The Other Critics

Vettel Likes Food, Gets Made at Nellcôte; Kramer Goes Undercover to Crack Balena

Housemade pasta at Nellcôte.
Housemade pasta at Nellcôte. Photo: courtesy Nellcôte

“[Jared] Van Camp, executive chef at 2-month-old Nellcôte, creates thoughtful, approachable and affordable Provence-inspired dishes in an atmosphere that seems to scream, ‘Forget the food; let’s party!’” That’s how Phil Vettel sums up his review, in which he seems to have wanted to give the glam-rock spot three stars, but ultimately couldn’t look past some missteps and the general not-for-him-ness of the place’s loud and raucous rock star atmosphere. Still, there’s genuine praise for much of the menu: “Cliche-free pasta dishes include orecchiette with a rustic mix of braised octopus, white beans and a daring jolt of anisette, and radiatore with duck-leg confit, hen of the woods mushrooms and duck cracklings (crispy bits of skin). Frog leg-filled raviolini arrive en brodo, swimming in an intense black-garlic consomme.” And there’s this frank note: “Service was extremely good on my visits, but it was abundantly clear that I had been recognized.” [Tribune]

Julia Kramer also finds Nellcôte promising but a bit confounding, especially in light of several things declining a bit between her two visits. She does manage to come up with a pair of survival guidelines worth committing to memory: “One: The Best Pizzas at Nellcôte Are the Most Unusual Ones. This explains why—despite the fact that the puffy, pleasantly light crust was undercooked—the combination of charred ramps, taleggio cheese and smoked guanciale still made for a better pizza than a perfectly blistered crust spread with a flat combination of fennel sausage and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. Two: The Best Pastas at Nellcôte Are the Simplest Ones. This is key, because of all the things I tried at Nellcôte, my favorite is probably the most elemental: gorgeously made spaghetti, truly al dente, tossed with bits of hot Calabrian chili and dusted with mojama (salt-cured tuna). This is Van Camp’s food at its best—understated, traditional, honest.” [TOC]

Kramer’s happier about another big pasta palace, Balena: “I can’t remember the last restaurant I’ve so looked forward to returning to. I’m going back for the mackerel, smoked to impart a compelling meatiness and paired with a soft-cooked egg, bread crumbs and aioli. I couldn’t pass up the whole-roasted fish, crisp skin revealing moist flesh, topped with an inspired peanut gremolata that sets it apart from any competitor. The menu is more or less Italian, yet it somehow works that Pandel serves Korean-style short ribs, pounded thin and brilliantly played against strips of candied orange peel.” But it must be recognizing critics week, because she notes that she was all but red-carpeted by co-owner Rob Katz on her first visit, and as a result, went full Ruth Reichl on her second with a fake wig and makeup: “The service wasn’t atrocious, but it was definitely M.I.A… as far as service in a month-old restaurant goes, I’ve had considerably worse.” [TOC]

Mike Sula finds a lot to like at Allium, beginning with the “playful subversiveness” of the redecoration of the once soberly posh Seasons. He likes chef Kevin Hickey’s “allusions to the lowbrow eats endemic to his hometown,” such as the deconstructed Chicago hot dog or “a tip of the hat to our friends to the north as Hickey melts cheese curds in a classic, buttery French aligot, the mashed spuds lending a likable elasticity you can practically bite through. And then there’s the puffy bacon buns, a tribute to the highly coveted original version at the Lithuanian Bridgeport Bakery.” Though the bar, by comparison, is a disappointment, and the menu seems too wide-ranging to be fully coherent, he admires the hotel’s willingness to indulge Hickey’s local bent: “if Allium’s Chicagocentricity is lost on travelers unfamiliar with the local landscape, it’s still a remarkably personal menu for a hotel restaurant. When you think of it, more hotels should consider it an ambassadorial duty to introduce visitors to the character and terroir of the region in this way.” [Reader]

Kenny Zuckerberg writes the kind of compare-and-contrast we love for the way it illuminates the dining scene in a post called “Four Bowls, A Crock And A Jar.” Actually more than one seems to be a crock: salmon pasta at Benny’s, a place he has liked before, “was up there with the worst of Buca di Maggiano Garden,” while chilaquiles at Xoco consisted of a “crock of tortillas [swimming] in liquid salsa, the two never coming together to improve one another.” Clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster “should have been called bacon-cream soup,” while a pasta dish, “as with much of what I’ve had at Boka… was just too ‘refined’ for me.” So were there any winners? Seafood ramen at Ginza cured “nausea and regret stemming from that Benny’s bowl,” while a pea and risotto dish at Markethouse leads him to call for more appreciation for a restaurant under a cloud: “It’s a shame that this place is where it is and doesn’t do much to compensate, because the food always outshines the setting… for standard hotel-dining it’s probably not bad; it’s just that the restaurant absolutely screams WE’RE IN A HOTEL at you the whole time.” [Fuckerberg on Food]

Another roundup we liked: Titus’ commemoration of fried foods of note for 4/20, which seems to be some sort of holiday that makes people hungry. He has high praise for fried stuff ranging from the Oyster Po’ Boy sliders at GT Fish & Oyster (“They take a plump fresh fried oyster and top it with kimchi and peanuts”) to the chicken at Rip’s Tavern in Ladd, to the fish taco at Del Seoul (“It tastes better than it looks and I think she’s a thing of beauty”). Quit bogartin’ that fried shrimp, man. [Smokin’ Chokin’ and Chowing With the King]

At Chicagoist, Melissa Wiley hits Storefront Company— which has been somewhat overlooked in reviews so far— for brunch, admiring how Bryan Moscatello’s farm to table food is less pretentious than it sounds on the menu: “Don’t let these longwinded, virtually rococo names mislead you, however. Storefront is not fussy… everything we sampled proved as light as the décor, with its gleaming black tiles outlined in white tuck pointing.” But such artful simplicity does come with a price: “All told, with coffee and orange juice (sans sparkling wine), our tab hovered around $60, which was not unreasonable considering how darn tasty everything was, but a tender reminder that we had feasted upon somewhat rarefied locally sourced ingredients prepared by the expert hands of a former Food & Wine Best New Chef.” [Chicagoist]

Christy Prahl at Gapers Block seems to have enjoyed EL Ideas, to judge by calling it “in the top ten dining experiences of my 46 years,” but curiously says “the food isn’t the (main) reason to go.” More than the food, it’s being part of the process of the restaurant: “As a person who spent her childhood in her grandmother’s restaurant kitchen in Watermill, New York, stealing packets of sesame sticks and melba toast as my sister and I scurried underfoot to the consternation of the short-tempered chefs, it was a pleasure to be invited back into that kind of nerve center. For those interested in how form and function marry up, how process and product dally inseparably with one another, this is a window into an unforgettable culinary experience.” [Gaper’s Block]

Our review of Rick Bayless in Cascabel is here. [Sky Full of Bacon]

Vettel Likes Food, Gets Made at Nellcôte; Kramer Goes Undercover to Crack Balena