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2-STAR DINING REVIEW

Mixed messages

Beyond the party atmosphere, Nellcote and chef Jared Van Camp crank out serious food

Phil Vettel

April 26, 2012

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Some day, I hope chef Jared Van Camp finds a suitably food-focused stage for his cooking, but that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.

Van Camp, executive chef at 2-month-old Nellcote, creates thoughtful, approachable and affordable Provence-inspired dishes in an atmosphere that seems to scream, "Forget the food; let's party!"

In that respect, Nellcote is very much like its sister property, Old Town Social (whose menu Van Camp also oversees), where the kitchen's very serious food struggles for recognition against OTS' hyperactive bar scene and eye-candy clientele. At Nellcote, in the Randolph Street address that once housed Marche (a see-and-be-seen magnet for the previous generation), the space is bigger, the energy more intense, the notice-me attire more, well, noticeable.

The restaurant takes its name from a seaside villa in the south of France, where the Rolling Stones recorded "Exile on Main Street" amid considerable wild living. That blend of luxury, creativity and salacity is what owners Chris Freeman and Chris Dexter are shooting for.

The restaurant is as gorgeous as the clientele. Antique chandeliers hang from the ceiling, herringbone hardwood and Italian marble cling to the floor. Walls are dressed with molding and eclectic art installations, and the whole effect is one of high-end glitz.

The bar is literally in the middle of the action, fronted by marble-topped bar-height tables and surrounded by wood-topped conventional tables. The best seats in the house are the first-come, first-served counter seats above the bar on the restaurant's upper level, which provide a crow's-nest view of the dressy scene below. I prefer the outlying tables, which offer some respite from the relentlessly loud music.

Against that clubby background, Van Camp provides a small-plates menu of some two dozen dishes, along with eight or nine pizzas and even the occasional special. The sheer number of dishes, I suspect, is what causes occasional problems (such as dishes that arrive at less-than-optimal temperatures) and can make the kitchen seem less focused.

My advice for dining at Nellcote is to order in shifts, calling for no more than three small plates at a time, so you can control, for instance, the order in which light and heavy dishes arrive. And frankly, the tables aren't large enough to support more than three plates at once; order too many dishes, and you'll spend as much time on plate arrangement as you will enjoying the food.

And Van Camp's food argues for contemplation. This is a chef who's milling his own flour, in-house, for his Neapolitan-inspired pizzas and handmade pastas. And believe me, the extra effort pays off, especially in those quick-fired pizzas (which cook in about 90 seconds in Nellcote's super-hot oven). The thin, slightly chewy crusts, the puffy edges — if I could make crusts like this, I'd die a happy man. The toppings range from traditional to esoteric, but my favorite combines tomato sauce, nicoise olives, onion paste and white anchovies — a pissaladiere, in essence. The pizza isn't on the menu anymore, but the kitchen will make one if you ask, and I recommend you do.

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.

Though plates never exceed $15, and most are less than $12, Van Camp delights in using luxury ingredients. There's a beautiful foie-gras torchon, for instance, poached in duck fat and served with pieces of toasted brioche and marasca cherries; at $9, it's considerably less than you'd pay elsewhere. Little pieces of bacon-wrapped rabbit loin, alongside rabbit sausage over a vivid-green olive emulsion. Fat, creamy sweetbreads with a sweet-sour mix of apple and pickled mustard. Beautiful squab breast and shredded leg meat with pickled rhubarb and cavolo nero (black Tuscan kale). Even the saffron risotto arrives with a fat square of gold-leaf-topped bone marrow in the center.

Simple, unaffected desserts are very enjoyable. There's a very nice version of baba, in which the cake isn't soaked in rum (which is tradition) but served over a "bachelor's jam" of seasonal fruits that have been macerated in rum (in an oak barrel, yet). House-made ice creams (salted caramel, coffee and stracciatella in my sample) are note-perfect. Lemon semifreddo is surrounded by pistachio emulsion; chocolate parfait, with hazelnut and caramel, arrives in an enamel footed bowl.

Service was extremely good on my visits, but it was abundantly clear that I had been recognized.

Nellcote's wide-ranging beverage program includes a list of six to seven signature cocktails, a three-page list of craft beers and a knowing wine list, curated by sommelier Jason Wagner (a good source for informed, unaffected advice, incidentally). Wagner will oversee the as-yet-unopened champagne lounge, a 50-seat space that will be a quiet haven.

Nellcote does not lack for ambition, nor commitment; putting this project together took a small fortune. Right now, however, the ambition sometimes exceeds what the kitchen can reasonably handle. Eventually, the kitchen will get stronger; in the meantime, a little judicious menu trimming might be in order.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.

Nellcote

833 W. Randolph St.; 312-432-0500; nellcoterestaurant.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Small plates $3-$15
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Noise: Conversation-challenged
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking

Ratings key:
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory

Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

pvettel@tribune.com