It was 2016 when restaurateur Vicki Wild and chef Martin Benn announced they wouldn’t renew Sepia’s lease when it came to an end in two years’ time. A year later they hit us again with the news that they were moving to Melbourne to open something similar with the Lucas Group.
The move is still on the cards (the exact date is still uncertain), but before Sepia shuts Benn is introducing Japanese kaiseki-style “bites” to the menu there. Kaiseki is a style of small, seasonal dishes that has its roots in Kyoto. The new menu will maintain the same emphasis on seafood Sepia is known for.
“The idea of Kaiseki is to get as much flavour compacted into one bite as possible,” says Benn. “At the beginning [of the meal], you get five small bites to eat, like an appetiser. And then we’re going to bring the idea of small bites served together throughout the menu so you don’t feel overly full. This makes it a lot quicker as a course and gives people the chance to experience more menu items. It also forces you, as a chef, to be more creative; to give people the ‘wow’ factor packed into one bite.”
Since kaiseki is so seasonal, the structure of and items on the menu will constantly evolve until the time Sepia closes.
Benn says this menu change happened because the imminent closing of the restaurant gave him some freedom. “You only get a certain time limit in a restaurant, and if you don’t reinvent yourself, you disappear,” says Benn. “Changing the menu was the result of me thinking about what I’d been doing for the past decade, and deciding I wanted to try something different with a new type of cuisine.”
As for what’s on the cards for Melbourne, he’s tight-lipped. “I don’t want to elaborate too much on what we want to do, but what we’re doing is very exciting and certainly good news for Australia,” he tells Broadsheet.
Before Benn does make the move south, Broadsheet sat down with him to ask what he will miss most about Sydney.
“I’m a bit of a contemporary-art collector and I’m quite inspired by modernism, so I love to go to the MCA. I also [love] galleries like White Rabbit and the Dickerson Gallery in Woollahra, which always has some great smaller exhibitions.”
“For me it’s Kinokuniya in the CBD. It’s the most amazing store. They’ve got every title under the sun and they really specialise in design and architecture books, which is what I tend to gravitate towards. I’m not much of a novel reader; I like the arty or architectural books.”
“We do travel a lot [which makes it] easier to make an impulse buy, but I do haunt the rooms of Harrolds in the CBD Westfield. I love going there because they know me and they’re such artisans; they appreciate the right label for the right person, and they can see what will fit you. They also have some edgier labels that you can mix with sneakers, alongside the classic labels.”
“I’m a fanatic for fragrances. There’s a shop in Potts Point called Becker Minty and they sell interesting homewares, but they also have jewellery and fragrances. They have a fragrance I’ve been wearing for years called Eight and Bob, which is from Paris. I also buy a perfume called Arquiste from them, which is made by an architect.”
This is a big thing because I can’t function in the morning without a coffee. The first thing I have in the morning is a Nespresso [at home]… But if I’m going out for coffee I go to my old stomping ground of Balmain, where we visit Bertoni Casalinga and Kaffein.
My favourite is Monopole, I think without a doubt. It’s sophisticated, has an amazing wine list and great food that goes with it. I’m not much of a hang-out-late, cocktail-bar or hipster-bar person. That’s not really my style. I guess the next step is to open my own bar.”
I’m getting into a bit of fitness, just basically eating well and doing exercise and smelling the roses. [Partner and Sepia co-owner] Vicki and I try to get a walk in in the morning – or sometimes morning and night – and it’s usually around Hunters Hill where we live. They call it Hunters Hill for a reason; there are a lot of hills so it really gets the blood rushing around the body. It’s a good opportunity not just for fitness, but we get time to talk and think about things and share ideas. That’s one thing I really will miss: this area.
I love Fred’s at the moment … What Danielle [Alvarez] is doing there is amazing. Also Oscillate Wildly in Newtown has a very reasonably priced, creative and produce-driven menu, which is really great for such a small restaurant. I also like Lumi, and another favourite is Sokyo run by a good friend of mine, chef Takashi Sano. He’s one of the best sushi chefs in the country right now; he does an omakase (chef’s choice) menu, it’s incredible. He only serves up to four people each night, and there’s only one sitting. It’s very worthwhile, but you have to get in early because it’s usually booked out for three and a half to four months in advance.
I don’t think there’s a harbour anywhere else in the world that’s as beautiful as Sydney’s, that’s for sure. We drive past it every day from my home and you get [views of] the Harbour Bridge and the glistening city off to the left. You forget sometimes that you live in such a beautiful city; you need something to remind you every day of where you live. I just hope with everything that’s happening at the moment, with all the building works and renovations and the new infrastructure they’re putting in, that it will stay as beautiful as it is now. I look forward to 2022 when it’s all complete, and I hope they do it justice.
Sepia will close in spring but until then its kaiseki menu is available.
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