Chicago, Illinois – Sepia

Restaurant: Sepia
Cuisine: American/Modern American
Last visited: June 14, 2012
Location: Chicago, IL (West Loop)
Address: 123 N Jefferson Street
Transit: Chicago OTC
Where I stayed: Hyatt Regency Chicago (Taxi recommended)
Price Range: $30-50+ ($30-35 mains)

1Poor 2OK 3Good 4Very good 5Excellent 6FMF Must Try!

Food: 3-3.5 (based on what I tried at lunch)
Service: 4
Ambiance: 4.5
Overall: 3.5
Additional comments:

  • Chef Andrew Zimmerman
  • Since 2009
  • 1 Michelin Star
  • Award winning
  • James Beard Award 2012 nominee
  • Modern American cuisine
  • Seasonal menus
  • Local ingredients
  • Supports local farmers
  • Sophisticated/modern
  • Home made pasta/jams
  • Extensive wine list/bar
  • Mon-Thu 5:30-10pm
  • Fri-Sat 5:30-10:30pm
  • Closed Sunday

**Recommendations: Lamb Burger

The Chef at Sepia is Andrew Zimmerman, not to be confused with Travel Channel’s Chef Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods. There were a few reasons I really wanted to try this 1 Michelin Star restaurant that is currently gaining more and more recognition. First was due to the announcement that Chef Zimmerman was a 2012 James Beard Award Foundation finalist for Best Chef (Great Lakes), and second was the website. You’re going to go look at it now aren’t you? Open in a new window! And turn up the volume. Anyway I know it sounds kind of silly, but a website can be convincing. I liked the feel, style, sound and look and I wanted it as part of the Follow Me Foodie to Chicago experience.

The name “Sepia” should have suggested some hipster place right away, since that demographic drives the “sepia-toned culture”, but it actually wasn’t really. The restaurant was upscale and sophisticated without feeling exclusive or too pretentious, but perhaps the dinner atmosphere is different from their lunch. It was contemporary yet vintage and it was located in a rather up and coming part of downtown Chicago. There isn’t much around there, but a bunch of warehouses, however it’s slowly developing into more of a trendy and artsy neighbourhood with a cutting edge vibe.

I didn’t know too much about Sepia although I briefly discussed it with some locals the night before at The Purple Pig. It wasn’t pointed out as a highlight on my list of fine dining establishments, but I was still curious. Besides, Michelle Obama once called it her favourite dining destination, so if it’s good enough for The First Lady then I wanted to try it for myself.

I decided to come for lunch and although I enjoyed the ambiance, I didn’t find the food as glowing as I had hoped. I give it the benefit of the doubt that dinner could be better, and I wasn’t disappointed, but I did have higher expectations. I also had a list of stellar restaurants mapped out in Chicago, so come the end of my food trip, I think my memory of Sepia became slightly “sepia toned”. It was just a bit washed out or overshadowed by other restaurants of its calibre which delivered unforgettable dining experiences.

The theme of the restaurant is quite consistent and although the menu is appealing, the execution was perhaps a bit understated and simple for my tastes and preferences. The dishes were familiar and the plates were presented well with a rustic elegance, but the flavours and style came out more traditional than the plating. I know the restaurant philosophy is to showcase the natural flavours of the ingredients, but I was hoping for more originality. Everything was nice and enjoyable, but for its reputation it didn’t leave me with a strong desire to want to revisit.

There was a celebration of farm to table and the server did a fantastic job explaining every dish and where all the ingredients were sourced, without me really having to ask, and that I really appreciated. She was knowledgeable about the menu and I’m sure that’s how they train all of their staff. The chef and restaurant are passionate about supporting local, organic and sustainable where possible, but I just wanted the food and flavours to leave a lasting memory.

On the table:

Complimentary Bread & Butter

  • It can tell a lot about the restaurant.
  • The complimentary bread and butter already emphasized their attention to quality of ingredients.
  • The mini baguettes were served warm fresh from the oven and made with whole grains and flax seeds.
  • They were crusty with a soft inside and a good chew with nutty, earthy and wholesome flavour.
  • The pale coloured artisan butter was creamy, good quality, a bit salty and served room temperature.
  • The style reminded me of the Thomas Keller baguettes – see my post on Bochon.

