for position. Sepia has retained 3 hats (SMH Good Food Guide) for the past 2 years and bespectacled Chef Martin Benn has previously been Chef of the Year (Good Food Guide 2011). Numerous Young Chefs of the Year have also issued from Sepia's doors. More recently Sepia was named #3 restaurant (after Marque & Quay, funnily enough) in the country by Australian Gourmet Traveller Magazine (2013). I could go on forever here but I'll spare you ;)

The dining room was a relatively simple affair, dark timber dining tables (on the larger side, I felt I was leaning in all the time) and comfortable chairs. I was surprised that we were 'sans' tablecloths here, but that's fine. Times are a changin' and laundering bills can cost a mint! And I wouldn't be dining in Australia if it wasn't very very dark in the restaurant (um, someone here would really like to be able to see the food?) ...that box was well and truly ticked.

The first obstacle was hit when were each given a wine list to leisurely "peruse". Jeepers, the thing was a 36-page tome. Thanks must go to Sommelier of the Year, Rodney Setter (Good Food Guide 2013)! Scheiße. I was way out of my depth here. So I had no hesitation in enlisting the help of the trusty sommelier. HELP! I'm quite easily convinced when it comes to wine recommendations. Must go to more wine tastings to fix this...

My dining companions hopped on board to tackle the degustation with matched wines. I abstained, not wanting to do myself in after last night's feasting episode. The Riedel glasses were on high rotation at our table (that is a heck of a lot of washing up). The sommelier was an extremely busy man, dashing like a headless chook between tables and was kitted out with a very impressive looking trolley decked out with decanters, ice buckets, half opened bottles and candle (??). Prior to each wine course, we would get a little spiel, where they came from (we traversed the globe many times over) and with way too many adjectives. I was also straining to hear as they verbal diarrhoed (ah, lol) at an almighty pace. A lot of the descriptions were way over my head - oaky and fruity I can grasp but 'silky' and 'notes of spice'? Sorry pal, but I'm out.

Let me give you a run down of our night (all 10 courses of it)!
1. Reverse nigiri, toro, soy wasabi, sushi rice, nori - the ultimate amuse to get us going. This little tuna morsel was delicious, might we have more? The Japanese style is miles away from the contemporary Australian of last night but I can't complain!

2. Kingfish bacon, citrus soy, olive oil, smoked trout roe - a little Heston trickery to throw into the mix. The roe was da bomb (English has suddenly escaped me). 

3. Beetroot butter, sheep milk chèvre, rhubarb, apple balsamic, rye, goat milk crisp - so so pretty. The creaminess of the beetroot butter/puree and the cheese was divine. Unfortunately we were given the wrong dining implements, a clunking Japanese wooden spoon to tackle this dish...uh how do I eat this?

My my my, ain't it stunning? The shards are too cool for school.

4. Poached Queensland tiger prawn skinn, white asparagus, samphire, sea parsley, hijiki citrus dashi - the texture of the prawn completely blew my mind. I'm definitely admiring the amount of work that has gone into this. 

My socks were just knocked off. I was a bit chuffed when I recognised the samphire garnish - boo yeah.

As we were getting into the swing of things we noticed that were had some very enthusiastic waiters. We heard "Sorry to interrupt" many times as the degustation rolled on. Otherwise it all went very smoothly. Have I used the well-oiled-machine analogy too many times now? At times the wait staff were so anxious to explain the dish that they were jittery and bumbling a little. I was tempted to tell them to calm down a little! It is O-K. I'm sure people don't mind slash care too much.

 5. Glazed and smoked freshwater eel, yuzu curd, green almonds, tapioca, licorice watercress and nasturtium = my favourite so far. I'm such a sucker for an eel dish. The yuzu curd was a sort of lemon curd that worked really well, surprisingly. The tapioca pearls (old mate), give a little nod to the Snapper @ Gastro Park.

