Among anticipated Chicago restaurant openings in recent years, this one ranks with the highest-profile, alongside Grant Achatz’s Next, Curtis Duffy’s Grace and Rick Bayless’ Xoco. The reason? The boldfaced culinary name attached to Nico belongs to Paul Kahan, who in May won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef, equivalent to being named the best chef in the country. (Kahan shared the award with David Chang, the New York chef behind the Momofuku franchise.)
Fifteen years ago, restaurant group One Off Hospitality, in which Kahan is a partner, opened its first property, the West Loop restaurant Blackbird. That and its sequels — six establishments in all — are among the busiest and most critically lauded bars and restaurants in the Midwest. The group’s progression of restaurants, though, has receded in formality — from Blackbird’s fine dining gravitas to Avec’s communal seating, to The Publican’s beer hall setting, to Big Star’s taco-and-whiskey honky tonk.
Which makes Nico, a 125-seat, two-story restaurant in the poshest slice of downtown (formerly the Sutton Place Hotel space at Bellevue Pl. and Rush St.), an interesting next move for One Off, whose West Loop and Wicker Park businesses operate with a decidedly not-in-downtown fine-dining mentality. Still, Kahan said he’s aiming for “unpretentious elegance, a lot of it based on the pure simplicity of the food. Italian food is the most pared down, simple and intriguing of any cuisine in the world.”
While Kahan sets the culinary tone of his restaurants, heading Nico’s kitchen will be Erling Wu-Bower, currently of Avec. His entire career has been with One Off, with previous stints at The Publican and Publican Quality Meats. (Perry Hendrix, formerly of Custom House, will take over as chef at Avec.) Wu-Bower has spent the last month in Philadelphia working under Marc Vetri, among the most highly regarded chefs of Italian cuisine in America. Wu-Bower said the food will center around handmade pastas, crostinis, crudos and grilled seafood. As part of menu research, Wu-Bower, Kahan and their team are currently in the Italian region of Puglia, the boot’s heel, on a 10-day tasting trip.
Nico is, indeed, named for the German art-rock ingenue who most famously collaborated with The Velvet Underground on its debut album. The restaurant name was conceived by One Off partner Donnie Madia, who said it was as much about the singer’s sultry mystique as it was the sound of the name itself, and the aesthetics of how the letters appeared on paper.