Having mentioned that the planning for this trip to Chicago was a bit last minute, it was also a trip during which I didn’t particularly want to ‘break the bank’ as I was just returning from an over-the-top visit to New York and would be leaving for a ten day family trip to Canada two weeks later…besides, Next El Bulli was going to cost enough. Thankfully fortunate to be in a position where ‘break the bank’ is relative and also visiting a city where the mid-range dining scene is quite robust there were obviously many contenders, but for the first night of my visit the decision was made to visit Nellcôte with my friend Rich (windyfoodie.com).
A relative newcomer in the bourgeoning Fulton Market, and opening to somewhat mixed reviews only weeks before my arrival, Nellcôte is the creation of Jared Van Camp – a young chef but a veteran of Chicago’s food scene as well as one of its strongest proponents of the Locavore/Farm to Table movement, a concept quite prominent on the small plates menu. Reportedly a multi-million dollar renovation of the space previously housing Marche and at least according to early reports money well spent plus a menu featuring a number of enticing dishes a reservation was made for 5:15pm – strikingly one of only two open slots on their stuffed reservations list (the other at 11:00pm.)
Still not particularly hungry given my breakfast and lunch but having spent the better part of 2 hours walking the streets of Chicago my arrival at Nellcôte would precede their opening the doors and waiting for my friend I saw multiple folks walking in and out the back with bags of vegetables, meats, and an enormous block of cheese. With workers arriving and the first patrons walking through the doors just after 5:00 it would not be long before my friend arrived and with greetings exchanged we entered through the revolving front door to a space just as brilliant as I’d expected, a literal wall of lavender greeting us.
Progressing further into the space and subsequently greeted by a pair of hostesses at an iron gate it would be mere seconds before we were escorted to a high top in the middle of the room and asking if perhaps a seat by the window could be accommodated instead we were promptly moved to the front of the room, at this point bathed in light and showing off the dramatic ceilings, ornate candelabras, and copious smattering of chandeliers. Obviously a space meant to impress the best comparison I could come up with was a modernized and stylized Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors – not a bad place to be compared to, and complete with mirrors for a crowd that would later consist of pretty people trying very hard to look pretty while dining.
Noting the atmosphere, one clearly focused on style and ‘scene’ (open until 2am, with a DJ coming on later in the evening,) I will say that even before sitting down I had wondered just how much substance would be delivered by the front of the house but after warm welcome we were handed off to a pleasant young woman named Ruth who would initially put my mind at ease despite utilizing much of the verbiage I’ve come to expect from a ‘hip’ spot – clever and witty, everything ‘sooo good’ or ‘my favorite,’ and plenty of adjectives delivered with a big smile. Having heard some initial reviews claim that service was not up to snuff I think it bears mention here that both Rich and I found Ruth to be a very good server throughout the evening, making recommendations both on the Nellcôte menu and other local favorites all while serving what seemed to be at least fifteen tables.
With the menu having undergone some changes from the online opening-week version we were left to our decisions for a few moments before Ruth would return with what she described as the night’s amuse – a selection of crisp crudités with garlic aioli; all organic, all fresh and snappy, and an interesting choice I’d have not expected but clearly suggesting Van Camp’s vision for the menu. With decisions on food not yet made we instead opted to order a cocktail each and with this order delivered to the bar Ruth would head to another table as the room went from nearly empty to nearly full within forty-five minutes of opening.
With the suggestion of 2-3 sharable plates per person and orders placed it would not be long before our cocktails would arrive, and with Ruth attending to other tables it was here that service issues began. Having myself ordered a lovely and aromatic cocktail named “Rum – Bacardi 8, Fresh Pineapple, Lime, Apricot Liqueur” while my dining partner opted for another cocktail focused on house-made preserves the two cocktails were delivered without a word and literally placed at the center of the table as though we were to guess which was which – something we did successfully, but seemingly an odd choice that would unfortunately recur throughout the night as not one dish was presented with a single detail by the back waiters while Ruth was busily working at other tables.
Sipping our beverages and catching up it would not be long before plates started to arrive from the kitchen and having been told that items would be “brought in waves like a tapas restaurant’ we weren’t surprised when the first pair was delivered, both dishes featuring the much discussed house ground flour…but we were caught a bit off guard when the second pair arrived thirty seconds later literally filling our table with food.
For the first of these items, the $3 bread basket (or plate, as it were,) we were presented with a baguette, a pull-apart brioche, and a focaccia along with lightly salted whipped cultured butter and on taking half of each warm sample…yep, it was bread, good bread even – but certainly not as interesting as that at Girl and the Goat (who also charges) or many other places who serve their bread for free. Perhaps I was expecting ‘too much’ given the big to-do about their flour, but if nothing else I guess the $3 charge prevented me from ‘filling up’ on bread.
Moving next to the second starch while Rich worked on another dish for fear of plates suffering as they cooled, “Radiatore – Duck Leg, Hen of Woods, Romano Beans, Cracklings” would immediately lend credence to the kitchen from my standpoint with the house made pasta springy, the light ‘sauce’ of pan jus from the mushrooms and duck savory and aromatic, and the admixture of savory confit and crispy skin adding a well orchestrated textural variety to the plate.
While I worked on my part of the pasta my dining companion began to portion out the “Lamb – Grilled Loin, Braised Neck, Gnocchi, Olive Marmalade, Manchego, Sofritto,” and while the loin itself was nicely prepared to a rosy medium-rare, the biggest surprise was the generous portion for a mere $12, particularly when accounting for the accoutrements. Assuredly a dish I would not have ordered on my own, this was perhaps the course of the evening in terms of showing off Van Camp’s skills as it took a number of intense ingredients including briny olives, rich cheese, and garlicky tomatoes and balanced them seamlessly with the supple meat and pillowy gnocchi to form something rustic in flavor but visually striking on the plate.
Having mentioned the ‘tapas’ concept and still working on our warm dishes while the fourth chilled plate sat awaiting our attention it was no more than fifteen minutes after the first four plates arrived that the next three appeared tableside – and to my ire, the servers actually thought they could ‘make room’ on the table…something that most certainly wasn’t going to happen, particularly as all three plates were hot, one was the most skill dependent of the evening, and one was a whole pizza.
With servers dismissed and ostensibly returning the food to the kitchen for the team, dogs, or garbage disposal as I made it clear I did not want the food simply kept warm or reheated it was finally here that Ruth would return and having heard what happened an apology was uttered, stating that the kitchen was still working on timing, and letting bygones be bygones we fished the warm selections and moved on to the $9 “Foie Gras Torchon – Brioche, Marasca Cherries, Pickled Pistachios.” Featuring another excellent portion for the price, particularly in the setting of a restaurant that charges for bread, this dish presented an approximately 2-2.5oz round of creamy liver rolled in lightly pickled nuts along with four hemisected candied cherries and rich buttery brioche. Obviously as a fan of foie gras this was a dish I was happy to see on the menu and having heard others say in the past that they’ve never tried duck or goose liver because of the price and the fact that they ‘weren’t sure if they would like it,’ this also doubles as a great way to try it without breaking the bank…sort of like “gateway foie,” if you will.
With our first round now finished and Ruth personally attending to our table at this point, a single dish arrived next and although conceptually a good idea, the $9 “Alaskan Halibut – Soft Scrambled Eggs, Piperade, Sturgeon Caviar” fell a little flat for the both of us, yet in different ways. Beginning first with the fish, roasted before a pan sear to finish, I personally felt it was nicely prepared in the context of the dish well flavored while Rich felt it overcooked and a bit dry. Moving next to the sauces, pleural, generally not a fan of intense red pepper I actually found the piperade to be the better of the who if only because ‘soft scrambled eggs’ did not seem to me like it would be a buttery custard sauce that although tasty in the way that butter, eggs, and cream generally mostly served to mute the subpar roe.
Having sent the previous attempts at our next two savories back, there would be a welcomed delay as we worked on the Halibut but with the kitchen clearly working at a very rapid pace and the restaurant necessarily wanting to turn tables given their fully booked reservations our last two savories would arrive just after 6:15 – an hour after we’d sat down. Beginning first with an $8 plate of “Saffron Risotto – Fava Beans, Bone Marrow, Pecorino, Gold Leaf,” suffice it to say that sending this plate back was probably the best idea of the night because what returned was on par with the best risotto I have ever had. Thick and rich, salty and aromatic, and toothsome yet smooth with the fava beans and marrow presenting a bold textural point/counterpoint…it was so good I didn’t even mind the superfluous gold leaf.
With the aforementioned pizza our final savory and, perhaps, ‘main course’ it was decided early on that the best way to see how well the oven treated the house-milled flour with the most simplistic pie on the menu – the “Buffalo Mozzarella Pizza – Tomato Sauce, Basil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil.” A Margherita by any other name and utilizing house made sauce from local tomatoes, fresh basil, and puddles of American Buffalo Mozz at the bargain price of $10 this dish was yet another example of the fine quality of ingredients on display at Nellcôte while the blistered and bubbly edges blistered and medium-wet center walked the fine line between crunch and chew, smoke and sweet.
Sated at this point with Rich leaving a single slice of pizza and myself declining to finish it as it had cooled and I was looking forward to the sweets, Ruth would again stop by with the nightly menu and after chatting with us a bit about a few local spots she really enjoyed two selections were made, although all six sounded quite good, and after a short time the duo would arrive. Beginning first with a $4 trio of house made ice creams, seemingly an uncharacteristic order for myself until you looked at the flavors – Salted Caramel, Stracciatella, and La Colombe – what arrived in that small metal bowl can only be described as slightly melted perfection at a price substantially smaller than the norm. Beginning first with creamy vanilla flecked with dark chocolate and moving next to the brine meets butter sweetness of the caramel and then finally to my favorite blend in perhaps its ideal form each quenelle was better than the last, my only complaint being that I wish they would been served colder or brought from the kitchn more quickly.
For our final taste of the evening, the Baba Au Rhum with Bachelor’s Jam and Crème Chantilly arrived alongside the trio of ice creams and noting right away that this was much more in the style of the Italian Bakery Baba than the thick French version popularized by Ducasse I was excited. Again featuring the house blend flour, this time in a sort of mushroom shaped popover with a buttery golden shell overlying an open spongy crumb my half of the baba went very quickly, each warm bite as good as the last with the dense cream and thick jam of dehydrated raisins and stone fruits proving a fine balance to the syrupy liquid filling the sponge. Probably a little more impressed by this dish than my friend I will note that while there is clearly rum present, this is a very sweet dessert and for those expecting a big wallop of booze you should probably look elsewhere.
My friend now full and myself nearing the same as we worked slowly on dessert and discussed our other dining plans for the weekend Ruth would return to check on us just after 7:00pm and stating that she could bring the check whenever she liked it would not be long before she returned, again apologizing for the timing issues of early on, and thanking us for coming in – a nice gesture and well deserving of a good tip considering how many tables she was covering and how inefficient the ancillary staff, particularly as the total bill came out to less than $60 per person for nine plates and two drinks, a veritable bargain and hopefully enough when combined with the bar scene to allow time for kinks to be worked out since much of the cuisine already matches the restaurant’s seemingly lofty ambitions.