If you’ve read my two previous posts, you’ll know by now that my wife and I recently flew down to Sydney for a very short but food-intense vacation. In fact, we only had three nights and two full days — we had flown in on a Wednesday afternoon and had flown out on a Saturday morning. Plus, our trip coincided with Good Friday, a day on which most great Aussie restaurants are closed! Nonetheless, we managed to squeeze in some great meals. Here are the highlights.
As soon as we had confirmed our flight to Sydney, and our accommodation, I tried making a reservation at Sepia. Chef Martin Benn’s fine-diner was the single restaurant there, above all others, that I wanted to dine at. For the past year, ever since his cookbook came out, I’ve been obsessed with his contemporary Japanese-influenced cuisine. It’s the one book I’ve purchased in the last 12 months that has inspired my own kitchen experiments the most. Alas, when I went online, I discovered that there were limited seats available — at best seats at the bar, and for those, I’d need to call the restaurant. Fortunately, a few friends use the same PR agency that Chef Benn uses and I was able to beg one of those friends to help me secure a table.
The meal was incredible. For many reasons. Firstly, we had a 15 course meal that truly satisfied us but didn’t leave us feeling ill and over-stuffed (something that as I have aged has happened too many times with such double-digit tasting menus). Secondly, every course was delicious. While many of the dishes were technically astounding, the emphasis was clearly on flavour, taste and the customers’ enjoyment. What my wife and I both really loved was that every dish seemed to work around a contrast of richness and lightness and crisp and soft textures. This interplay made the food truly exciting.
I’d actually need to write a whole separate article if I tried to describe everything we ate at Sepia. Everything was that astonishingly good. I will say that my three favourite things to eat were: seared sea urchin, smoked bone marrow, cauliflower, yuzu koshu, toasted milk bread, citrus soy, sobacha (pictured above top right); charcoal grilled black lip abalone, bamboo, sea vegetables, dashi cream, lardo, wakame oil (pictured above, bottom left); and the David Blackmore wagyu karubi, Japanese pickles, miso mustard, ice plant (pictured above, bottom right). Elevating the meal to even greater heights was a wine pairing, provided by sommelier and perfect host Rodney Setter — some truly inspired suggestions, especially a Rippon Osteiner from New Zealand. Rodney helped make a great night truly special. (And to cap off a perfect night, when I ordered an Uber Black car for us after dinner, a 1930s Cadillac limousine with suited driver pulled up!)
Despite all the awards and accolades, Chef Benn has announced that Sepia will close in 2 years, so I urge you to do whatever it takes to get a reservation there as soon as possible. I am sure that tables will become harder and harder to book as time goes by.
Another restaurant we knew we simply couldn’t miss out on trying was Automata, helmed by Chef Clayton Wells, formerly of Momofuku Seiobo, located in The Old Clare Hotel in Chippendale. Automata is a hip, casual, energetic space in which Chef Wells serves an innovative 5 course, produce-driven, multicultural menu. We had a wonderful late dinner there with The Old Clare’s developer Mr Loh Lik Peng and some good friends who drove in from Canberra to see us. In addition to the tasting menu, we also insisted on ordering a bar snack that has already, in a very short amount of time, become a bit of a cult dish — a burrata injected with shellfish oil and served with a konbu emulsion (pictured above). That dish was heavenly in taste (I had never thought to pair this rich cheese with shellfish oil but now that I’ve had it, it makes sense) and devilish in what it’ll do to our waistlines.
Another devilishly addictive temptation at Automata is the butter, served whipped with chicken jus and anchovies. In fact, I think this butter was my wife’s single favourite part of the meal. Not that the rest wasn’t bad. In fact, it was very good, if slightly challenging. We had fermented plums with capers in a chilled plum broth; stracciatella with pumpkin and mandarin; hapuka with bonito butter, sauerkraut and cured roe emulsion; smoked beef rib cap, eggplant, mushrooms and tamari brown butter; and finished the meal with a refreshing yoghurt sorbet with yuzu, black grapes and shiso. The standouts to me, other than the burrata and the butter, were the beef and the dessert (pictured above). I also loved the amuses Chef Wells served us, marinated tomato with uni and enoki mushrooms wrapped in seared wagyu beef. The 5 course menu is currently priced at AUD$88. I can’t think of a single restaurant in Singapore serving this kind of food at that kind of price. This is a real steal.
All through our trip, friends, both Aussie and Singaporean, kept telling us we had to try Ester, just a short 6 minute walk from The Old Clare. Originally, we thought we’d have to give it a miss since we only had one meal free on our schedule (Good Friday lunch) and Ester wasn’t opened at that time. But as more and more people insisted we try it, the missus decided that we shouldn’t leave town without a visit. She then innocently “suggested” that since our dinner at Automata was going to be quite late (after all, we had to wait for our friends to drive in from Canberra after they knocked off from work), why didn’t we consider having a “pre-dinner dinner” at Ester. I, quite rightly I believe, thought she was insane. She was suggesting an extra meal between our lunch at Noma and a tasting menu at Automata. But, wives will win out and so off we went, at 6pm, after having consumed 13 courses just a few hours earlier. (I have always said my wife has four stomachs, and on that day she certainly proved it.)
Ester is a lovely, humble place, with a semi-open kitchen, large bar, and jovial staff. Chef Mat Lindsay is part of a growing trend of chefs whose favourite cooking tool is a wood-fired oven. The food is stripped down and delicious, demonstrating the power of good produce and a deep understanding of how heat changes ingredients. Of course, the wifey and I only tried a few things: oysters warmed until they plumped up, served with a horseradish emulsion; crispy squid dumplings; roasted cabbage served with pear, mustard and miso; bone marrow slathered with chilli sambal and served with toast; and cauliflower served with almond sauce and mint. We opted against dessert since, well, we had another dinner to get to afterwards. Everything was great and I have to admit that Ester was worth the visit… and worth squeezing in as our “pre-dinner dinner”.
As per the title, this is just the first of two short reports on our trip. I just want to say that by no means are the restaurants we visited indicative of any kind of list of Sydney’s best restaurants. We had limited time so simply had to choose a small handful of places to visit — plus the Good Friday holiday limited our choices. There are many, many places I would have loved to have had the time to try, like Silvereye, Bang, Moon Park, Acme, Bennelong, and LuMi just to name a few. Sigh… looks like another trip is already in order.