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Critics' pick
Photograph: Martha Williams
Most Excellent Contemporary American Restaurants in Chicago: Sepia
West Loop
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Update 9/2014: While bartender Josh Pearson has departed, Griffin Elliot is continuing the Sepia tradition of very solid cocktails. They're ideal with a small plate, like foie gras capped with cherry gelee, in the bar, but just as good to kick off a full meal in the dining room. Zimmerman's charcuterie shines, and the desserts, like orange-cream filled cookies, are a fine finish.

After the departure of both its acclaimed chef and standout mixologist, a lesser restaurant might have cracked. But Sepia’s transition from Kendal Duque and Peter Vestinos (chef and cocktail master, respectively) to Andrew Zimmerman and Joshua Pearson is nothing if not smooth. Regulars need not fear: Favorites like Duque’s skate wing and Vestinos’s Sepia Mule haven’t gone anywhere. Nor would anyone in their right mind tinker with the restaurant’s design: a careful balance of antique and modern that creates a lounge and dining room that are both sleek and warm. The restaurant’s hallmarks—impressive wine list, expert cocktail program—remain. Which means if you start a visit to Sepia as I did, with the Very Final Word (a graceful combination of Rittenhouse Rye, elderflower liqueur and lime juice that brightens whiskey into a summer-perfect liquor), not a single component feels out of step.

The only variable left up in the air is the meal itself, and owner Emmanuel Nony wasn’t taking any risks bringing on Zimmerman, formerly the chef de cuisine at NoMI, which Nony himself came from. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the chicken coming out of Sepia’s kitchen boasts a light, even char that yields to a sweet, juicy interior; that the trout’s skin is so crisp it crackled against my fork; and that rabbit would be nothing if not tender. But while these dishes are successful, others narrowly miss the mark. Perfectly cooked asparagus and rich roasted mushrooms get weighed down by hand-formed cavatelli whose pasty texture is closer to dumplings than to the light pasta needed to complement the bright asparagus spears and ricotta crumbles in the dish. Likewise, chopped mint starts to play off the heat of crumbled merguez sausage atop one of the restaurant’s signature flatbreads (pictured), but the herb asks for more than it gives: With an added burst of acidity, the sausage might have really popped. A porchetta sandwich posed a similar dilemma: The gently pickled strips of fennel bulb and pleasantly bitter watercress lend bite, but the nicely tender pork itself lacks porchetta’s appealing herbaceousness.

Is it fair to ask such humble dishes to show off a little more? Granted, I wouldn’t ask anything extra of the al dente black-eyed peas and smoky bacon bringing out the best in that trout filet. Nor would I say anything to those buttery biscuits beneath the braised rabbit—I’d be much too busy with the indulgent gravy to speak at all. Similarly, a rustic dessert of tangy, creamy goat cheese between cornmeal cookies was a simple success. And because of that, the scoop of coconut sorbet off to its side feels like an extra extremity, similar to the collection of deconstructed components that arrives with angel food cake—slices of poached peach, passion-fruit curd, white peach sorbet. It came off like a build-your-own dessert, but one that doesn’t offer the right tools to work with.

So a few dishes aren’t exactly showstoppers. But Sepia isn’t the kind of restaurant that needs such displays. It seems something has changed here after all. Its newbie sheen worn off, Sepia has taken on the qualities of a stalwart: a place I’d easily recommend to my parents for dinner or I’d stop into for a drink with friends. Chicagoans are lucky to have a restaurant as reliable and comfortable as Sepia—but we’re even luckier to have dozens of other restaurants just as good.

Venue name: Sepia
Address: 123 N Jefferson St

Cross street: between Washington Blvd and Randolph St
Opening hours: Lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner
Transport: El stop: Green, Pink to Clinton. Bus: 8, 14, 20, 56, 125, 130, 132.
Price: Average main course: $32
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