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
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