What is it about Sepia? Is it the warm, comfortable service? Is it the chic, dark, Deco-like interior that seems to encapsulate you within its folds, so you feel like you're in a part of Sydney you never knew existed? Or is it the food? Food that thrills and hits off every note of pleasure in your mouth with such educated intuition that you start to feel there must be dark magic at work.
Sepia is a joint project between Martin Benn (chef), Vicki Wild (maître d’) and George Costi, who provides all the seafood. It's been running now for almost eight years and although they're thinking of choosing a new space and as Wild tells us, “doing something different” over the next few years, they are feeling no sense of urgency.
You can get the short degustation or the longer one, and with $20 between them, you may as well go all out. And in that vein, we suggest you go matching beverages as well. Sommelier Rodney Setter is pairing everything from wine to Madeira, sake to Muscadelle with the food, and every one is a surprise and a delight, not to mention delivered in an in-depth, enlightening and educational bent from the man himself.
We start with snacks – dashi jelly topping sweet kingfish in a thin wrapper of water chestnut and nori; saikou salmon encasing hickory-smoked roe, coated in sudachi citrus gel; and a tempura-dipped shiso leaf with smoked prawn mayo and prawn shell powder.
Next up are fine swathes of bonito tuna enveloping a gently poached egg yolk injected with unpasteurised soy sauce and dressed with wasabi oil and its flowers. It's served with a Kochi sake that's made from the central 50 per cent of the rice grain, so the starches are clean and pure, and result in a dryness that complements the sweetness of the egg yolk.
A play on crab sandwiches sees spanner crab arriving atop a brown butter emulsion that tastes of buttered toast, with a sake vinegar jelly that melts irrevocably on the tongue, the pea and horseradish dust that is spooned over at table melting into a green, fresh, fiery sauce.
Next, Benn takes whole chickens, roasts then poaches them in stock before pushing the whole lot – carcass and all – through a mouli (like a Japanese sieve) and making a sauce from the result. He tops it with sashimi of bonito (or “the chicken of the sea,” as he calls it), zingy yuzu, Jerusalem artichoke and chicken skin crisps made to look like perfect, autumnal leaves, and green tea and nori crumb. It's umami on a plate – who knew surf and turf could actually work? Martin Benn, apparently. And with Setter's unusually creamy Muscadelle, it’s like the best Sunday roast you’ve ever had.
The last of the savouries sees impeccably rendered Aylesbury duck breast paired with beautiful little droplets of whipped sheep's yoghurt, sour lemon aspen and mulberry vinegar. It’s so gorgeous we’re practically clapping.
The elegantly arched wooden spoons we’re presented with at dessert make us feel like (super posh) little kids. We start with blueberries with gingerbread crumbs and coconut yogurt sorbet, and are blown away by the dark chocolate cup of caramelised apple cream and Jerusalem artichoke ice cream, bounced up with sour blackcurrant gel and crunchy pecan and cocoa nib brittle.
But, as with the Snow Egg at Quay, the lamington at Bennelong and Stoner's Delight at Ms G's, at Sepia you have to get the Winter Chocolate Forest. Made to look like the forest floor, it's a rummage of textures – hazelnut and almond praline, osmanthus and yellow box honey cream, blackberry sorbet, chocolate twigs and native violets – all spiked with the cleansing digestif of anise in the form of crystallised fennel fronds and liquorice powder, utilised around the world's culinary traditions for its perfect end-of-meal-temperament.
Because that's the thing about Sepia; it's pretty much perfect. Quay is wonderful for its unashamed celebration of Sydney (Bridge! Opera House! Harbour!); Momofuku for its passion for fun and experimentation. But Sepia is simply about pleasure: a warm welcome at the door; an immediate, encapsulating walk into luxury, and food that – and this is not said lightly – tastes as beautiful as it looks. That's what fine diners should do. It's why you pay a good wodge of your salary to go. And it's why, once and a while, it's worth every penny.