Reviews: Nellcôte and Balena
ROCK AND ROLL: Nellcôte makes Randolph the official epicenter of glam; Balena breezes onto Halsted as the essence of casual cool
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Nellcôte’s Twitter bio goes like this: “Our impertinent take on refined dining. Rock ’n’ roll bohemian chic. A defiant return to glamour . . . a sexy and high-energy nightspot with absolutely no pretense.” Freud would have a field day with the contradictions in that self-portrayal. I’ll just say I find it a bit much for what is essentially an ambitious small-plate restaurant. Conversely, Balena’s terse description on Twitter (“Italian inspired. Honest cooking. Now open”) are the words of a restaurant that knows just where it stands and refuses to gush. The contrast between these two establishments, and their respective self-images, plays out beyond the social media arena.
Let’s start with Nellcôte, a glittering debauch that was made for West Randolph Street. Its inspiration, the notorious Villa Nellcôte on the Côte d’Azur, housed Nazis during World War II and the Rolling Stones in 1971; Keith Richards described the mansion as Versailles upstairs and Dante’s Inferno downstairs. Nellcôte never reaches those heights or depths, but the 9,000-square-foot baroque wonderland flows with Schonbek chandeliers, Italian marble, and 18-foot-tall wrought-iron gates. A balcony and DJ booth are not just for show: The space turns into a late-night party on weekends. But the smart folks behind Nellcôte—Jared Van Camp, John Warken, Chris Dexter, and Chris Freeman of Old Town Social—avoid a too-literal affiliation with the mansion (“Would you care for a heroin booth or a Gestapo banquette?”), and the vibe is less defiant than it is tastefully elegant. In other words, Richards would have trashed it in a week.
Chef Van Camp likes to call Nellcôte’s offerings “European soul food,” which apparently means an emphasis on pizza and pasta. It’s a sensible focus because, as the staff loves to remind patrons, the kitchen grinds its own flour with a custom-made mill from North Carolina. And all the extra work pays off. The glorious whole-wheat pizza crusts are blistered and dusty-bottomed with a tremendous doughy chew: Get a rich pie with fontina, mild black truffles, and a sunny-side-up organic egg that primes your taste buds for all that follows. Pastas demand the same attention. Crème fraîche clings to toothy taglioni with Champagne, oysters, and chives as if unwilling to part with even one precious noodle. I felt the same way.
If only the rest of the menu were as reliable. Loved the delicate halibut brandade with its gilded cap of sturgeon caviar; hated the skate wing, a mushy fiasco that was more baked than Keith himself. A grilled lamb loin and braised lamb neck with perfect gnocchi, olive marmalade, Manchego wisps, and sofrito hit me just right. The dry-aged Illinois beef rib eye would have been lovely if the runner hadn’t poured on France’s entire gross domestic product of truffle jus.
The real issue, though, is that none of Nellcôte’s small plates—which are, in fact, served on enormous Fortessa plates—are particularly shareable. Our runners randomly placed dishes before diners, only to have the waitress rearrange them in the center of the table, as if that suddenly made them shareable. In fairness, the prices are good by Randolph Street standards.
Of course, the cocktail program is a big deal, with likable concoctions such as Bacardi 8 with fresh pineapple, lime, apricot liqueurs, and fleur de sel. And the tiny dessert list gets a lot right, in particular the dreamy chocolate parfait and the baba au rhum with heady bachelor’s jam (basically, liquor-soaked fruit preserves) and crème chantilly. In general, servers were well-meaning, eager, and painfully needy. (“Did you take a bite yet? How did you like it? Great! I’ll be right here if you need anything. . . . Did I mention we mill our own flour?”) When it comes to service, approachability is nice; codependency is not.
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