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As if Restaurant Week wasn’t enough, Chicago also has a Chef Week sponsored by OpenTable. It’s a much smaller promotion than Restaurant Week, but there are a couple of tasty deals at $30 pre fix dinners. One restaurant that’s participating is Sepia, easily one of my favorite joints in town. So, last night, Yuki and I ate a delicious pre fix.

My appetizer was the Scotch Duck Egg. It was a perfect croquet of ground duck meat, nice and medium rare after frying, coated in bread crumbs and filled with duck egg yolk that just oozed out when you cut it open. Chef Zimmerman served it with wild rice, arugula, and black olive honey.

Yuki ordered the Grilled Squid. Perfectly grilled, nice and tender. It was served with cara-cara and blood orange segments, watercress, thin slices of red onion that’s been soaked to remove the sharpness, and herb oil.

My entrée was Cider Braised Pork Belly with barbeque lentils and crispy cavalo nero (not sure what cavalo nero means, it was red cabbage in some kind of vinegar). Delicious fatty pork belly! MMMM! The cider and bbq flavors really tasted like backyard cooking, but it definitely had an upscale, modern twist. The only thing I would have done different is to give the pork belly a quick grill after taking it out of the braising liquid. That would have crisped up the skin a little and added some smoke. It’s hard to argue with what was served though.

Yuki’s entrée was the Vegetarian Lasagna with herbed ricotta and piquillo pepper. The herbed ricotta cheese was brilliant with that tomato sauce. The piquillo pepper almost tasted like an olive, lending an interesting briny contrast. The noodles may have been slightly overcooked, but it was up there with the best lasagna I’ve ever tasted.

For dessert I ordered the Maracaibo Mousse with mango ice cream and caramel-mango rum sauce.

Yuki got the Citrus Meringue-Tart with champagne-raspberry sorbet and lemon sauce.

While all of the individual components of both desserts were delicious, they didn’t all work out quite so well. The mango ice cream’s texture and overall feel were very similar to the mousse. There wasn’t much diversity in textures. On Yuki’s, the sorbet was more tart than the tart. Two tarts don’t make a match. We actually switched the ice cream and sorbet and the sorbet matched the mousse perfectly. While I wouldn’t say the mango matched the tart perfectly, it did offer a nice reprieve from the tart lemon. Maybe some sort of herb sorbet, like mint or basil, would have matched the tart better.

Overall, Sepia still resides towards the top of my list for best restaurants in Chicago. Last night’s meal wasn’t perfect, nor was the service as we had to ask for bread (should have been put down as soon as we ordered, but that’s nitpicking), but the ingredients were fresh, perfectly cooked, and for the most part thoughtfully prepared. I will definitely head back at some point.

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Our third Restaurant Week jaunt was for lunch yesterday at Blackbird. We had actually eaten there about 5 or 6 years ago for Yuki’s birthday dinner. I can’t remember what we ate, but I do remember being extremely impressed. We haven’t been back since but decided that a $22 pre fix lunch there was too good to pass up, especially after seeing the menu they offered on the Restaurant Week Chicago website. Wrong I was, wrong indeed.

Yuki started with the Parsnip Bisque. It was served with shallot jam, beautyheart radish, sturgeon, and sunflower seeds. Actually, this was one of the best soups either of us have ever tasted. It was creamy, yet light and smooth. The flavors were spot on. No complaints about this dish.

I ordered the Duck Country Pate and Mortadella with grapefruit molasses, black radish, and pumpkin seed brittle. This dish was ok. The pate was a little salty, but it wasn’t too bad. There was a lot going on in this dish and I think Chef Kahan could have easily simplified it, but it was decent.

Yuki’s entrée was the Wood-grilled Brook Trout with broccoli, parsley root, violet mustard spaetzle, and dried black bean. The fish was way oversalted and I didn’t notice anything that resembles broccoli or spaetzle anywhere on the plate. I can only guess that the powdered substance on the plate was the dried black bean. I think this was a case of trying to be too creative with a failed idea and false advertisement. Not a very good dish at all.

I ended up ordering the Roasted Chicken with charred avocado and house-made giardiniera. The chicken was very greasy, the giardiniera consisted of a few small pieces of pickled cauliflower, and the charred avocado was actually one tiny little dollop of some sort of avocado mousse. The giardiniera and avocado, while they both match chicken nicely, didn’t go well together at all. Two very conflicting tastes. 

We split the two desserts. One was Manjari Chocolate Pave with tonka bean ice cream and candied cocoa nibs. It was pretty good. The pave was nice and fluffy for being so rich. This dessert was a success.

This other dessert was written on the menu as Satuma Chiboust with campari, pineapple, semolina and zingerman cheese ice cream. What? I know that Chiboust is a type of cream used in pastries, but what on Earth is Satuma? I can only hope they meant Satsuma which is a citrus…or a city in Japan. I’ll go with citrus. This dessert wasn’t bad though, even though they can’t spell.

Alright, here’s why we were disappointed besides the quality of the entrees. The service was flat-out bad! Not once did our server refill my iced tea, he flat-out forgot the coffee that Yuki ordered with dessert (fortunately it wasn’t on the bill so I didn’t have to bitch about it, but she clearly ordered it and he clearly heard her), he never stopped by to see how any of the dishes were (always, always, always stop by to at least make sure things like chicken are properly cooked), and he just seemed to be an ass. In fact, most of the servers there had an attitude about them. They all wore slacks, button downs, and a tie (I’m sure a requirement), but all seemed to have an arrogance about them. I didn’t notice any tables getting very friendly service at all. The host gave us a little attitude also when she sat us. The staff matched the food, pretentious and lacking.

