Sepia

I’ve come to assume that restaurant week sucks.

It’s something that appeals to me in theory: a fancy restaurant will give you a special prix fixe menu for a steal and you have such a great time that you come back and pay full price. But that’s not how it actually works. I’ve experienced restaurant week thrice and have never left completely satisfied.

{ space }

Sepia certainly looks like a great restaurant: oversized light bulbs in interesting shapes dimmed to obscure the exposed brick broken up by an innovative wine display and beautiful, teeny-tiny portions of food. It looks cool, but feels a little cold. There’s no doubt that Sepia puts care and precision into everything that they do, but the quality dining experience is lost in all that finesse.

{ service }

The service is OK. I certainly don’t have any complaints, but it’s not the most welcoming of atmospheres. Our server was very quiet and our wait between courses was rather lengthy, though it wasn’t that busy.

{ drinks }

The drink menu is extensive: there are thorough pages and pages of wine, interesting libations and a seasonal beer menu that has some winners, but my table went with the pairings. It wasn’t a bad decision, but, aside from the rich and nutty port, none of the wines really blew us away. The pours are heavy and each glass goes fine with its respective dish. At $26 per person, however, it’s definitely the best deal.

{ food }

The menu has 3 courses for $33 or 4 courses for $44. I’ve been itching to try the pig foot croquette, only available with the 4 courses, so my decision was already made upon arrival. The starters are both light and refreshing. I chose the soy and sesame cured mackerel with marinated kale, ginger and gojujang dotted atop. It’s a pretty plating with lovely textures, but the dish is very bland. The fish tasted like unsalted butter, refreshing but tasteless. Some of my other dining partners smartly chose the pickled pumpkin tart with coconut, fried shallot, walnut and pumpkin seed. The silken pumpkin is sweet yet tart and the nutty crust is tasty, though in need of crunch. It’s a fun, almost flirty dish that tastes just as good as it looks.

Soy and sesame cured mackerel with marinated kale, ginger and gojujang dotted atop. Paired with NV de bortoli brut "DB Family Selection," Australia.

Soy and sesame cured mackerel with marinated kale, ginger and gojujang dotted atop. Paired with NV de bortoli brut “DB Family Selection,” Australia.

Pickled pumpkin tart with coconut, fried shallot, walnut and pumpkin seed. Paired with NV de bortoli brut "DB Family Selection," Australia.

Pickled pumpkin tart with coconut, fried shallot, walnut and pumpkin seed. Paired with NV de bortoli brut “DB Family Selection,” Australia.

For the next course, I went to town on the pig’s foot croquette with black truffle gribiche. The croquette is nice, but I don’t know where the truffle gribiche came in. I have a feeling it’s deconstructed, since I saw a dusting of hardboiled yolk about the slaw, but I never tasted truffle. Overall the dish is rather dry and in need of a sauce. The other option, a salt cod pierogi, has a lovely buttery texture that melts away into the romesco sauce. It was one of the tastiest dishes of the night.

Pig’s foot coquette with black truffle gribiche. Paired with 2009 De Bardos Crianza "Ars Romantica," Ribera de Duero.

Pig’s foot coquette with black truffle gribiche. Paired with 2009 De Bardos Crianza “Ars Romantica,” Ribera de Duero.

Salt cod pierogi with free form romesco sauce. Paired with 2012 Fuso 21 "Le Salse," Verdiccio di Matelica, Marche.

Salt cod pierogi with free form romesco sauce. Paired with 2012 Fuso 21 “Le Salse,” Verdiccio di Matelica, Marche.

I can’t say whether or not the next course falls under the definition of an entrée, but whatever it is, it’s still disappointing. I chose the braised pork collar with apple cider, rutabaga and Brussels sprout. That’s right, Brussels sprout, singular: tiny leaves of sprout with one slice of pear and two pearls of rutabaga perched next to the disk of pork shoulder. While the meat portion is reasonable, it has barely any vegetable and no grain to support it. We all had a laugh about the Brussels sprout situation, as the menu lists sprouts plural, but overall it’s a pretty hoe-hum dish that needs a sprinkle of salt. The same can be said for the alternative entrée: coalfish with sunchoke, brown butter and hazelnut. Once again, a laughable portion with very little seasoning, but the balance of textures makes it a bit more pleasing.

Braised pork collar with apple cider, rutabaga and Brussels sprout. 2011 Kanonkop "Kadette," Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Braised pork collar with apple cider, rutabaga and Brussels sprout. 2011 Kanonkop “Kadette,” Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Coalfish with sunchoke, brown butter and hazelnut. 2011 Vinum Cellars "White Elephant," California.

Coalfish with sunchoke, brown butter and hazelnut. 2011 Vinum Cellars “White Elephant,” California.

The desserts are the best course: I chose the lemon ricotta cake with blackberry and honey, It’s nice, but there were a couple of tunnels in my cake making for a tough texture. It’s a tasty little bite but the other dessert is way more interesting: an ancho chocolate mousse tart with candied bacon and whiskey caramel. I usually think bacon in desserts is overdone, but the little bits add a beautiful smokiness that blends into the whiskey caramel with surprising elegance.

Lemon ricotta cake with blackberry and honey. Quinta do Infantado Tawny.

Lemon ricotta cake with blackberry and honey. Quinta do Infantado Tawny.

Ancho chocolate mousse tart with candied bacon and whiskey caramel. Quinta do Infantado Tawny.

Ancho chocolate mousse tart with candied bacon and whiskey caramel. Quinta do Infantado Tawny.

{ value }

The restaurant week menu is no value at all. If the portions are usually this small, then it’s a pretty pricy place. You’ll probably spend about $50-$60 per person, with only one drink.

{ verdict }

Overall my experience at Sepia was disappointing. While certain elements stood out here and there, the most substantial thing we ate was the warm bread and butter that welcomed us to the table.While each dish is gorgeous, the portions are so tiny that I don’t think you’re saving any money. It’s a lovely restaurant, but the service isn’t phenomenal and neither was the food that night. I’d like to try it again but not during restaurant week. If you’re itching to try out Sepia, wait a week before making your reservation.

This article was originally written for Chicagoist.

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