(My dinner at Sepia was from this past November; many of the dishes may not still be on the menu.)
(Sepia dining room. Picture taken from restaurant’s website.)
Sepia has been in existence for almost 4 years now, yet it still remains one of the hottest restaurants in the city. While much of the initial hype for Sepia has since been transferred to Avec and The Girl and the Goat (not to mention, of course, the more expensive Next), reservations are still difficult to come by as the restaurant is extremely popular. Last November, Sepia was awarded a Michelin Star, and received 3 stars from the Chicago Tribune. The restaurant is part of the burgeoning West Loop dining scene, along with Next, Blackbird, Graham Elliot and the aforementioned Avec and The Girl and the Goat. Given that I have gone to Blackbird, Next, Avec, and Province, I have been doing a comprehensive job of seeing the best of what the West Loop has to offer.
The name “Sepia” represents a pun, referring both to food (cuttlefish) and to the brown tones of photographs. Although not visible in the photograph above, the restaurant features a multitude of photographs, with several on each of the side walls. The photographs all portray factory life from the West End of Chicago—appropriate given the fact that the space that is Sepia was originally a factory building. Additionally, the homepage of the website contains a picture depicting a factory scene. The Sepia menu states that the “Sepia dining room is filled with paraphernalia from Chicago’s past.” Outside of the photographs, I am not certain what other paraphernalia exists in the dining room, although perhaps the 4 glass-encased chandeliers are culled from old Chicago. I was very fond of the chandeliers, finding that they counterbalanced the grittiness of the photographs and the exposed brick walls with a dose of glamour. The presence of glamour alongside grit forces one to redefine one’s conception of glamour—it is this uneasy tension, I believe, that is so affective with regard to the pop-art aesthetic of Andy Warhol. I don’t believe that glamour and grit are ever really synthesized. Rather, they remain separate but exist in a supportive relationship that benefits both attributes. Put differently: an attribute benefits from the presence of its opposite/negation. It should be noted that the paraphernalia is not kitsch in the manner of Pizzeria Uno or TGI Fridays, which use paraphernalia in a conservative, sentimental, ‘all-American’ manner. Instead, the paraphernalia suggests a self-conscious awareness of the past, with the past redirected to support the restaurant’s contemporary status.
Arriving 5 minutes early for my reservation, the restaurant was already packed. There was a mix of diners, from people in their early 30s to elderly couples. It was evident that Sepia is indeed a date/ ‘nice night out’ restaurant as ladies were dressed up with dresses and shawls and at least 2/3 of gentlemen wore sport jackets (I did not, although I was not out of place with a cashmere sweater and my black Banana Republic jacket.) I was seated at a pleasant two-top that provided a similar vantage point to the picture of the dining room at the top. Additionally, I was flanked by couples on both sides—one a young couple and the other elderly. Both of the couples stated to the server in charge of my section of the dining room, that they needed to be finished by seven o’clock.
Service was egregiously slow and inattentive. I was seated for 25 minutes before placing my order. During this time, a female server approached my table and asked if my server had been by my table. I told her that I had been introduced to him but that I had not yet placed my order—I was still in possession of my menu, after all. I found it strange that a separate server would ask whether I had been helped. What function did it serve? At any rate, my server eventually arrived at my table so that I could place my order. I should note that he did not instill confidence in the diner. He is a towering young gentleman who looks somewhat scared and lacks the modicum of assertion that I believe is necessary in being a successful waiter. His lack of personality manifested through my ensuing conversation with him. I inquired as to whether he had any recommendations from the menu and he responded by stating that “I like pretty much anything.” Since he provided a useless answer I countered by asking whether he had any favorites from the menu, to which he replied that “The sturgeon’s really good.” While this is more specific than the first answer, it is still less than helpful. Using the word “good” to describe a dish is unacceptable for an upscale restaurant, let alone one with a Michelin Star. The term lacks specificity and suggests that the server is still grounded in middle-school vernacular. He should utilize more explicit terminology as it would project a sure-handedness with the menu that was sorely missing. Nevertheless, I took him up on his recommendation as I not only love sturgeon but am also fond of its accompaniments within the dish: buttered beluga lentils, cucumber, and yogurt. As a side dish I added caramelized brussel sprouts, which were prepared with a honey-vinegar glaze. Informing my server as to my ‘coconut milk allergy’, he warned me that the soup of the day (a butternut-squash/coconut preparation) contained coconut milk. This was disappointing to me since I had been planning to order the soup given that none of the other options were especially appealing. For example, the quail was chicken-fried while the scallops were liable to trigger an allergic reaction from me. There was a charcuterie plate, although I find charcuterie plates to be beyond the scope of a solo diner. Therefore, I ordered the Caesar salad, prepared with a black pepper/egg yolk puree, parmigiano fritters, and little gem lettuce.
