Chicago Restaurant Week 2015: Sepia

Sepia

Michelin-starred Sepia has a standing spot on my Restaurant Week list. Sepia’s Executive Chef Andrew Zimmerman has, among his numerous distinctions, a James Beard Foundation Award nomination for Best Chef: Great Lakes and a win over Iron Chef Marc Forgione on Iron Chef America, so I jumped at the chance to visit during Restaurant Week last year. Then, as now, I enjoyed a pleasant meal in a polished surrounding, although I find myself not as impressed as I’d like to be.

Sepia - Room

Sepia - Bread

Bread Service

Hard butter and cold bread do not belong in expensive restaurants – as far as I’m concerned, a good restaurant can, and should, be judged by anything it provides. Luckily, Sepia’s bread service is exemplary.The bread is crusty and warm, seeded and interesting. The butter is soft, with salt sprinkled on top.

Octopus Carpaccio - fennel, oil cured olives, pickled lemon, celery

Octopus Carpaccio – Fennel, Oil Cured Olives, Pickled Lemon, Celery

For my first course, I chose the octopus carpaccio, which is an aspic of sorts, with gelatin holding the octopus together. The octopus is tender but, unfortunately, not very flavorful. Precise dots of fennel sauce and piquillo pepper sauce give the dish both color and flavor, as do the two slivers of olive and two strands of lemon rind, but there’s just not enough of it. The olive is more meaty and salty than briny, so it’s a nice touch, but it’s not acidic. The dish could really use more acidity, particularly as the dish starting the meal and, hopefully, whetting the appetite.

Cannelloni barcelonesa - black truffle bechamel

Cannelloni Barcelonesa – Black Truffle Bechamel

Sepia offers either three courses for $33 or four courses for $44 during Restaurant Week; for my optional second course, I chose the cannelloni on my server’s recommendation. The dish has a fragrant truffle aroma. The pork and chicken filling is tender; the pasta is thin and delicate. However, there’s very little bechamel, which makes it a bit dry. Each bite is the same, and it’s not luxurious for me to want so many bites with the same texture and flavor. There’s nothing wrong with the dish, but it’s not memorable.

Cod - cauliflower, golden raisin-isot pepper chutney, pine nuts, swiss chard

Cod – Cauliflower, Golden Raisin-Isot Pepper Chutney, Pine Nuts, Swiss Chard

My entrée, the cod, is the most successful dish of the night. The chutney mixes with Swiss chard to give it a sweet-tart-salty flavor. There’s the barest swoop of smooth cauliflower puree – light with a hint of dairy tang. The cod itself has crispy skin with a meaty, melting texture, and the cauliflower is both tender and a little sweet from the chutney. It is a more rounded, more interesting dish than either of the preceding dishes, but it’s still not on level with the dishes I encountered at Boka.

Lemon Tart - crispy pate a choux, apricot, honey

Lemon Tart – Crispy Pate a Choux, Apricot, Honey

I have noticed that tarts at Sepia often seem to be loose interpretations, and the lemon tart I chose for dessert is no exception. To be entirely blunt, it looks a bit like a grown-up Ritz cracker with a swirl of less airy Reddi-Wip on top and a tuile for height. Fortunately, it tastes better than that, even if the apricot sauce brushed across the plate is a bit sweet for my tastes. The lemon tart is essentially whipped cream on a piece of pastry. There is, however, a line of lemon curd running through the whipped cream, and I like the tartness it brings against the rich cream. The most confusing part of the dish is the pastry: I don’t understand how it’s pate a choux, as the menu describes. I associate choux pastry with a puffy, eggy pastry, typically used for cream puffs or eclairs. This pastry is crumbly like shortbread – more like pate sucrée. Still, the pastry is nice, and I like the tiny bit of salt in the crust. The unsweetened, paper-thin wafer is light and crispy. The line of floral honey seems to be mostly for show. It makes sense with the dish; it just isn’t easy to incorporate into each bite. This may be my favorite of the desserts I’ve had at Sepia, but I’ve been especially impressed with their desserts in the past (give me a dessert by Amanda Rockman or Dana Cree over these any day of the week).

The service felt a little distant, although the server was personable: the runners basically set the food down and walked immediately away, with no explanation of the dish. One person knocked into the bread as they walked away. All very minor details, of course, and the restaurant was getting busy, but it didn’t seem up to the standards of the typically excellent service. That said, I happened to overhear a server, Tony, list from memory all eight wines pairings to the couple next to me, describing a bit about the character of each wine and where they are from, and answering questions about the wine. It was quite impressive.

Overall, I enjoy the atmosphere at Sepia. I like the plating and the food. But when I think of the Michelin star and the Executive Chef’s accolades, I expect more. The food is good, but at these prices, I want more than good: I want memorable. None of these dishes entice me to return outside of Restaurant Week.

Restroom Report: Sepia has standard, multi-stall, gendered restrooms, though they seem expensive and fit with the restaurant.

Sepia – 123 N. Jefferson St., Chicago

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