Le Eel, C'est chic: a photo captured in no-light conditions can't do this dish justice I'm afraid.

 6. Saikyo miso braised pork belly, Corella pear, pickled water chestnuts, spanner crab and crackling, garlic flowers - this dish comes a very close second. The textures of the pork and the water chestnuts are bang on (to borrow a Jamie Oliver-esque phrase).

Each dish was but a 'taster' but you had so many flavours for your palate to contend with, it's quite unbelievable.

7. Seared rolled David Blackmore wagyu beef, chestnut mushrrom, roasted red onion juice, onion cream, wasabi, fried potato and kombu crumb, citrus soy -  served with a salad of micro greens on the side (with this adorable little wooden tongs), this wagyu was naturally cooked very well. The potato crumb was a nice addition but there wasn't much else to recommend here - the eel and pork were too good!

The rather tiny main event: the boys were dismayed at the meagre portioning of this dish i.e. where's the rest of it/my steak?! 

8. Pre-dessert #1: Caramelized honey mousse, lemon sorbet, camomile and lemon granita, white chocolate and toasted oats - sounds like a lot but it's all rather compact in a degustation. A nice palette cleanser for us to soldier on!

9. Pre-dessert #2: Mulberries, pineapple, buttermilk and tarragon, shortbread - a great combination. You don't see mulberries around all that much!

10. IT. What a way to finish, with the famed "Spring Chocolate Forest". Soft chocolate, hazelnut and almond, rose geranium cream, sour cherry sorbet, blackberry jellies, green tea, licorice, chocolate twigs... Did you get that? This is Sepia's most triumphant dessert, striking a delicate balance of sweetness with bountiful varieties of textures. For the birthday girl, a single candle was lit on plate with a piped chocolate "Happy Birthday" on the rim! I'm sure they get a lot of birthdays/occasions, why else would you be at Sepia? The candied dill (white speckled stuff) was a nice touch. The sorbet and those little perfectly cut cubes of jelly have got to be my favourite. I'm very sensitive to 'sweet' at the moment and by the end of all that chocolate soil I was hitting struggle town. But the show must go on!

The one and only: the perfect exclamation mark to end a fabulous meal. Like a dessert artwork, it was hard to know where to start (yeah, not really).

And in the blink of an eye, it was all over! What felt like only 2 hours was more like 4 (a positive marathon in food circles!). The food was very pleasing, to say the least. Benn's dishes follow that Japanese philosophy of precision, technique and the pursuit of perfection (pretty damn close!). For a time we sat looking at one other and smiling, luxuriating in all that food gloriousness we had just experienced. I was totally won over. Surprise surprise, I was not actually that full. I must be adapting to this way of dining (danger!). The matched wines might have tipped me over the edge  into treacherous food coma territory. 

When we got the bill, there were several discreetly gaping mouths. At least I came prepared! Paying such astronomical sums for dinner is rather a guilty pleasure. I could get used to this, when my salary drastically increases that is. I found it hilarious that there was a strategically placed ATM en route to the bathrooms. So if on receiving the bill you're suddenly feeling nauseous...! Thank goodness they also gave us a copy of the menu (could not have done the post without it!). We were ushered out of the restaurant at close to midnight - crazy (good)Now that I've had a (another) proper taste for fine dining, I might not be able to go back. Oh well!

Thanks for reading! x
Sepia on Urbanspoon


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

So here we are, I have bitten the bullet and gone to my first restaurant degustation (my last was a pop-up, and a great one at that). And so I have revived the series of 'Gastronomic Blowout' posts that I started in Melbs last year. Brace yourselves ;)

There are no prizes for guessing this one, we went to Stanmore's new addition Sixpenny. Just past Newtown, there aren't a whole lot of things the suburb can recommend for itself - but here's a good place to start! Owner-chefs James Parry and Daniel Puskas (ex Oscillate Wildly) have opened this degustation only restaurant much to the delight of foodies and critics alike. Stepping away from their Michelin starred and hatted roots, they have branched out to start this venture. When Mr Durack gave it 16/20 back in March, it went straight on my hit-list and eight months later, I've made it!