House Pâté - 3/6 (Good)

  • With mustard, pickles and toast $7
  • I would have overlooked this based on description, but when the server described it, I was sold.
  • It was “wild game rillettes made from duck, pork and venison with green peppercorn and pistachios”.
  • I think it was due to word choice that it didn’t meet my expectations.
  • It was in fact a pâté instead of “rillettes” and I do enjoy rillettes more and I think those meats would showcase better as rillettes too.
  • It was executed very well and everything about the presentation was clean and almost too perfect, but the pâté was a bit forgettable.
  • It was a very rustic style of French pâté and basically a Pâté de Campagne (Country Pâté).
  • The pâté cut in firm slices and it wasn’t a spreadable type of pâté, but the meat was well cured, combined and seasoned.
  • It had a mild heat, but I couldn’t really taste the peppercorn and I could bite into pieces of pistachio, but I couldn’t taste its flavour.
  • It wasn’t too oily or fatty in flavour, or gelatinous, but it seemed like mostly pork and I couldn’t taste the other meats as much.
  • For the types of meats used I think I expected a stronger delivery, flavour and more unique qualities, but it still tasted good.
  • It was served with pickled ramps, pearl onions, pickles, caper berries and house made spicy dijon mustard made with fresh horseradish for a strong kick.
  • The crostini was drizzled with very good quality fruity olive oil and it was nice and crunchy with still a bit of chew.
  • The plate was beautiful and priced well, and as a country style pork pâté I would have been more satisfied; but as a “wild game rillettes made from duck, pork and venison with green peppercorn and pistachio” it felt under delivered.

**Lamb Burger5.5/6 (Excellent!)

  • Pickled eggplant, harissa aioli, feta. All sandwiches served with duck fat fried potatoes. $14
  • I can appreciate a gourmet burger, but if it wasn’t so recommended I would have overlooked it.
  • This was saving grace and if I came back I would order it again. It was no doubt the highlight for lunch.
  • I was debating between the lamb burger and the regular burger which everyone seemed to be ordering, but the server suggested this one.
  • The steaks that don’t meet the highest quality of standards to be served as steak for dinner are ground for their beef burgers, so the patties are superior quality.
  • Although I went for the lamb burger over the beef, the lamb was extremely well sourced and from an excellent farmer so it lived up to the beef burger standards.
  • It was a Middle Eastern and African spin on a lamb burger and I was loving it!
  • The lamb was a grass-fed lamb instead of grain-fed one.
  • It was supposed to have a gamier flavour due to its lower fat content, but I actually didn’t get the gaminess and I’m sensitive to game flavour.
  • I think the gaminess was masked by the the stronger seasoning, spices and ingredients used in the burger, but the lamb wasn’t overpowered and I could still taste its high quality characteristics.

  • I almost couldn’t put the burger down for the photo. It was amazing!
  • I’ve had gourmet burgers before, but this was freaking fantastic and memorable!
  • It was served hot and it was salty, savoury, tangy and spicy and incredibly flavourful with rich flavours and quality ingredients.
  • The ingredients were so well layered and the patty was dripping with all natural lamb juices and not grease, but actual flavour.
  • The lamb patty was melt in your mouth tender with good tang and cooked medium rare with the juices locked inside the patty.
  • The thickness of the patty was perfect and I loved the crunch of tangy pickles, fresh vegetables and bite of salty dry feta cheese.
  • The feta cheese was salty, but not gamey and it was strong enough to hold up to the lamb and spices.
  • I think the patty was marinated in some tomato paste or Harissa (North African hot pepper paste) so it was a bit spicy and that also muted the gaminess of the lamb.
  • There were some whole toasted cumin seeds and spices in the patty so it had great aromatics and worked fantastically with the harissa aioli.
  • The only thing missing in this almost perfect burger was the fact that I lost the pickled eggplant component and forgot it was even in there.
  • The bun was an excellent soft and fluffy lightly toasted brioche bun and it didn’t get soggy despite the incredibly juicy patty.
  • I highly recommend this and if you’re in Vancouver I also recommend the Lambwich.
  • I wish they were duck fat fries instead of duck fat fried potatoes because I couldn’t taste the duck fat.
  • I think the surface area was too large for it to absorb or it could be because they didn’t use all duck fat and cut it with another oil.
  • They were quite substantial potatoes that were well seasoned with salt and each one was crispy and not greasy, but I missed the duck fat flavour.
  • I think I expected perfectly cut rectangular sized pyramid stacked fries, and this just seemed a bit too rustic for their style and capabilities.
  • It was served with regular ketchup too and for this level of restaurant I was expecting a house made ketchup.

