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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Things are a little more grounded at Balena, the latest production from the Boka Restaurant Group (Perennial Virant, GT Fish & Oyster, Girl & the Goat). For one thing, the redo of the Landmark space across from Steppenwolf has a breezy, inclusive feel. It’s lofty, with a cathedral ceiling and stone floors, and when the double doors in front are open, it feels like a welcoming Italian barn. On one visit, my guest asked for decaffeinated tea, and the waitress offered to run up the street to Boka and fetch some. Then she did. “It’s good to have friendly neighbors,” she said.
It’s also good to have Chris Pandel in your kitchen; he brings the same agreeable style that he does to The Bristol. Balena, like Nellcôte, places a heavy emphasis on Italy’s flour-related arts. Obscure pasta preps, such as tajarin (a thin Piedmontese egg-dough noodle) and strozzapreti (which look like long rolled towels), achieve varying degrees of success. We didn’t care for the heavy-handed canestri, tough little ridged baskets interspersed with blunt hunks of duck liver and hazelnuts, but the chili-tinged orecchiette with kale and breadcrumbs got a satisfying shot of lemon. And the half a dozen pseudo-Neapolitan pizzas have potential, especially a tempting mortadella beast with sprinkles of sausage, red onion, and mozzarella on a layer of pistachio pesto. Ours came lukewarm, and it was still good.
The Balena, a $26 platter of cured meats, cheeses, and breads, is bound to become a pretheatre tradition. You’ll find yourself mixing and matching, say, a crazy-salty paprika-cured pork with an Oregonzola served atop a honeycomb and scooping both up with roasted garlic semolina bread. Don’t miss the Korean-inspired grilled short ribs with charred oranges and Calabrian chilies or the wonderful seafood salad of briny skate wing, octopus, and mussels tossed with golden raisins and popping with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds.
Once you move into the heavier stuff, Balena really kicks into gear. A crispy-tender glazed duck leg comes with figs so deliciously soaked in amaro someone ought to call them a cab, and a lovely roasted loup de mer for two gets pampered with a peanut gremolata with orange, lemon, and lime zests. It’s as good as it sounds.
Amanda Rockman’s desserts bounce between crowd pleasers (affogato cinnamon doughnuts, a vanilla gelato sundae) and group orgasms like an ultrasmooth chocolate budino that mingles amaro, cocoa nibs, and fior di latte mozzarella. The vision at Balena is hardly new, but the place is so self-assured and pleasant—and staffed by people you could imagine sitting down and eating with you—that originality is beside the point. If Nellcôte is still searching for a way to achieve its grand ambitions, Balena is already there.
Photograph: Anna Knott