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.
* * *
Photograph: Lara Kastner
Let’s hear it for Beverly. Time was, this South Side neighborhood was in restaurant Siberia. Now it’s on a roll. Last spring came the lovable bistro Koda, and this summer a few blocks away appears CAFÉ 103, a charming white-tableclothed reason to aim your appetite southward.
Owners Shirley and Blair Makinney, also proprietors of Beverly’s Pantry, the gourmet food store next door, put a lot of attention into Café 103’s 30-seat dining room. I especially love the big squares of mixed colors on the walls and the subdued noise level. The Dudson English white china pieces are different for every course, each showing an earth, wind, fire, or water theme. It’s BYO ($3 corkage), and probably going to stay that way, since the east side of Western Avenue around these parts is dry.
Chef Thomas Eckert, the former sous-chef at Vermilion and Monsoon, tosses in all kinds of Indian spicing on his small, globally influenced menu. So far, the bread service is weak, but it’s hard to beat appetizers such as the elegant house-smoked trout with trout caviar and a horseradish yogurt purée, multiple roasted beets with red orick (related to spinach), a crisp chive potato chip, and walnut oil. Eckert merges India and Italy in the juicy sous vide–cooked pheasant breast with a risotto sporting hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, masala sauce, pear marmellata (Italian marmalade), methi (fenugreek greens), and smoky tandoori fleur de sel. Sounds complex, but it works. So does a terrific heirloom tomato salad with celery microgreens, saffron threads, and Hawaiian red sea salt cleverly paired with a hollowed-out cucumber holding an oyster on the half shell.
Maybe it was the accompaniments, but my favorite entrée was the crispy-skinned guinea hen roulade with lardons, chante-relles, kohlrabi purée, and honey-enriched watercress sauce. I also adored the New Zealand lamb loin, served with good sweetbreads and a “cassoulet” of fava bean, garlic sausage, baby carrots, and red pearl onions. The grilled sturgeon also came dressed in impressive trappings: the now-popular oxtail ragoût pairing along with buttery purple Okinawa sweet potato, sea beans in crisp breading, and lemon balm. The only drawback was a slight muddy flavor in the fish.
Three delicious desserts change often. Two should be regulars: a banana split of brûléed baby bananas with miniature plums, Cognac sauce, garam masala whipped cream, and strawberry gelato, and a strawberry amaretto torte with peach gela-to, strawberry sauce, and cinnamon basil.
Either will convince you that Café 103 does Beverly, and the rest of Chicago, proud.
CAFÉ 103 1909 W. 103rd St.; 773-238-5115 A Model meal Smoked trout and trout caviar, guinea hen roulade, banana split Tip This part of Beverly is dry, so plan to take a bottle from home. Hours Lunch Wednesday-Saturday; dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Tab (Dinner per person without wine, tax, or tip) $45 to $55.
SEPIA 123 N. Jefferson St.; 312-441-1920 A Model meal Pork rillettes, striped sea bass, lemon-sage bread pudding Tip Optional sides, such as onion rings and potatoes fried in duck fat, don’t measure up to entrées. Hours Brunch Sunday; lunch Monday-Friday; dinner nightly. Tab (Dinner per person without wine, tax, or tip) $45 to $55.