Shortly after having placed my order, one of the backwaiters arrived with bread. The back waiter was not especially proficient as he was inattentive in stopping by my table with water refills, bread refills, etc. The bread service actually consisted solely of a small/medium piece of baguette. Unless the restaurant conducts bread pairings, it is unacceptable to provide only one piece of bread as it basically forces the diner to have to request more bread, which I did shortly thereafter. The bread itself, however, was actually excellent: warm and thick with notes of multigrain that made it all the heartier. I only wish that there had been more at my disposal from the get-go.
About 10 minutes after placing my order my Caesar arrived. I don’t usually order salads in restaurants as I find them lacking in creativity, and when I do order salads they are usually of the frisee lettuce/poached egg/bacon variety. The parmigiano fritters were excellent, although I naively assumed that there would be additional parmigiano cheese grated onto the salad. Instead the fritters represented the only visible cheese within the salad. This is not a swap that I would have made since grated parmigiano is one of my very favorite cheeses (along with Manchego and Pecorino.) The little gem was very fresh and sweet, a welcome contrast from the tired radicchio spring mix combinations that one finds at Treasure Island Supermarket. Given that the salads that I make usually contain iceberg lettuce (which I do actually like very much), it was refreshing to bite into lettuce that actually contained flavor. The egg yolk puree was tasty—it is difficult for egg yolk not to—although it was cold and had thickened to a somewhat chunky consistency that did not spread easily across the lettuce. As a result, the ingredients of the salad were all consumed somewhat in isolation, as I consumed the fritters and then the lettuce. I scooped up the egg yolk with the baguette after having requested more bread from the back waiter.
Mostly satisfied with the meal at this point, it was after I was completed with my starter that the meal took a turn for the worst. As mentioned, both couples next to me needed to leave at 7, so my server directed all of his attention to them. Meanwhile, I waited 50 minutes for my main course, at which point both couples had already received their desserts. This delay was inexcusable; I fully understand that the other couples needed to receive faster service than myself, although this does not mean that their service should have been more comprehensive, as it was. Nobody stopped by my table to check up on me, and after 30 minutes, at which point my server was clearing one of the tables’ main courses, I signaled for him. Trying to broach my concern in a nice, humorous way, I asked if the kitchen had fallen asleep. My server, acting characteristically timid, stated that he did not know what I meant. After telling him that I had been waiting a half hour for my food to arrive and that I felt this to be somewhat unreasonable, he merely stated “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and walked off. In retrospect, a 30 minute wait is not especially egregious. When I stated that I felt the wait to be unreasonable, I was responding to his lack of understanding or empathy for my situation. Why, for example, did he not check in with my table after delivering the main plates to my neighbors? It was this total lack of concern and disregard toward me that bothered me more than the wait itself. That said, when the 30 minute wait lapsed into 50 minutes the wait became unacceptable. The restaurant was packed and I understand that kitchens get overloaded. However, the server should have taken responsibility for the situation and delivered a small portion of one of the selections from the appetizer menu. For example, a cheese and a pate from the charcuterie plate would have sufficed nicely, tiding my appetite over for the main course and making it so that I did not feel neglected.
