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Time Tables

The West Loop’s gorgeous Sepia is a good restaurant that could someday be a great one; Café 103’s tiny BYO charms the taste buds off its Beverly neighbors

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At SEPIA, the feeling hits you the second you walk in: This is an important restaurant. It had better be, since it’s right around the corner from Blackbird and Avec. The place looks impressive and the energy level is so high that you worry the noise might shatter the Murano chandeliers. Maybe that’s why they are encased by transparent protectors.

The owner, Emmanuel Nony, nods to the space’s history as an 1890 print shop with a color scheme that evokes the warm brownish tones of a vintage photograph. Past the worn antique wooden door and a barrel of apples by the host stand is a lounge with sage-colored sofas and white marble tables. The main dining room is framed by an exposed-brick wall, a walnut wood panel, and a floor-to-ceiling wine rack. The whole place is stunning.

Chef Kendal Duque (previously chef de cuisine at the Union League Club) works admirably in the seasonal contemporary cooking vein, although every meal I had began with a resounding flop. One time, the bread was so hard on the outside that I suspected it had been lying around since the place’s print shop days. The flatbreads that open the menu also need some tinkering. Three times we tried them, with varying success. First there was the undercooked applewood-smoked bacon with peaches and blue cheese, then a better one with lamb sausage and cherry tomatoes—but on bread that was hard in some places and mushy from the tomato juice in others.

If I go again, I’ll start with the excellent charred baby octopus set on toasted bread and surrounded with homemade tomato sauce. Or maybe the roasted rabbit with ricotta dumplings and riesling reduction, or a preserve jar of fat-coated pork rillettes stabbed with an applewood-smoked, pistachio-embedded bacon brittle served with fig jam. The rillettes and slow sips of a floral and rich 2003 Domaine des Baumard Clos du Papillon Savennières ($75) could satisfy me for the evening.

But that would mean losing out on some very good entrées. From the grill, dense and juicy lamb sirloin came unexpectedly in a cast-iron skillet with Great Northern beans tossed with roasted garlic cloves and crispy croutons (unfortunately too crispy). Even more surprising: the presence of savory lamb heart and tongue. Some diners might like a warning, but I’m not one to complain about bonus organ meats. Grilled and smoky free-range chicken arrived a smidgen too salty, but otherwise welcome in the delightful company of yellow wax beans and pea shoots tossed with herbs and lemon vinaigrette.

The big winner, though, was slow-baked veal breast with mint noodles and cipolline onions. Other showstoppers include rare roasted Muscovy duck breast with Swiss chard and scrumptious puddinglike corn, and pan-seared striped sea bass—moist under lovely crisp skin—with young leeks and heirloom tomatoes.

A selection of artisan cheeses includes some gems unfamiliar to me from unexpected places like Oregon and Louisiana. I didn’t care much for desserts on early visits, but they have improved. You can’t go wrong with lemon-sage bread pudding with sweet corn–blackberry jam ice cream, or spiced shortcake with plums and cinnamon basil ice cream. A couple of hints that, with time, Sepia could develop into a great restaurant.

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Photograph: Lara Kastner

 

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