We had the worst meal in years at a newcomer to the West Loop called Sepia.
[From S E P I A Chicago Restaurant ~ 312.441.1920 123 N. Jefferson, Chicago, IL 60661] – warning: one of those annoying flash websites that take forever to load, and worse, one that autoplays music. You can turn the music off, but the toggle doesn’t appear until after 8 warbled bars by a Billy Holiday imitator. I should have canceled my reservation once I visited the web site. Though some of the sepia-toned photos are nice.
This is the only photo I managed to take as before we were served any food or drink, four different people visited our table to ask who we were (I think they wanted to know if we were food critics or not) before a manager came and told me that “Photos were not allowed”.
I am certainly not a food critic (read below if you want proof), just a typical consumer. Perhaps if we had said we were writing a review, we might have been treated better.
Here were my scribbled notes from later that evening.
•The service was ok, once we let the waiter rattle off his spiel without interruption. He was initially ‘annoyed‘ at us for daring to ask questions, but eventually he warmed up, and was ok. I’ve waited tables, so I know how sometimes customers can be irritating for no particular reason. The bus buy in charge of our table hovered nearby, refilling our water every 2 or 3 minutes. Perhaps they get a bonus if they sell more than one bottle of water? Grade: B.
•As mentioned, was told firmly there would be no photographs allowed, per ‘policy‘. Not sure what that’s about. Perhaps afraid of proof of bad reviews? Grade: F.
•Atmosphere, not quite to the level of the home of a tribe of serial killers, but still kind of freaky. I wonder how many folks ever return to have another meal? I could easily visualize ritual sacrifices occurring in the basement. The tables are crammed up against each other, you can borrow napkins from adjoining tables without even turning your torso. We ate early, so most of our meal enjoyed a buffer, in three dimensions, but the staff constantly bumped against our chairs, or stumbled over our feet. Sepia’s layout obviously was not approved by a Feng Shui master.
•Flat breads: sauteed mushrooms on a homemade cracker. Profit margin of 99%. I calculate the ingredients as 1 mushroom diced (perhaps 2, of different varieties, but hard to tell), some butter, some oil, about .05 of a garlic clove, and a bit of flour and water. $7. If I made this, even if I was more generous with the amount of mushrooms, and if I didn’t have the benefit of economy of scale, still would be hard to spend $0.25 on the dish. After the 300 word buildup mouthed by our waiter (and probably written by the owner), I expected more. Grade: D-.
•Salad – a handful of moldy lettuce, or perhaps a sour vinegar dressing. Served with cold, marinated grilled carrot strips, of there must have been a surfeit, as these same carrots appeared in all our other dishes too. Grade: F.
•Fish – a nice chunk of sturgeon, cooked to the consistency of leather. Yummm, chewy! Served on a bed of watercress, with mold- marinated carrots. $26 dollars. Grade: C-.
•Grilled vegetables. Actually not bad, the only thing we completely finished, though again, 20 dollars for a couple ounces of grilled/baked vegetables (squash, carrots, brussels sprouts, red cabbage) seems a little steep, especially since nothing was organic or locally grown. Sysco vegetables are pretty damn cheap. Perhaps the kitchen staff has a very competitive pay scale, or perhaps there are too many of them, or perhaps the rent is not favorable. Or something. We were hungry about an hour after leaving Sepia, and had to have a second dinner.
•Goat cheese cake, cloyingly sweet, but not bad. Served with a bitter, insanely dry cookie, and one lonely pistachio nut, crumbled, and spread out across an over-large plate. Actually, I think it was less than one pistachio nut, perhaps 1/4 of a whole nut. Whatever. We left most of it uneaten, lonely on the vast plate. Allegedly the desert chef is going to be featured in some food magazine, but that is no guarantee of quality, just evidence of payola in the corporate media. Grade: D+.
Final Grade – are you kidding? We didn’t even drink wine (contrary to my habit), and our bill was still over $100. If I want a special, delicious, romantic meal, and am willing to spend more than $100, there are several options to choose from in Chicago. Sepia is not one.