Situated on a corner block on Percival Rd, we were met with a closed door, and walls draped with sheer white terylene curtains. The restaurant is rather tiny (in a good way) to seat about 35. There's also a separate dining area for 8 (I assume 'out the back'). Being one of the first tables to arrive (I feel old), we were sat at a round walnut table with matching chairs (comfy!). The dining room had a rather Scandinavian feel about it (no complaints here) but with  distinct touches of Australiana, the native flowers at the waiter's station (which is right front and centre) and the botanical prints hung on a green wall panel.

Not bad, if I do say so myself (my photo + the dining room)!

All in all the design is quite pared back and understated, which I think rather suits the kind of food that was to be served. The soundtrack was very welcome featuring the likes of Radiohead and Feist and thank god it wasn't blaring because I don't like to shout. Trust me to notice but the wine glasses were crystal by Plumm, an Australian company to rival the Austrians (looking square at you, Riedel). And the crockery by Bendigo Pottery (est. 1858), something tells me that this was a very deliberate move to support local industry and I applaud that.

We settled on ordering the 'Tasting Menu', 5 to 6 courses. It was a good introduction as "My First Degustation", the big kids version is 8 courses (maybe next time??). To start the night off we were given some 'snacks', 5 to be exact. In addition we also had house made sourdough with mascarpone butter (I was in two-minds about indulging the bread but decided I had to seeing as it was made on site) as well as some Kipfler potato chips which were made from the skins alone, and paper thin - you've got to try those! 

To start you off: an onion pickle with verjuice (hmm, still a bit too onion-ey i thought) and rye toast with fresh cheese. I am so glad we started miniature here (we will also end in miniature but I'll get to that ;) )

The potato scallop: you know that anything with the words potato and fried in it is good but these puffy golden discs were delicious! The light dusting of chicken skin salt was the perfect seasoning

Pork knuckle sandwich: it could only be on mini brioche toasts, right? The apple and bergamot jelly was a nice touch 
Waste not, the duck tongue with jus. Once you get the past the fact it's tongue, you'll be delighted to know it just tastes like duck, without any toughness or chewiness. It was cooked right and that's always a good start
Et maintenant Mesdames et Messieurs, we get to the main event (that's pretty much the extent of my French these days, shame)! In case you didn't already know, here's how it works at Sixpenny: the chefs do double duty and serve your dishes, explaining each course as they go. It must be completely interruptive in the kitchen but it really is a lovely touch and does not go unappreciated. Sometimes it was all rather mystifying with the volume of information, but I tried to keep my ears peeled. 

The amuse = Sixpenny's fruit salad. This dish consisted of scrolls of grilled peach filled with ricotta, translucent slithers of green peach, milk chips and a lemony micro herb garnish, all drizzled with pear juice. A rather ingenious use of a mandolin here I think.
This is IT. The famed spanner crab, silky macadamia and chamomile with macadamia shavings. Look, the degustation could have finished here and I would have been happy. M had been looking forward to this singular dish for months and I tell you, we were not disappointed. At first I thought it was an early dessert (well,  alright then) but the plating had been tweaked slightly (for the better i think!). An early high note for the evening, the crab meat was 1. real (and I love the generosity here) 2. creamy and smooth 3. accented with macadamia. Done. We can all go home now

The complimentary course (read: AWESOME!) - seared sea mullet with toasted walnut, dressed lightly with mead vinegar/buttermilk. In the dying light I was just able to capture it.
In the few minutes that we were able to chat to Dan, they're open 5.5 days a week (Sunday is lunch service only) and the other two days, they're at the farm in Mittagong. I imagine in my head a rather idyllic kitchen garden where they grow all their herbs and vegies - I'm rather jealous I must say! How immensely satisfying it must be to grow and cook all your own produce. Living the dream people ;)

And here we have the poached snapper fillet with pumpkin seed cream and soft leeks with a pepita (pumpkin) seed and sea salt crumb. Apologies it's almost blurred beyond recognition! It's always a good sign when you can eat a fish dish without a knife, and this was no exception. The pumpkin in the cream was a really nice accompaniment for a melt-in-your-mouth soft finish. P.S. i could taste the butter off of those leeks (eep!) but I'll let that pass because the fish was so so good...

