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Transformations

How the new chefs are faring at Sepia, Goose Island’s flagship brewpub, and Quince

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Losing a talented chef is cause for concern, but Sepia couldn't have found a better replacement for Kendal Duque than Andrew Zimmerman (Mod, Del Toro, NoMi). On my recent visit his subtly playful seasonal menu brought the familiar litany of "natural, organic, sustainable, local" to life in an appetizer of a gently poached and crisply fried duck egg, the essence of spring on a bed of sauteed asparagus, ramps, and morels. The charcuterie combo, perfect for sharing, featured a rich country-style duck paté, fine-textured rabbit rillettes, and a house-made pistachio-studded mortadella that put store-bought to shame. And it was hard to pass up the English-pea-and-mascarpone agnolotti or the sea scallops with sunchoke so highly touted by our proficient waitress.

She also raved about the Gunthorp Farms pork porterhouse, which almost everyone in her station obligingly ordered—and she was right. Given a southern slant with bourbon, a salad of greens and cherries on top, and smooth cheese grits underneath, the thick "steak" was perfectly grilled, moist and delicious. Panfried rainbow trout strewn with black-eyed peas, candied bacon, pecan bits, red onions, and skinny green beans also sang "Dixie," as did a takeoff on chicken and buttermilk biscuits that subbed in rabbit. Warm flatbreads still head the lineup, but though the one with merguez sausage, eggplant puree, and fresh mint was fine, it paled in comparison to the rest of the meal.

First-rate desserts ranged from light cornmeal cookies sandwiching sweet goat cheese cream set off by blueberry compote and coconut sorbet to a gooey pan brownie with almond toffee, brandied cherries, chocolate caramel sauce, and chai ice cream (which I'd replace with a different flavor). Fancy cocktails, interesting beers, and well-chosen wines are among the beverages, but I wish new wine director Scott Tyree (Tru) would add more by-the-glass selections for less than $11. I also wish the stylish room—decorated with mirrors and dominated by Mylar-shaded chandeliers—weren't so damn noisy. —Anne Spiselman

Sepia
123 N. Jefferson, 312-441-1920

In January, just after squeaking out a new lease on its space, the flagship Goose Island Brewpub got another much-needed shot in the arm with the installation of former Mas chef John Manion, who quickly signaled—if not immediately executed—a new approach, emphasizing the pairing of locally sourced foods with brewmaster Greg Hall's prolific rotation of beers. The kitchen fell in line with current snout-to-tail doctrine, receiving and butchering whole animals, and the brewery even began sending its spent grain back to farmers to use as animal feed.

Manion's menu has developed gradually, and while it's unlikely to ever lose items such as the nearly iconic Stilton burger, it shows a good deal of ambition in the employment of local produce, house-made charcuterie, and off cuts, as in a sweetbread BLT that made a brief appearance. I was impressed by early iterations of simple pub food, like a sandwich of Nueske ham and Muenster on a pretzel roll. But more recently some of these promising-sounding dishes emerged from the kitchen in a disappointing state: chunks of walleye in a Honkers Ale batter were underseasoned and cold, and a rotisserie Gunthorp Farms half chicken was overseasoned and salty, its understory of achiote mashed potatoes drowning in a salty thin jus. Swan Creek pork sliders with sriracha aioli and pickled cabbage seemed overmanipulated and texturally alien, and the heavily breaded crustacean on a soft-shell crab BLT couldn't stand up to the power of bacon.

That a number of items were MIA on a Monday pointed to supply problems—the unavailability of house charcuterie was particularly disappointing, and the generous pot of duck rillettes we settled for had little character. By the end of the meal, we were too dispirited to sample bacon-chocolate sea salt bark or any of the gelato floats made with the brewery's revamped line of cane-sugar sodas. I hope Manion continues to develop things, and that my most recent visit was more of an anomaly than a case of the menu looking better on paper than it actually is. —Mike Sula

Goose Island Brewpub
1800 N. Clybourn, 312-915-0071

Walk into the narrow lobby, with its gray carpeting dingier than ever, and you'd never think you were in a place that still harbored aspirations toward being a destination. But chef Pete Balodimas—who in April took over for the less flamboyant Mark Hannon at Quince, the restaurant in the former Trio space in Evanston's Homestead Hotel—is executing an ambitious menu marked by seasonality, foams and other fussy presentations, and combinations that at one time would have seemed downright weird, like suckling pig confit with pickled watermelon rind and "BBQ strawberry caramel."

The restaurant space itself is pleasant enough, with natural-wood walls and a glassed-in room for private dining, but once the food starts coming it can feel downright festive. Balodimas, a graduate of Kendall College and former Spiaggia sous chef who opened the critically acclaimed but shortlived Fahrenheit in Saint Charles a few years back, seems to delight in unexpected juxtapositions. Nancy's Camembert, a starter, was a generous rectangle of cheese with a little pile of candied pistachios, a few spears of pickled white asparagus, sprigs of mache, and crispy morels. Smeared and arranged on a baguette slice, the combo took off, all the more so when matched with a just-right white. Fried soft-shell crab came with red and yellow baby beets and horseradish foam, and while my companion deemed it less successful than the cheese dish, well, he once lived in Maryland. Other appetizers—several of which are available on the "Q2" menu at the new bar—included rabbit rillettes and salmon tartare.

Choosing an entree I was torn. Parmesan gnocchi with speck, ricotta, and peas? Spicy lamb loin with a trio of artichoke, cucumber, and yogurt? In the end I went a homier route: the guinea hen, three boneless cylinders combining white and dark meat, wrapped in La Quercia speck and bedded on creamed ramps spiked with tiny new potatoes and crawfish. Here again our polished sommelier-server scored, suggesting a light Domaine Brusset red of a sort traditionally paired with game meats. Tender oil-poached wild salmon was served with a schmear of almond hummus and thin slices of cantaloupe and fennel, but what really made the dish was the crispy salmon-skin crackling, whose saltiness perfectly countered the sweetness of the melon and hummus. I was too stuffed even to finish my entree, so we had to pass on desserts like peanut butter pudding with grape gelee, sugar doughnuts, and a malted milk shake. But we left, sated, satisfied—and struck again by the incongruity between a $200 meal and such fusty digs. —Kate Schmidt

Quince
1625 Hinman, Evanston, 847-570-8400

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