Another thing that I didn’t like was the table set up. I understand that it’s a business and Chef Kahan wants to make as much money as possible, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of customer comfort. The tables were practically lined up on top of each other. There was literally no more than 2 inches between tables, and that’s not an exaggeration (as much as I love to exaggerate). I had one table in my right ear and another in my left, I could barely converse with Yuki. The little conversation we were able to have was no doubt overheard by the tables next to us as we clearly heard their conversations. That’s a big pet peeve of mine. Give your customers a little space!

Also, Chef Kahan pulled the old bait-n-switch on his customers. If you look at the menu he advertised on the Restaurant Week website you’ll see a warm baby octopus confit with black chickpeas, asian pear, hazelnuts, and eucalyptus as well as a torchon of foie gras with black grape, spicy vegetables, and lavender as appetizer options. You’ll also see roasted squab and smoked sausage with sweet potatoes and junipers or braised short ribs with flageolets, fig broth, and golden turnips for entrée options. Sounds pretty damn good, eh? What happened? No octopus, no foie, no squab, no short ribs. Instead it was parsnip bisque and duck pate along with chicken and trout. Come on, chicken and trout? No way are those two entrees worth the price of admission. I get that sometimes ingredients aren’t available, or changes sometimes need to be made, but not one of the advertised items was on the menu. Not one! If you check the restaurant’s website, it lists a restaurant week dinner menu that is also completely different. They aren’t offering a restaurant week dinner pre fix, just lunch. What is going on? Had we seen the real menu there’s no way we would have made a reservation. Chef Kahan clearly wanted to entice people with a very cool menu and then cheapen it up to save some money. What an ass! You know Chef, bait-n-switch is illegal.

The worst part was what happened a few hours after we ate. Both of us came down with an upset stomach. No doubt the entrees were at fault, salty fish and greasy chicken. My situation ended with an incendiary display not fit for children. It was bad!

The whole point of restaurant week is to attract people to your restaurant. This trip to Blackbird did the exact opposite. It’s like Yuki told me last night, “You know, having been there before a few years ago I would have definitely gone back, but after lunch yesterday I’ll never go back!” I share those sentiments, especially with Sepia just around the corner.

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Sepia

Yesterday was my 33rd birthday. My wife and I use birthdays as excuses to enjoy finer dining than a typical eve. Last night she took me to Sepia, a place that we’ve wanted to go to for quite a while now. While I would have liked to try Kendal Duque’s cooking, new Executive Chef Andrew Zimmerman is definately his equal in the kitchen.

Sepia Interior

The interior definately has that old-world feel with lots of dark brick, leather tables, buffed mirrors, and large chandeliers. But it isn’t stuffy at all. The place was quite comfortable and not too loud like most exposed brick restaurants. But it was the food that stole the show, not the interior.

We started off with some Gruet Blanc de Noir. I personally think that New Mexico turns out some of our countries best bubbly. For apps, Yuki ordered the scallops. Two big, meaty scallops cooked to absolute perfection! A nice sear on top and bottom while nicely opaque in the middle. We both feel that they’re the best scallops we’ve ever eaten in this city. They were served with a sunchoke puree, marcona almonds, and some serrano ham on top with frisee.

I ordered the sweetbreads. I’ve never really been a fan of sweetbreads, but I’ve only eaten them once before. However, if I’m going to consider myself a foodie then I need to order the proper food. Damn glad I did! Damn glad! Those glands had a texture that was like a cross between scallops and foie gras. It almost had a scallop-like sweetness as well, but also the butteriness of foie gras. Chef served them with this orange-fennel sauce. It was thick, creamy, and you could really taste the bitterness of the orange. Perfect match with the sweet sweetbreads. (I get the sweet part, but it really is more like foie than a bread). Some frisee on top as well.

Sepia_pork_t_bone_2

For entrees, Yuki ordered the Pork Porterhouse served on some grits with a bourbon sauce and cherries. Again, perfectly cooked, nice and medium rare on the tenderloin side and medium on the strip side. The accompaniments also complimented nicely. Fortunately for me it was too big for her stomach, so I get to eat the rest of it today for lunch! We paired it with a glass of Dolcetto D’Alba.

I ordered the Duck. A perfectly cooked breast; the skin nice and crispy, the meat nice medium rare and juicy. It was served atop a medly of chantrelle mushrooms, green onions, marcona almonds (Zimmerman must love these almonds, but for good reason), and these little spongy black things that we couldn’t quite figure out what they were. Yuki thought they were little pieces of liver or something, I thought they were some sort of mushroom stem. It was killing us not knowing what they were so I asked the manager….duck gizzards. (Yuki was closer, she wins) That was the first time I’ve ever eaten duck gizzards and I gotta tell you, I love them! They added a deeper flavor to the dish that the mushrooms alone probably couldn’t provide. Delicious! I drank a glass of Portugese wine, and interesting red blend from the Douro Valley. Nice recommendation from our server.

The desserts were awesome too! We had the Ricotta Pound Cake with carmelized peaches, buttermilk ice cream, and pecans as well as the Blueberry Cobbler with sweet corn ice cream, lemon-thyme cookies. Of course, on my plate was the obligatory “Happy Birthday Dan” written in chocolate with some artistic design. Always a nice touch. The food runner also said he’d sing to me for an extra fee. I’m cheap (even though dinner was Yuki’s treat), so we declined.

All in all, I have to say that Sepia is one of the better dinner’s I’ve had a quite a while. It is easily in the upper-echelon of Chicago restaurants. Because of it I can’t wait for my next opportunity to munch on some sweetbreads!

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