When a highly regarded restaurant loses its chef, we tend to hold our breath. The better the restaurant, the deeper we inhale.It's a reflex. We tend to think of a chef and his restaurant (even when it's not "his" restaurant) as inextricably entwined, two entities sharing a single personality. When they pull apart, we react as though hearing about the separation of conjoined twins. Can either survive? Will one, at the expense of the other?
So when, earlier this year, Kendal Duque left Sepia, which he helped make one of the hottest restaurants in town, I probably wasn't the only person to fret, "Oooh. Tough act to follow."
But owner Emmanuel Nony, a veteran of Hyatt International, raided his former employer for an ideal replacement -- Andrew Zimmerman, who cooked at NoMI under Sandro Gamba and was chef de cuisine under Christophe David. In between those stints, he helmed the accomplished but ill-fated Wicker Park restaurants Mod and Del Toro.
Zimmerman's background includes a little French, a bit of Mediterranean and a whole lot of seasonal American, and that's reflected in his menu, whose modern look is tempered by deep traditional roots and frequent homages to rusticity.
This is most obvious in such starters as his cotechino sausage, a classic Italian pork creation. Zimmerman's version has a subtly complex flavor profile, absent of any dominating flavors, and the fat sausage coins give the taste buds the same sensation as might a well-balanced stew. Some French lentils add a nubby texture to the soft sausage, and a coarse salsa verde adds acidity and herby notes.
Zimmerman's charcuterie plate is a revelation, including some firm copa di testa but also a fat-ringed game-bird pate and rabbit rillettes, alongside a stack of toasted baguette slices. And rich black pudding, paired with sauteed sea scallops over celery-root puree, is as novel a surf-and-turf combo as I've encountered in some time.
I had a wonderful piece of walleye on one visit, served with pieces of guanciale and wilted Brussels sprouts; the seasonal walleye has since been replaced by sturgeon, which I suspect won't hurt the preparation one bit. Zimmerman manages a fanciful "pot au feu," presented as two poached chicken breasts wrapped in forcemeat and Swiss chard, in a shallow pool of rich broth flecked with root vegetables, and it's absolutely sensational.
The duck breast -- beautiful slices with chanterelle mushrooms, dried apricots and Marcona almonds -- is a no-muss dish made memorable by its flawless components. And a couple of bone-marrow beignets -- actually crispy beer-batter puffs filled with bone marrow, which liquefies during cooking -- upstage the flat-iron steak they accompany.
Yet for all that, I'd go back for Zimmerman's short ribs, braised in Belgian ale for an uncommon depth of flavor, placed alongside spaetzle flavored with spice-bread seasonings (cinnamon and nutmeg among them) and some sweet red cabbage. Can something be a comfort-food classic if you've never had it before?
Cindy Schuman has delighted me with her pastry chef work at Carlos', Kevin and Aubriot through the years, so I'm not surprised by the stellar desserts she produces here. There are outrageously good apple fritters, apple-filled beignet-like puffs alongside apple compote and a subtly sour yogurt ice cream above a rosemary-flecked anglaise sauce. Almond panna cotta is abetted by a couple of memorable, lemon-rosemary shortbread cookies. And a small cookie cornet becomes a virtual horn of plenty with a filling of caramel mascarpone cream, capped by a scoop of pistachio chocolate-chunk ice cream.
The beverage program is exciting, for its well-crafted cocktails (including a fascinating old fashioned made with butternut-squash-infused bourbon) and its globe-trotting wine list, which gives France and California their due while including plenty of Southern Hemisphere options. Some effort has gone into wine pricing, providing a considerate selection of $50-and-less offerings. But if you really want to save money, visit Sepia on Sunday night, when all $95-and-less bottles are half price.
Sepia's stylish interiors remain untouched -- the room still looks great, festooned with 1920s memorabilia, and it's still very noisy. Servers remain as effortlessly professional as always. One thing that has changed from my previous visits, though, is that the managers have sussed out my identity. One time, I called ahead to add an extra guest to my party, happily agreeing to squeeze a fifth seat into a table built for four; when I arrived, we'd magically been upgraded to a table that easily would have handled eight. Occasionally, very occasionally, it helps to look like me.
123 N. Jefferson St., 312-441-1920
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday
Entree prices: $20-$29
Credit cards; A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking