Right now Paul Kahan is the most dominant force in Chicago restaurants (see “Power 100”). For 17 years, he has quietly, steadily ascended to that throne by developing ideas that he and his crew at One Off Hospitality Group (including Donnie Madia, Eduard Seitan, Terry Alexander, and Kim Galban) call “culturally relevant.” Once they’ve sharpened a concept to a precise edge and made it their own, they unleash it on Chicago, at which point it becomes everyone’s.
They did so with unpretentious farm-to-table dining at Blackbird in 1997, communal small plates at Avec in 2003, craft cocktails at the Violet Hour (2006), a pork-heavy Belgian beer hall at Publican (2008), artisanal tacos at Big Star (2009), and a butcher shop/sandwicheria at Publican Quality Meats (2012). Now that they’ve set their brains on rustic Italian seafood at Nico Osteria, you have to believe that's going to be the next big thing.
I recently revisited One Off’s first spot, the austere James Beard darling Blackbird, then I checked out Nico, a Gold Coast rave with a wall of living tropical plants in the lounge and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the frisky vertex of Rush Street’s Viagra Triangle. The goal: to find a bridge from one restaurant to the other.
Any mature chef knows that the best dish is usually the simplest. Kahan internalized that lesson early in his career. He’s found a kindred spirit in Blackbird chef de cuisine David Posey (he took the reins when Michael Sheerin left in 2011), who integrates fresh ingredients in seamless ways and first draws every dish on paper to help him better understand it. “The drawings help me fully realize a dish from flavor development to plating,” says Posey. The restaurant, with a minimalistic aesthetic that has served it well, thrives under his back-to-basics reign.
The open kitchen in the back goes almost unnoticed, unlike the one at Nico, where patrons sit at a bar and interact with the chefs. It’s as though stunners such as a grilled octopus with bursting pomegranate seeds and curled toasted garlic crisps—a perfect dish—get handed down from on high to the stylish staff and then to you.
Such treasures, deceptive in their effortlessness and brilliant in design, populate Posey’s menus. From amuse-bouche (perch tempura with pickled cauliflower on a dab of seaweed aïoli) to mignardise (a tantalizing checkerboard of banana caramel and macha tea squares), your meal appears as though produced by an art director.
But beneath every creation, you can feel Blackbird’s steady heartbeat. One entrée, a composition of three circles—one of roasted elk loin, another of saffron-quince purée, and a third of shredded rutabaga topped by Gruyère and breadcrumbs—proves as satiating as it is lovely. When Posey serves a chicken breast and leg, he poaches them in schmaltz (chicken fat) until crisp and golden, then mates them with a bright soured-carrot butter, sunchokes, and popped wild rice. No knife necessary.
With all the exploration, the kitchen is bound to lapse periodically. On one visit, dry and pasty oat dumplings clogged up a peanut consommé with charred and pickled broccoli and a purée of chilies, garlic, and dates. But even the misfires, such as pastry chef Dana Cree’s attempts to turn cheeses into gorgeous full-fledged desserts, remain wholly original. Order the sensuous bourbon-poached pear with a Kilgus Farmstead cream posset (a pudding-like concoction named for a medieval English drink) and caramelized phyllo scattered with hazelnut shards. It’s one of the restaurant’s finest desserts ever. A lesser operation might have devolved into self-parody by now; Blackbird keeps refining its craft.
Like a restless band that reinvents itself with every new release, One Off Hospitality has strayed far from its roots at Nico but still rocks out. The coastal Italian menu doesn’t look epic—lots of housemade pasta and fresh seafood, raw and cooked—yet even modest-sounding offerings become rich feasts for the customers packing all 108 seats.
Nico stocks its minestrone with roasted calamari, head-on shrimp, and chickpeas—a rewarding brew closer to bouillabaisse than its humble name implies. Chef Erling Wu-Bower, plucked from Mediterranean small-plate nirvana Avec, tricks diners into believing they’re consuming comfort food, loading a thick Neapolitan-style ragu with soft braised pork belly while throwing in subversive stuff like swordfish meatballs and sartù di riso (a Neapolitan rice timbale).
A few dishes enter the pantheon of instant classics: A smoky grilled quail al tonnato plays the citrus tang of a blood orange off a mayonnaise-based sauce before the pickly flash of truffled peach olives hurtles it into the stratosphere. And the impeccably fresh whole wild branzino, which swam in the Atlantic just days before getting crusted with salt and served with chanterelles, Zante currants (tart dried grapes similar to raisins), and a hell of a lot of butter, may be the best fish in Chicago. “This is what we’re going to be famous for,” predicted my poised waiter. The same astute gentleman pushed the Nico Torte, Amanda Rockman’s heroic monument of sabayon, pumpkin, and plums soaked in Earl Grey crème mixed with vanilla beans, orange zest, and brandy.
The only downsides here involve bloated Gold Coast prices ($24 for a tiny tuna tasting; $12 for a simple escarole and gem lettuce salad), less-than-gracious behavior behind the hectic hostess stand, and an underdeveloped wine list. (The offbeat orange-toned Trebbiano/Malvasia 2010 Monastero Suore Cistercensi, made by nuns in Lazio, Italy, did unfold nicely after the spiteful nose faded.) Quibbles. Already, Nico Osteria delivers a blast of pleasure rivaling anything One Off Hospitality has unveiled. Yet.
After eating at Nico twice and Blackbird twice, I strained to find any clue that they sprang from the same brains. That is, unless you count overlapping ingredients, such as tiny Nantucket Bay scallops, which get seared and bathed in an onion soubise with Asian pear and roasted kabocha at Blackbird and are served raw with roasted cauliflower and chili oil at Nico. Two very divergent fates.
When I finally asked Kahan to draw me an emotional map linking Blackbird to Nico, he cited the usual restaurant code—attention to detail, hospitality, good people. Then he said something intriguing: “To the naked eye, it would be hard to say that these places are connected. But there are all these modern dishes out there with seven kinds of carrots and four kinds of flowers and fennel pollen that are beautiful but fall short in the soul department. I just want to eat soulful and smart.”
Yes. Every Kahan restaurant, regardless of genre or price point, pulses with soul and smarts. If Blackbird resembles a dive into a cold, pristine swimming pool, bracing and mind clearing, Nico represents a luscious soak in a Jacuzzi. Whether or not the two experiences have anything in common beyond water, both feel great.