Friday, July 10, 2009
There's a fancy new restaurant downtown that's run by George Costi of De Costi Seafoods and Martin Benn - former executive chef of Tetsuya's and The Boathouse Restaurant. The entrance is situated inconspicuously on the ground floor of Darling Park, directly underneath the looming corporate firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. If you don't yet know what I'm referring to, it's called Sepia Restaurant and Wine Bar. You'd do well to remember the name.
I am forewarned that the establishment is of the stiff sort and suits will be the common attire but stepping through the heavy glass doors, we are greeted with the warmest of smiles and not a hint of discomfort. It is quite the opposite in fact. Soft lighting and heavy hardwood set an intimate scene, the studded feature wall imposing an air of elegance against the cocktail of richly-toned tables and flooring.
Wine is poured compliments of the house, napkins are unfolded with an expert flick of the wrist and warm, crusty sourdough rolls appear at the table alongside a perfect square of just soft cultured butter. On this occasion we decide upon the degustation menu which features some much talked about dishes.
To start tonight is a simple amuse bouche of smoked eel and Jerusalem artichoke veloute with chive oil delivered in a miniature stemless wine glass. The heady aroma of smoke envelopes the table, drawing sighs of expectant pleasure. Smooth, creamy and deeply aromatic.
A charming waiter spies us eyeing the dishes that arrive at the table next to ours and whispering, he tells us to refrain from looking so as not to spoil the surprise.
Plump seared sea scallops with white kelp, mustard shortbread and green apple salad arrive for my friends next. I have an unfortunate shellfish allergy and to be on the safe side, I have an adaptation of confit ocean trout with mustard shortbread, wasabi nage and elderflowers. The Japanese influence is apparent here with the juxtaposing textures and horseradish kick. The confit trout lacks a little seasoning but that is easily remedied with the sea salt flakes already at hand.
Sweet and pungent BBQ Silver Lake eel lies atop skillfully moulded sushi rice, lined on one side with licorice powder and on the other, with slightly crunchy confit leek. The lightly vinegared rice keeps the dish quite fresh and the sweet, smokey eel pairs wonderfully with the flavour of salty aniseed.
Yellow Fin Tuna tartare with avocado cream, soy and wasabi jelly presents gorgeously in a glass serving bowl reminiscent of a conch sea shell. The texture of jelly and tuna meld impeccably, broken only by the occasional burst of capers studded amongst the layers. Eating with a wooden caviar serving spoon only manages to accentuate the lavishness of this dish further.
The Queensland spanner crab and buckwheat risotto with mustard butter and shellfish essence smells divine and I just have to try some. The worlds first existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is quoted for saying "What does not kill me, makes me stronger" and who can argue? The buckwheat risotto possesses a lemony tang, the crab is sweet and so unbelievably soft. My own chestnut mushroom and buckwheat risotto with chestnut foam and black truffle is earthy and juicy with mushrooms and herbs.
Butter-poached Blue Eye with baby fennel, pickled cuttlefish, smoked ink and bacon floss is strikingly composed. The perfectly cooked fish sits alongside a few strands of cuttlefish and bacon floss - a house rendition of Asian pork floss. Droplets of smoked cuttlefish ink and olive oil emulsion combine to make a smoky, salty vinaigrette to coat the crunchy baby fennel and soft pencil leek. I'm seriously contemplating returning for a long lunch tomorrow but the meal is far from over yet.
Gippsland lamb is brought to the table. Beneath the pink loin lie slivers of raw Jerusalem artichoke and beside it is a heaped pile of braised daikon radish and crispy slice of lamb belly. Mushroom "infusion" is poured at the table from a carafe and appears to be a mixture of enoki, shitake, chestnut mushrooms and snow fungus steeped in a delicate broth. The crisp lamb belly holds a little too much oily residue and could use a sprinkling of salt but the flavours are otherwise exceptionally clean and exceptionally satisfying. My only other criticism is of the salad of mixed greens that takes table centre. A few brown stalks and a decomposing leaf are pulled out and strewn aside.
A short break, a bottle of still mineral water and then it's onto dessert. Pre-dessert is a playful palate cleanser of pineapple with lime and gingerade. The pineapple is sweet and lush, the lime and gingerade is thick and foamy with the lime keeping things gently acidic and the ginger adding a rounded hint of pepperiness.
Complimentary dessert of citrus marshmallow, pineapple sorbet, mint whip and coriander sprout follows. For some reason it disappoints me a little. The citrus marshmallow is soft and pillowy and caramelised on one side, the sliced pineapple is sweet and the pineapple sorbet balancing on top has just the right amount of tartness. The mint whip seems to be a little subdued, I have trouble detecting any mint at all so it comes across as a sweet and foamy meringue - a combination which appears a little too similar to the pre-dessert. The baby coriander seems to take over when it finally goes down, but in all fairness coriander is one of those things that I just can't seem to warm to.
I'd heard mixed reviews of the elements of chocolate dessert. Beautifully tempered sheets of Valrhona sandwich layers of Gianduja cream, milk chocolate mousse, milk chocolate praline, chocolate sponge and prune sauce, topped off with a spoonful of cocoa bubbles. It's easy to see this as the pièce de résistance. It's texturally complete. The thin tempered chocolate sheets are so shiny I can see my own reflection and they crack loudly under the weight of my spoon, piercing through the layers of chocolate cream and sponge below. The cocoa bubbles are an interesting feature although they seem a little unnecessary and I detect a hint of raw flouriness. My favourite component I decide, is the milk chocolate praline layer. It's the forte in this symphony of elements.
Food aside, service is practically flawless and incredibly warm. I'm pleasantly surprised by the attentiveness shown to our table of three - all in our early 20's, we're clearly the youngest patrons dining tonight and probably not of the usual sort. Given Simon Thomsen's recent gleaming review I expect that this new city haunt will be gifted with a hat. Or perhaps this time next year it will have two.
Sepia Restaurant and Wine Bar
Ground floor, Darling Park
201 Sussex St, Sydney
Telephone: (02) 9283 1990
Fax: (02) 9283 5007
Opening hours: Monday to Friday lunch from 12 noon
Monday to Friday dinner from 6pm
Wine Bar: Monday to Friday from 12 noon
Saturday and Sunday open for exclusive bookings