Martin Benn’s fine dining pedigree is well established and his time at Tetsuya‘s, more latterly as Head Chef, shows in his approach to fine dining – simplicity of concepts, ingredients and presentation. Before this, he spent time at the late Forty One Restaurant in Chifley Tower Sydney city, and started his career in London at the Oak Room, learning French gastronomy under Michel Lorrain. From there, Martin Benn moved to work at the Landmark Restaurant and later the Criterion, learning from that ever so famous Chef Marco Pierre White.
The place – set in the ground floor of Darling Park, the entrance from Sussex St is appropriately imposing. Once inside, straight ahead of you is the wine bar which has a look of a smart French bistro. Clearly the focus at Sepia is on the food rather than the grand fine dining spaces of old and that is refreshing. No white table clothes at Sepia – a minimal approach is taken almost everywhere and more so with the look of the chairs and tables – all quite comfy. The reception we got on arrival was perfect but we must admit the service ran hot and cold from that point.
The food – the menus at Sepia give you three different options – degustation (10 courses $160), a la carte and a seasonal set menu (4 courses $130). Martin Benn’s menu utilises the best of seasonal produce and drawing inspiration from Japan. On Saturday evening you can experience a completely different degustation menu that evolves each week. The food at Sepia delivers a Japanese influenced aesthetic with a feel of the season and earthiness.
We went for the 10 course degustation, which truly delivered an insight into the food and style influences that Martin Benn has brought to Sydney fine dining. Here we’ve chosen a selection of the dishes that excited, intrigued and above all we fell in love with.
“Sushi nigiri” – sashimi tuna, seared smoked ocean trout, poached banana prawn. A perfect introduction to Martin Benn’s expertise and creativity - three batons encrusted with toasted rice in place of the traditional sushi rice. The gentle smokey taste of the ocean trout is still a wonderful memory.
Butter poached Port Lincoln squid, barley miso cured egg yolk, lemon, wild woodland sorrel – a single scroll of squid that had been finely scored – with simple flavours of the butter and lemon. A intriguing texture of the finely scored squid, which had the perfect bite before melting in your mouth, simple uncomplicated taste, that left you wanting more.
Charcoal smoked freshwater eel, yuzu curd, fresh pistachio, tapioca, licorice, nasturtium flowers and leaves. This was poetry to our pallet – every mouthful unfolding the rich smokiness of the eel, a nutty crunch, pistachio and earthiness of the nasturtium flowers.
SA Lamb, goat cheese and sake kuzu dumplings, fennel cream, black olive, miso vinaigrette, fennel molasses – the lamb was rich, moist and counterbalanced well with the sharpness of the goats cheese black olive and sake dumplings.
Seared rolled David Blackmore wagyu beef (David Blackmore learned the old tradition in Japanese raising wagu and was named live stock producer of the year in 2012, his farm is in Victoria), chestnut mushroom, roasted red onion juice, wasabi, fried potato and kombu crumb, citrus soy. The rolls of finely shaved wagyu were surprising, partly because of the crunchiness of the potato and kombu crumbs. Crumbs and forest like textures featured often in this menu – a Nordic influence we think.
At this point in the menu, there’s an optional course of Savrano con Latte de Bufala, Jamon Iberico cream, fig, toasted buckwheat.
The desserts created by Martin Benn are really quite spectacular to say the least - the two we tried were imaginative and perfectly executed. One of his signature desserts is the Japanese stones – and here’s a video of the recipe -
Before our main dessert – the pre-dessert which achieves an impact similar to the traditional refreshing sorbet between courses.
Pre dessert – cherry sorbet encassed in frozen jus. The sharp tangy taste of the shell, finer and lighter than a egg shell, cracked to the touch and released a airy light cherry sorbet which we thought had more of a texture of a very light mousse.
Summer chocolate forest – soft chocolate, hazelnut and almond praline, orange and thyme cream, sour cherry sorbet, native fingerlime, green tea, licorice, chocolate twigs, crystallised fennel fronds. This complex dessert is a true insight into Martin Benn’s wonderful food – visually transporting you to a forest floor and a taste sensation that combines flavour with texture. To parallel this to art, it would most definitely be a Rembrandt.
Sepia Restaurant has an extensive wine list as you’d expect from a fine dining restaurant – with more than twenty four wines by the glass and a broad selection of wines from around the globe. The sommelier recommended a Mac Forbes ‘RS45′ Riesling – interesting match with our first courses and the chilled light Italian red - Zaccagnini ‘Ikebana’ Montepulciano Novello. The sommelier didn’t come across like he was particularly interested in guiding us as we hadn’t ordered the matching wines – a little offhand almost abrasive – we’ve had much more engaging advice from our sommeliers in other good restaurants in Sydney and around the world.
THE VERDICT – Sepia deserves its place as one of Sydney’s fine dining restaurants and Chef Martin Benn, like his contemporaries, introduces us to new and exciting food. His combinations and nuances are worthy of the praise and recognition he receives. Unfortunately, the delivery in some areas, in particular service, at Sepia Restaurant is not consistent with the high level of the food experience.
Chef: Martin Benn
Wine list: 8/10
Sepia Restaurant and Wine Bar
Darling Park, 201 Sussex St Sydney NSW 2000