Last night was my dad’s birthday and we went to Sepia, another hip restaurant in the West Loop. Seriously, all the good restaurants are there: I think it’s something about the contrast of the starkness of the meatpacking district to the comfort and upscale quality of the restaurants that seem almost like oases (is that the plural?).
Some great restaurants in the area: Avec, Blackbird, Meiji, Moto, Otom (haven’t been there), Follia (my parents have), Sushi Wabi, De Cero. The list goes on.
How to define the cuisine at Sepia? Of course, it’s categorized as “Contemporary American,” but I hate that term with a burning passion. I would say that it’s a lot like the food at Avec: both classic and modern, rustic but with interesting combinations.
The food was great, although very protein-focused. I was at least glad that I ate fish, and even then it turned out to be a little complicated to negotiate my way out of bacon grease, etc. It will certainly make things easier when I start eating meat again.
My Aunt Claire came up from Madison, and since she didn’t do anything for her birthday, which was in October, we decided to have a joint birthday dinner.
One of the exciting aspects of Sepia is the location: an old print shop. You could tell that they had tried to keep its vestiges in all their glory: an old accordian camera, a rough-cut wooden door with a brass knocker.
Speaking of cool locations, Spring is located in an old bath house, and it’s another restaurant I’ve been meaning to visit.
The inside was dark and noisy, with a definite modern-retro feel: there were chandeliers surrounded by glass and in the corner, a light made of a thin mesh design of metal, a bit like the Olympic Bird’s Nest.
Our waitress was incredible, and unlike most waitresses, who look like they never eat their restaurants’ food, she looked like she had enjoyed every dish on the menu, and she could describe each distinctly.
To start with, my dad ordered one of the craziest cocktails ever, and which my mom pronounced the best she had ever had. My tastebuds probably aren’t evolved enough when it comes to alcohol, but it was so strong that I could mainly taste only bourbon. It was called the Chipotle Old-Fashioned: smoked chipotle pepper-infused ridgemont reserve 1792 bourbon, triple chocolate and balsamic vinegar bitters, muddled orange and cherry.
The chocolate was so subtle that you could barely tell it was there, but definitely added another dimension to the aftertaste. The bourbon was firy enough, but the chipotle added extra heat.
We also ordered red wine, which I had a few sips of, but decided for me, wasn’t really worth all those extra calories.
To start, my dad, against my will, ordered STEAK TARTARE. It’s not even because I don’t eat meat that it grosses me out… the idea just seems so unsanitary, and with the addition of the raw egg, just too much. Aunt Claire, who doesn’t eat red meat, and I decided we needed to construct a brick wall between us and his plate.
Originally, I was going to order the charred baby octopus with roasted tomato sauce and baguette, but also didn’t want to order too much food. Aunt Claire ended up ordering it and said she would share. Although it was maybe a little similar to the food I eat at home, thanks to my squash obsession, I ordered the market squash with serrano ham (minus the ham), arugula and walnuts. The squash was red kuri squash, which I had seen at the Farmer’s Market that morning and been excited to try. It had been seared in a little maple syrup, and the whole dish was light and fresh, and definitely a good choice for a starter, since the rest of the food we ordered turned out to be quite heavy. There was something about the dressing the made the salad great, although now that I look back, it seemed to be just a simple vinaigrette with the addition of some secret ingredient.
The octopus was INCREDIBLE! I would go as far as to say that it was the dish of the night. I almost regretted not having ordered it, but once again, I didn’t want too much food. I had never had octopus with tomato sauce before, and the bitterness of the burned octopus and the sweet tomatoes paired perfectly. The presentation was also breath-taking: a stack of tiny tentacles and crostini arranged on a pool of sauce. Octopus has an incredible chewy texture and smoky flavor that really does remind me of meat.
My mom ordered the sea scallops with pork belly, knob onions, and brussel sprouts… at first I thought it was strange, since we eat a lot of scallops at home, but she wanted to try the pork belly and brussel sprouts.
Of course, the portion turned out to be two humungous scallops, which looked great.
Between the appetizers and mains, we realized that they had forgotten to bring us bread and asked for some. The bread turned out to be some of the best multi-grain bread I had ever had: warm from the oven, with a crispy crust and chewy inside. I was good and only had two bites.
The service was pretty fast! They were really good at getting everything on to the table at the same time.
On to mains: My dad, being extremely carnivorous when not cooking for a vegetarian, ordered pork chop with arugula and apple.
My mom almost ordered fish, but my dad convinced her that we don’t eat much meat at home, so she ordered braised veal short ribs with mint noodles and truffle butter, which sounded like one of the heaviest, most decadent items on the menu. She didn’t even end up eating a quarter of it when she found out how big the portions were. She said the noodles were great, but that the mint flavor didn’t come through.
Aunt Claire doesn’t eat red meat, like I said, but she was so tempted by the roasted cod, spaghetti squash, and wild boar sausage with paprika sauce that she decided to go for it. Truth be told, that was the entree that appealed most to me too, and that’s what I’m looking forward to about not having such strict restrictions on myself: when there’s something I really want on a special occasion, I’m going to go for it.
I was disappointed at first, because the dish I wanted, skate wing with braised greens, carrots, and grape-pine nut sauce, had bacon fat in the greens. I didn’t want the other fish options, so I asked if the could sub the greens for another vegetable, and they ended up giving me sauteed spinach, which was nice.
Once again, huge portions (probably only ate half of the fish). My favorite part were the carrots, which were tiny and obviously locally-grown: you could tell that they were young enough that their skins didn’t even need to be peeled off. The addition of grapes was interesting, but I would have preferred if the pine nuts and grapes had been cooked and blended a bit into a sauce, rather than I got, which were halved basically raw grapes on top of the fish. The idea was a good one, though, and the skate wing was perfectly cooked.
For extreme decadence, they also ordered a side of duck-fat fried potatoes. Wow.
Because they had had wine, bread, potatoes, and heavier appetizers/ main courses than me, I was really the only one interested in dessert. I convinced them to at least get one to share for the table. The dessert of the night was an insane chocolate cake with peanut butter mousse the size of a dictionary, that the surrounding tables were all ordering… TOO MUCH FOR US!
The dessert we ordered turned out to be the perfect portion: sweet potato spice cake bread pudding and caramel thyme ice cream.
See what I mean about heavy dishes? The portion wasn’t outrageous like that cake, but served the four of us perfectly. The sweet potato flavor didn’t come through too well, but there were small chunks of sweet potato buried in the spice cake, which was out of this world. It was like extremely decadent French toast, and the ice cream was also great, although I couldn’t taste the thyme. At these restaurants, it’s all about the descriptions.
I can’t decide which restaurant out Blackbird, North Pond, and Sepia is the best. However, Grandma, if you’re reading this, Sepia is the place to bring you– one of the dishes on the menu was amish chicken with acorn squash and serrano ham.