Several Sydney insiders told me Sepia was the place to go for a great wine-pairing menu, so it was my first stop after arriving in Australia last week. Chef Martin Benn, once a protégé of Marco Pierre White in London, indulges a modernist bent since he left his post as chef de cuisine at Tetsuya's in 1999. His wife, Vicki Wild, once Tetsuya's personal assistant, brings warmth to the sharp-edged dining room on the ground floor of a Darling Harbour high-rise, and sommelier Rodney Setter has built up a broad and knowledgeably chosen international wine list of more than 1,100 selections, mostly current vintages although older wines, especially Bordeaux, Rhône and Australian Shiraz bottlings, scatter throughout.
On the plate, Benn uses his technical command to weave flavors and textures deftly into compelling combinations. They look complex on the menu but come together so harmoniously that they create tastes that seem utterly natural.
Fish is the star (as it is at Tetsuya's). It's served with wit in "sushi nigiri," where it becomes the center of the bite and puffed rice the topping, and with unctuous style, as a ring of yellowfin tuna sashimi wraps around Iberico ham cream. Candied lemon aspen, a tart fruit from the outback, plays off the natural sweetness of lightly smoked Western Australian marron, a lobster-like bite.
Two dairy dishes blew me away. House-made chèvre, fresh and creamy, mounds over a rhubarb gel, topped with crystalized rhubarb and rye bread crumbs infused with beet juice. I could have eaten three bowls. Among desserts, a sorbet made of sheep's milk yogurt played enticingly against a spoonful of Meyer lemon and yuzu butter, gingerbread crumbs spiked with Japanese pepper added zip.
Benn prefers to use modernist techniques to create unique textures and intense flavors. Overt touches are rare, but a strawberry-shaped shell looked absolutely natural until I tapped it open to find a filling of Champagne Chiboust. A lovely garnish of real Alpine strawberries brought a smile.
For the wine pairing, I asked Setter to choose wines that would show me the past, present and future of Australian wine. He came up with an inventive series of tastes. Lark Hill Grüner Veltliner 2013, from the cool, high-elevation Canberra District, showed satiny texture, light body and waxy citrus and pear flavors to enliven the yellowfin tuna dish. This winery was among the pioneers of this variety, which Setter said is starting to gain traction in Oz.
Domenica Roussanne-Marsanne Beechworth 2012 exemplified a trend to cooler climates for varieties normally associated with warmer sites. These Rhône white grapes are ubiquitous in Australia, only rarely making something special, but in the high elevation of Beechworth (best known for the great Chardonnays of Giaconda) it makes a wine with more backbone and all the orange peel and dark pear flavors you could want. Great with the chèvre dish. "This is past, present and future in one taste," said Setter.
Another winner was Daosa Blanc de Blancs 2009, a sparkling wine from a vineyard planted high in Piccadilly Valley (Adelaide Hills) by Christian Bizot of Bollinger. It's the backbone of Croser, the signature sparkling wine from Petaluma Winery, but in 2009 some of the highest parcels were set aside for this wine, made by Christian's son Xavier and Brian Croser's daugher Lucy (Xavier's wife). Light, with distinctly gingery character, finishing with savory notes, it matched up nicely with a dish of smoked salmon roe over miso rice.
The Joseph winery in McLaren Vale has specialized in Italian varieties and proves that Nebbiolo could be a comer in Oz with a 2005 bottling. It was supple, with just a hint of tannins present. Blue fruit, floral and red berry flavors combine seamlessly. This will never be mistaken for a Barolo or Barbaresco, but it's a beautiful wine, and it did well with a taste of Australian wagyu beef.
A final blast from the past, Morris Rare Liqueur Muscat Rutherglen, one of the truly great dessert wines of the world, proved what a great match these wines are for chocolate, enhancing a dessert of chocolate twigs scattered around various luscious creams.
201 Sussex St., Sydney 2000 Australia