Sepia Chicago

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CHICAGO - There is an Orlando connection to Sepia, a wonderful fine dining restaurant in downtown Chicago, although I
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Sepia's dining room is a study in reddish browns and features a custom tiled floor and dramatic lighting. (Photo by Doug Snower)
would find it easy to recommend even without one. A meal here is like taking a master class in creative food and drink (yes, creative drink; I’ll come back to that).

The connection is owner and host Emmanuel Nony. A native of France, Nony came to the U.S. as part of the team at Epcot’s Chefs de France, working there several years in a variety of career building roles. From there he managed food and beverage departments in various hotels around the world.

His path eventually led him to Chicago where he opened the estimable NoMi in the Park Hyatt Chicago. But three years ago he ventured on his own to open Sepia on Jefferson Street just west of the Loop.

Sepia occupies a space that was originally a print shop, circa 1890. The space retains a certain patina makes the restaurant’s name apt. Even the flooring appears to be ink-stained, although, in truth, the tiles were manufactured especially for the restaurant from a pattern designed by Nony himself.

As you would expect from the name, the decor is awash in muted tones of reddish brown. Tables are uncovered dark woodgrain and decorated with simple candles and a small vase of cut flowers. Besides conventional table seating, Sepia features a counter-height communal table for either larger groups or groupings of singles or doubles or anyone who arrives without a reservation. (Communal tables are very common in Chicago currently.)

Lighting has been carefully considered as part of the ambience, from the backlit wine racks to the down-spotted brick walls. Note the crystal chandeliers throughout the room that have been encased in gauzy cylinders fashioned out of a two-way mirror sort of material. Beautiful.

The menu is under the direction of executive chef Andrew Zimmerman, who also comes from a stint at NoMi. It’s a combination of rustic and modern, with such things as a country pate next to sea scallops in a celery root puree. Everything my guest and I had on a recent visit was, in a word, superb.

We started with appetizers of pork belly with pear, and unusual but inspired combination, and the sea scallops. And, because we couldn’t decide, we also had the country pate. The pork belly had that wonderful fatty feel in the mouth and the pear complemented it was a sweet note.

The scallops were firm and plump, accompanied by the celery root puree and a bit of tangerine. But the element that made it special was a bit of black pudding. What a contrast in tastes and textures. The pate was well executed but ultimately fairly pedestrian next to the other two starters.

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Flat iron steak with bone marrow beignets. (Photo by Lara Kastner)

For my entree I had the flat iron steak, tender sliced meat with hen of the woods mushrooms and bone marrow beignets. My companion had the short ribs braised in Belgian ale, served with red cabbage and spaetzle made with spice bread. Each of us was sure ours was better than the other.

The wine list is as thoughtful as you would expect from a restaurant of this calibre, and several selections are available by the glass. But do be sure to look over the list of fun drinks created by head bartender Joshua Pearson. I was intrigued by one called French 75, which has, among other things, both gin and sparkling wine. It was surprisingly refreshing and did not taste much like a gin-based drink at all. I managed to get the French 75 recipe for you. (And for me.)

Service was stellar, and Nony was a gracious host.

For foodies visiting Chicago, there are certain places that are “must visit” restaurants. If you really love fine food, put Sepia on that list.

Sepia is at 123 N. Jeffereson St., Chicago. It is open for lunch Monday through Friday and for dinner nightly. The phone number is 312-441-1920. Click here for the Sepia Web site.