Epic, 112 W Hubbard Street (at Clark)
Epic is aptly named for the dramatic space that houses this relatively new hot spot in Chicago's River North area. Well appointed, sleek, and professional are my first impressions. Epic has a solid start on the basics of any restaurant, good food and attentive service. Service was professional and relatively smooth. The staff was trained to be professional with their mannerisms and speech, which speaks to management. Aesthetically, Epic is a warehouse of a space. The restaurant is fully staffed with floor managers looking like secret service agents outfitted wired earpieces. Lots of staff here, so if you’re not being attended to, ask for service; someone will be right over. My second impression is, how are they going to drive profits over the long-term? Staffing, lease, and food have to cost a pretty penny in this warehouse of a restaurant space. I just worry about costs in situations like this one. Seeing enough restaurants in San Francisco take on bold spaces and dramatic food, I hope Epic maintains and exceeds my first visit impression on my next visit to Chicago. The recent Michael Bauer article cataloging successful and failed restaurants over the last 15 years in San Francisco is a harsh reminder of how difficult the food and beverage business is.
Let me get some basics out of the way before the formal review of food. I ordered a Littorai Pinot Noir 08 Les Larmes Anderson Valleyfor the table. It had a pleasant smokiness, light alcohol, and full palate cherry flavors that paired well, especially with the tartare and with my entire meal. There are no 375ml wine options available on the menu. There are several wines by the glass, but frankly, nothing struck me that evening. Wine in inventory was probably a big consideration when opening the restaurant. Considering the size of the bar, alcohol consumed a lot of budget and is responsible for driving profits. Bread and butter at the table consisted of homemade sourdough and sweet cream butter. No salt on the tables. I had a little bread before my first sips of wine. One other housekeeping item, our table was given a 500ml bottle of Pellegrino, while others were given the 1 liter size? Why the inconsistency, I have no idea and I forgot to ask.
The kitchen started me out with an amuse of wild boar and foie gras barbison, basically a deep fried mini empanada. It was hot and salty, but not exceptional. Fried items are always tricky for me personally. Sure, everyone likes fried food, but I prefer an amuse that is lighter on the palate than a fried piece of dough stuffed with meat. The protein just as easily could have been short-ribs, I would have never have known.
I’m always a sucker for tuna tartare. Sure, it’s probably overplayed but it is a classic and I don’t tire of it on menus when it’s executed well. The tartare was served with a micro green salad on top and on the side. There were some homemade potato chips that were crunchy and salty, also on the side. I avoided the chips, just more fried food. A pronounced celery flavor in the salad couldn’t be avoided along with fried shallots. So here is what I did. I ate the fried shallot pieces first, then the salad greens because I didn’t want to taste celery with every bite of tuna. I washed it all down with a half-glass of Pellegrino and two sips of wine. All that remained was the tuna tartare. The tartare was nicely cut into cubes and well seasoned. I would almost use the word ‘creamy’ with regard to the concoction used to cure the tartare, as there was a hint of whiteness. No flavors of heat, Worcester, or mustard at all. I liked the interpretation, but it didn’t make my Top 3 Tuna Tartare List. The tartare wasn’t Mina, Bix, or Ruhlman, sorry, it just means there is room for improvement.
I was in the mood for pasta, so I ordered the gnocchi with swiss chard and lamb sausage in a fennel beurre blanc. This was my favorite dish of the night. While many Italians may take issue with the size, shape, and lack of ridges on the gnocchi, they were perfectly light but with texture to the dough. A subtlety I’d like to emphasize were tiny little bread crumbs added to the finished product. Simple, but these seasoned pearls added a texture and flavor to the dish that helped it shine. The pieces of lamb sausage were caramelized and retained a cylindrical shape with the casing removed. The beurre blanc was similar to those I had in Italy, with a light mouth feel yet infused with flavor. Bravo on the dish. I believe this dish sums up the potential of the restaurant.
The porcini Parmesan crusted veal chop was my final course. My worry upon ordering was of an overly crusted Parmesan top. No burnt or sour flavors from over crusted cheese or charred mushrooms. The flavor of the veal and the roasting were still apparent. Perhaps slightly more salty than I would have cared for, borderline over-salted for me, but easily corrected by scrapping a little crust away from the meat. I wasn’t afraid to pick up the bone and finish of the roasted pieces at the table which should give you some idea of how much I liked my veal chop. I ordered a side of Brussels sprouts with bacon in a light agrodolce to accompany my veal. Good choice, the agrodolce was not cloying or sour, just right. I was satisfied with my main course and side of sprouts.
I enjoyed my evening at Epic. For being a little over 3 months old, this restaurant shows promise. The gnocchi showed inspiration, technique, and well balanced flavors and textures. Follow that combination, and Epic will live up to its name. Yes it’s new, it’s hot, it’s the flame that burns brightly. I just hope it doesn’t burn too quickly.