It was also interesting to note how 'in time' everyone moved, as if it were choreographed. As the night went on and the dining room became progressively fuller and noisier (proportional to collective alcohol consumption), the chefs would maintain a calm exterior but the pace would subtly quicken. The gaps between courses would get a little bit longer but I have no qualms about that. We all needed a little moment to rest and digest. One good thing about eating/starting earlier is that you get to 'preview' all the dishes before everyone else. As others would commence the degustation, you knew what they were getting next and could gauge their reactions! A little voyeuristic of me I know, but it felt like a very shared experience.

And den? Suffolk leg of lamb with sweet blackened onions, grilled baby leek and  garnished with saltbush and chickweed. Men breathed a sigh of relief at seeing a proper piece of protein. Degustation being the name of the game, you can't expect to put away a 250 grammer right in the thick of it. No thanks! Anyway, the lamb was tender and cooked well although others found it to be slightly chewy
And then came the sweeties...huzzah!

Sticky rhubarb which reminded me so much of Haw Flakes i.e. "saan zaa beng" - the fruity discs that I used to scoff as a child. YUM! Also, meringue with lemon, chamomile and honey ice - a delicious mouthful. My only wish was that there were more ;)

Only my favourite: green strawberry poached in rosella (wild hibiscus) soup (ty, Don Burke) and ginger sorbet. Pretty as a picture on that orange plate! That sorbet was incredible - the lack of sweetness   sits very well with me and it was so light. 

It might not look like much but this was Sixpenny's milo ice cream. Fans of the old milo McFlurry (ew) look no further. This version included a rye ice cream that was like eating clouds. Barely churned, this is what I want from my (future) ice cream maker...yes, please. My only note here would be that the serving was too large and not quite in keeping with the rest. Maybe a quinelle (on the larger side, of course) would suffice?
As the meal was reaching its end *sigh* I ordered a fresh leaf lemon myrtle tea. It was something different (I'm always game), and picked fresh off the farm no doubt. Me and my little glass teapot for 2, what luxury!

Petits-Fours: Sixpenny's Arnotts cookie jar (plus lamingtons) already has a legion (maybe?) of fans. Pick your favourite from the pint sized monte carlos, kingstons, delta creams and gingernut biccies. Don't mind if I do! The green lidded jar (Bendigo Pottery strikes again) was adorable as well.
So close to three hours later we had traipsed our way across a 6 cum 7 course degustation (plus extras!) - it was epic (kind of like this post, eh) and completely wonderful. Sixpenny has forged a name and character for itself in its not even one year of existence. It has earnt one hat in the 2013 SMH GFG and named this year's Hot Talent in the Time Out Food Awards. Hopefully we'll be seeing the rise and rise of these guys in years to come!  

To top it all off, we were given doggy bags packed with a couple of loaves of Sixpenny sourdough, "for breakfast the next day". Swooning. Right. Now. So the degustation continues on! I am in awe with the amount of care and consideration that has gone not only into the menu but also gestures of goodwill like this one 

In the end, I surprised myself in that I wasn't too full (granted I had very strategic portion control during the day but no matter). I enjoyed this evening to the fullest, being a celebration of several things ;) And it may sound ridiculous (perhaps not) but I didn't want to leave! I felt so at home and would have happily spent longer there had I not been coaxed out the door by my company. Once they did get me outside, I was riding a high & couldn't wipe the grin off my face! It had to be a winner.

Thanks for reading xo


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