Housemade Cotechino Sausage – 3.5/6 (Good-Very good)

  • French green lentils, salsa verde $15
  • Cotechino is a traditional fresh and fatty cooked Italian sausage, similar to salami, and this one was very elegantly executed and presented.
  • It’s quite often served with lentils, but this was a lighter take on the dish and more suitable for the warmer months and lunch.
  • The sausage was incredibly tender and almost creamy with well ground pork meat and likely ground trotters.
  • It was moist, not gelatinous or crumbly and not too salty. It had a good amount of fat without being greasy.
  • I could taste peppercorns and the flavour was simple and reminded me a bit of the pâté I had earlier.
  • The lentils were al dente and cooked with carrots, onions and celery for aromatics, but I wish they were cooked in pork drippings for more savoury flavour.
  • The lentils were sautéed in extra virgin olive oil and I was just hoping for something a bit richer or with more of a modern twist.
  • The lentils were very fresh and salad like rather than being treated as a more substantial side.
  • The carrots were fantastic quality though. Even for the small amount the flavour was noticeably strong like they were just picked.
  • The sauce on the side was a salsa verde made from fresh parsley, basil, cilantro and lemon and it lightened up the dish and contrasted the fattier sausage.
  • In Northern Italy a salsa verde would be a condiment served with a Bollito Misto, a plate featuring a mixed variety of boiled meats, but in this case he used it with the Cotechino.
  • Cotenchino dishes are usually heavy, rich, hearty and indulgent and I actually prefer that as opposed to this one which was much more delicate, fresh and light.
  • This was still good and well executed for what it was, but I wouldn’t mind stronger flavours and something a bit more inventive to make it memorable.
  • It was similar to the Il Zampone I had at Campagnolo Roma, but that one is the richer interpretation for the dish which I prefer.
Buttercrunch Cake - 2.5/6 (Okay-Good)
  • Raspberry coulis, chocolate sauce $7
  • The style of desserts are supposed to be old fashioned, but this just seemed a bit more ordinary in flavour, execution and presentation.
  • It was quite a basic cake and it was a bit small, but the flavour was rich and almost like a rich and buttery shortcake.
  • It was light in texture and there was a creamy buttery and viscous toffee layer in between, but there was almost no crunch except for a few pastry crisps on top.
  • The raspberry coulis was fresh and intense with flavour and the chocolate sauce was good quality chocolate, but I just found them a bit predictable.
  • The sauces also didn’t really do anything for the cake and I was hoping for something a bit more creative or complementing.
  • The chocolate I could see, but the cake seemed underdeveloped and lacking in layers and textures.
  • There was no salt component in the cake and that would have worked really well with the caramel.
  • More caramel flavours, a nutty aspect, butter crunch popcorn, or brittle on the side wouldn’t have been bad either.
  • It was a bit simple and I just thought it could have been more sophisticated and elaborate for this type of restaurant.
  • It was still good, but not very memorable.

Apple Spice Cake3.5/6 (Good-Very good)

  • Maple sage ice cream, caramelized apples $7
  • I love the concept, but I was hoping for more texture and the cake layers were almost slipping off each other due to the layers of dulce de leche in between.
  • It was a moist cake with a sugary granular texture and very light spices of cinnamon and perhaps nutmeg and allspice, but it was very subtle.
  • I was hoping for some crunch or crumbly layer and if the cake was warm I think it could have been even better.
  • The cake seemed a bit basic again and there were Granny Smith apples on the side, but it would be great incorporated in the cake too.
  • The maple sage ice cream was thick and creamy with a faint sage flavour, but it didn’t seem cold and more like a semi-freddo.
  • Each component had muted flavours so eaten all together it was a bit dull, so some acidity or fresher and stronger flavours were desired.

The Coconut Tapioca Pirouettes with oven roasted pineapple, spicy cashews and pineapple rum syrup was the dessert I originally had my eyes on, but unfortunately the pastry chef ran out of coconut tapioca and was in the process of remaking some. However the server was really nice and brought components of the dessert for me to try anyway.

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Sepia on Urbanspoon

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