Years ago, my buddy Erik visited me in Los Angeles and I was eager to show off LA's breadth of restaurants. We'd been to numerous Thai and Vietnamese and Italian and Mexican spots, and I offered a trip to the restaurant Grace as well. Erik was dismissive, suggesting that LA didn't really do "New American" cuisine as well as Chicago and I never understood what he meant by that. He was underwhelmed by Grace, which was one of my favorite restaurants at the time.
This recent trip to Chicago finally taught me why. Chicago's restaurant options for high-end American food, as a category, trumps that of LA. There are some noteworthy explanations for this: firstly, Los Angeles is far and away a much more casual town, and our dining demands that the restaurants kind-of play down to that. This is a city that would rather have a burger or fried chicken than the highest highs of American cuisine. Secondly, the wealth of ethnic options disperses the food nerds horizontally across various cuisines instead of exploring the heights of a single cuisine vertically. These are not value judgments against my LA or Chicago, just a matter of fact.
duck juniper & pistachio sausage
My first foray into the dining scene at Chicago was at Sable, and admittedly I had already had dinner that evening, but I certainly wanted to try something on the menu since it all looked excellent. My dining companion opted for a small order of the duck sausage, and it was this exciting combinations of flavors and textures. The crisp casing and the duck cracklings in the hash underneath, the wonderfully earthy notes from the sausage as well as the succotash of sweet potato and corn swimming in foie butter.
From there, it only got better. Blackbird has long been one of Chicago's destination restaurants, and it was a treat to enjoy the tasting menu. One highlight was a beautifully cooked dry-aged striploin, served with a small piece of fried polenta, and a relish of escarole, poached quince, and almonds.
My favorite dish at Blackbird was actually one of the early courses in the tasting menu. A concept as simple as a lamb tartare wouldn't strike one as noteworthy, except for the fact that nobody does it. At Blackbird, the lamb tartare is served with roasted maitakes, chestnuts, cranberry yogurt, and miner's lettuce. Here's a photo of the lamb tartare as well as a few other hits from the Blackbird tasting menu.
pork patio roast
The highlight of the trip, however, came from Sepia. I had planned to visit primarily for the drinks, and was floored by how good the food was. Here's their sea scallops, served with yellow pepper romesco, smoked paprika lardo, and almonds.
This acts as a nice segue into one point that I must raise: Los Angeles is home to Providence, a restaurant whose approach to seafood rivals that of Le Bernardin in New York. I would even go as far as to say that Providence is arguably the best restaurant in LA, and certainly the best restaurant serving New American food (even through a seafood lens). All other Los Angeles restaurants in that genre aren't reaching for those heights. It will curious to see if the revamped Michael's in Santa Monica or the revamped Spago are as daring.
With Providence firmly entrenched as my high water mark for LA, I'd say that Sepia is her equal. The level of execution, the level of service, the ambience, everything stacks up high. And in fact, my favorite dish that I had at Sepia is used as the headline photo. It's piece of redfish served with a crawfish boudin, white beans, tasso, and lacinato kale (often referred to as cavolo nero).
redfish with crawfish boudin
This dish, this single dish, this perfectly cooked piece of fish, this house made blood sausage, this salt-cured ham, these earthy beans, these bitter greens, they work together in the most symphonic way. This dish was pretty fucking perfect on all accounts. This is the dish that I will most remember about Chicago. And yet the flavors are plucked right out of the Cajun playbook. There is nothing filtered, there is nothing interpreted. This is straight up Americana, elevated to the highest heights I've ever seen.
While ErikM made that dismissive shrug before Sepia ever opened, I realize now that he was onto something, and that trying to impress a Chicagoan with New American cuisine is like trying to impress an Angeleno with sushi. I'll continue to try and prove him wrong, but I see now how great that challenge truly is.