After the 50 minute wait, the back waiter arrived with my main course in tow (both pictures below are taken from Yelp.) I will note that he provided a thorough description of the plate’s ingredients. I was disappointed by the presentation of the sturgeon dish as I had been anticipating not only the yogurt-cucumber sauce but sliced cucumber. Instead, the cucumbers merely represented a component of the yogurt-based sauce. I note this because I feel that the lack of sliced cucumbers deprived the dish of a crunchy texture that was needed. Instead, the whole dish was very soft and texturally redundant. Moreover, the tandoori marinade was lost as the sturgeon was quite bland. I was anticipating some heat from the tandoori preparation but instead it was only lukewarm, which deprived the dish of what could have been a nice contrast with the cool tzatziki sauce. Given that I am quite fond of lentils, sturgeon, and yogurt-based sauces it was difficult for this dish to ‘fail’, but I did feel that the constituent ingredients were not utilized to their potential. I will say, however, that the brussel sprouts were superb, and I could have easily eaten another whole tray of them. I recognize that brussel sprouts are a somewhat heavy vegetable that many would find to overpower the sturgeon, but they provided a crunchy texture that was absent from the main plate. The sweet and sour resonance of the honey vinegar glaze was the perfect accompaniment to the savory charred texture of the brussel sprouts. This was my favorite aspect of the meal and I congratulate myself for having ordered it.
After finishing the main course, my plates were cleared, my table crumbed, and I was presented with the dessert menu. At this point, it was approaching 7:30, such that I had been dining for almost 2 hours. Nevertheless, I knew that I would be ordering dessert. After having consumed less bread than I would normally (given the paltry portions of the ‘bread service’) I did still have plenty of room for dessert. I decided on apple spice cake with maple ice cream and caramelized apples. The dessert arrived roughly 3 minutes after having ordered it, shockingly quick for a kitchen that I assumed had been overloaded. I believe that the staff was trying to rush me through the finale of my meal so that they could prepare my table for the 8:00 seating. At any rate, this dish was another example of me naively inferring the presence of certain ingredients. Specifically, I assumed that caramel syrup would be accompanying the caramelized apples, which was not the case. Instead, the dessert consisted merely of an overly hard apple spice cake with vanilla ice cream that contained no notes of maple and finely chopped caramelized apples. I would have preferred it if the apples were not diced so finely as it deprived the apple of the thick texture that I value in them. The cake was edible but devoid in flavor, similar to the ice cream. Having tasted superb maple ice cream recently at a different restaurant, this ice cream did not contain the sweet quality that I was expecting.
Presented with the check at around 7:50, I certainly feel as though I was treated very poorly, even after voicing my concerns to my server. I do not like to issue statements like “this is a bad restaurant” (and indeed I don’t believe it is bad restaurant) but the low level of service that I received was shocking for a restaurant that has garnered hype both from the foodie establishment (on Yelp, for instance) and the critical establishment. I recognize that the Michelin designations refer solely to ‘what’s on the plate’, but independent of my service, I feel that Sepia perhaps does not deserve its star even based on the food alone. While I will not return to Sepia, I look forward to directing my restaurant focus elsewhere as I continue to navigate the Chicago dining landscape.
 I found the elderly couple to be very pleasant. It is always refreshing to be seated near people who are enthusiastic and focused toward the ingredient combinations that are on the plate. The woman happily remarked that her chicken dish was the most deconstructed she had ever had, making her forget her initial reticence toward ordering chicken (a protein which many people find mundane) at a ‘fancy restaurant’. Additionally, the couple exhibited pleasantly endearing rituals, stating “Bon Appetit” almost in unison before beginning their main dishes and tasting from each other’s plates. At any rate, I delighted in their deviation from the detached alienation exhibited by many people when dining out.