Disclaimer: This meal was independently paid for and all thoughts are my own intellectual property.
I am a gusher by nature, prone to hyperbole and verbal diarrhoea. It's something that I have been consciously trying to change as I want to stay critical in a world with too much good (but not exceptional!) food. My visit to Sepia proved the ultimate test of this new resolution.
Entering through the narrow dark doorway into the shadowy, flame-lit interior, Sepia flickers with an intimate warmth. The name is testament to the historic past of the actual site as well as the "classic timelessness" both Martin Benn, the head chef, and Vicki Wild, co-partner and manager, intended for the restaurant to embody. It does - but the timelessness is not here to stay! Benn, who has worked extensively with Marco Pierre White and Tetsuya, intends to move on from fine dining scene within the next year or two. It will surely leave a void in any epicure's heart, if the accolades are anything to go by - see here.
Mood lighting is not great for photo taking but all is forgiven when the dishes come out. My friend Rosa and I had opted for the 9-course menu degustation ($215 per person) that night, a time-consuming affair (not that food service was slow, more the nature of fine dining compared to fast food!). I recommend that you have at least 2 hours put aside if you do choose this option. The plating is done in a humble and natural style, quietly technical in its organic composition. This food is too beautiful to be gnashed to a pulp between my molars.
But gnashed to a pulp, it is (sorry for the horrific visual). We begin with a seafood trio that stuns with its simple complexity. Initially I thought this were a mere wonton, egg yolk and some sort of sushi. Boy was I wrong!
Saikou salmon, smoked roe, sudachi
Egg-ception right here - what appears to be a glistening egg yolk was actually a salmon-wrapped parcel containing tiny roe. So perfectly spherical, so full of fish... mind was blown! Sudachi, a sour Japanese citrus, nicely balanced the smoky fish flavours.
There is no way of describing this except as a complete umami bomb. Interpret it however you want, I thought it was interesting!
I enjoyed the fresh bounciness of the prawn meat and chew of the crystal wrapper but this was probably the least impressive to me.
These next few dishes flew by in rapid succession. I really had nothing negative to say but some dishes did stand out more than others.
Nestled on a creamy pad of goat milk chèvre, the silken swaddle of tuna concealed a barely done egg, sending my tastebuds awash with fatty unctuous flavour. Wasabi provided a distinctive acrid contrast but I would have liked more heat to cut through the velvety smoothness of the other elements. Maybe it's just the Asian in me talking though!
Spanner crab was sweet and tender, elevated into something wondrous by the brown butter emulsion. I found the sake vinegar jelly very acidic but I guess butter washes away all sins - except for gluttony! While the individual components are overly 'something' (too acidic, too fatty etc.) and overwhelm the delicate crab, in measured unison, everything somehow works to create a light and harmonious dish.
Oh boy, I thought the textures in this were absolutely beautiful in this 'reverse-chirashi' dish that went heavy on the kingfish and light on the rice. The generous cubes of kingfish were fresh and tender, contrasted against crispy dashi rice and buckwheat. Tarragon and yuzu added a lovely lightness, doubling as palate cleanser.
I liked this enough but am not particularly partial to abalone. The mushroom soy butter and smoky umami flavours made this unassuming dish sing though.
A deep-fried artichoke holds a creamy miso filling that explodes in the mouth, leaving it full of creamy, salty ...saliva. The truffle, in its generous heapings, is the headlining act. This one-bite morsel is an ode to the much-loved fungi.
The breast holds impeccable flavour. I have never eaten duck breast as tender and moreish as Sepia's, not stringy or gamey at all but belying a sweet and pleasurable rustiness. The accompanying sauces add varying buttery, fruity and herbal elements that are welcome but unnecessary touches - the duck can easily stand on its own legs.
And hooooly crap, this was probably my FAVOURITE dish of the night. The wagyu was pleasurable, coaxingly tender and buttery, perfectly contrasted with a potent gravy of roasted onion and mustard. Earthen and smoky and ridiculously unassuming, this classic re-inventing of 'steak and gravy' was just a humbling reminder of how good simple things done well can be.
Frozen raspberry, salted white chocolate chantilly, Alpine strawberry syrup
Arriving as a mound of icy red granita, the dessert melted away to reveal a furled-up bud of salted white chocolate. The salty-sweet white chocolate and tart berry flavours worked well but this was not a 'blow your mind' dish, acting more as a refreshing segue to get one in the mood for dessert.
Mixed opinions abound when I mention this dish to my friends. I am of the opinion that it is magical and childish, full of whimsy that only a forever-young mind could imagine. One's mouth is a veritable chocolate forest in this pipe dream - the snap of twigs, nutty praline and sugar-encrusted fennel bolstered by the softly fibrous green tea moss and native violets. I especially love the lemon balm jellies and addition of violet crumble cream that cement the dish as exquisitely Australian. Blackberry sorbet draws the mind to blackforest cake - not my favourite unfortunately, but expertly crafted by Benn.
If you're anything like me - that is, resigned to getting cavities because of a sweet tooth that just won't quit - you might as well kill two birds with one stone and get gold fillings! A dainty hemisphere dabbed with a centre of apple cream and bejewelled with sugary bits and bobs, this dessert is as rich as it looks. If you loved Caramello Koalas as a kid, this dessert IS FOR YOU.
When this last course was brought to the table, Rosa and I looked quizzically at our very polite server, wondering why he had plonked a complimentary bowl of rocks on our table. He explained that this was a Sepia signature, each dessert pebble possessing a razor-thin exterior of cocoa butter made with bamboo charcoal powder and frozen with liquid nitrogen. Intended as bite-sized morsels, each stone concealed an explosive deluge of chocolate or mixed berry flavour that flooded the mouth with cooling sweet cream. Sepia could surely give Heston Blumenthal a run for his money!
My parting thoughts about Sepia is that it succeeds in areas where many fine dining degustations fall short - it is an immersive experience where the food is worth its extravagant weight in gold and produce is handled with thoughtful restraint. Some dishes fell short while others - namely, the wagyu, chocolate forest, kingfish with dashi rice - were inspiring sensory reminders of Sepia's three-hatted legacy. Would I go again? That's a toughy. Probably not soon but maybe for special occasions worthy of the splurge. Luckily I'm a bit of a fine-dining camel, able to sustain myself on the memory of these magical food experiences I'm so fortunate to have.
Have you been to Sepia or had any sensational food experiences? Feel free to rattle off in the comments below :)