by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost
833 W. Randolph
Chicago, IL 60607
5pm-2am, Sunday through Friday
Reservation Line: 312-432-0500
After visiting Nellcôte back in May and sampling about an eighth of the menu (all of which was damn good), I do wish Executive Chef Jared Van Camp and his partners in Element Collective would do one thing: open a small takeout location next door for those incredible pizzas. Honestly, for $11, the one with the fennel sausage, hen of the woods mushrooms and both parmigiano and mozzarella cheeses was worth it’s price (if not a little more). The other pizzas, of which I need to go back and try (my next trip is going to be with friends and we’re just ordering pizzas), such as the one with d.o.p. tallegio, Illinois ramps and smoked guanciale or the manilla clams, green onions, chilies and creme fraiche are supposed to be magnificent as well. The crust is exceptional: light, fluffy, just the right amount of chew. The reason they are so good, besides the fact that the kitchen knows what the hell it’s doing, probably has to do with Van Camp milling his own locally sourced flour in house and the pizzas getting cooked in a wood burning oven imported from Italy. Going the extra mile, at least here, does make a difference.
The room itself at Nellcôte is stunning. Its inspiration comes from Villa Nellcôte, an ornate 16-room mansion on the waterfront of Villefranche-sur-Mer in the Côte d’Azur region of southern France where the Rolling Stones recorded their historic album Exile on Main St. The sessions were filled with debauchery – drugs, drinking, sex, thievery, sometimes food, and sometimes even music. As Van Camp is a huge music fan, particularly of the Rolling Stones, it’s not surprising that music, particularly their music made such an impact on him. The shocking thing is how far the inspiration went.
There’s white Italian marble, wrought iron gates, crystal chandeliers (loads of ‘em) and Parisian herringbone wood floors (examine the two pictures above – looks to be the same exact flooring – or a close proximity thereof). Everything about Nellcôte screams expensive, but then you take a look at the menu and there’s not a damn thing over $15. Then you think, well the portions must be a teaspoon of something on a 1-inch cracker, right? Not at all. It’s not Midwest portions to be sure, but for the money you’re paying, you’re getting far more on the plate than most other restaurants of Nellcôte‘s stature serve.
Back to that milled flour. It’s also going into the bread and the pastas they make in house as well. Van Camp’s got an antique bronze pasta extruder, and gets his die installation pieces from all over the country and in Italy, France and Spain. So the pasta in that Squid Ink Strozzapreti (Maine lobster, mint, fresno chilies, pine nut pesto) is done right there on the premises. You can absolutely taste the difference between Van Camp’s pasta and many other places doing their own. I had the Hand-Cut Taglioni – champagne, oysters, creme fraiche, chives and loved every bite of it. I haven’t tasted better oysters in a meal since I was down in New Orleans a few years ago.
I don’t want to forget about the cocktails coming out of the kitchen – made by the chefs themselves. I tried the Bourbon (bulleit bourbon, green chartreuse, housemade peach preserves, basil, peach bitters) and, though I’m not much of a drinker, there was a noticeable depth to this cocktail. As far as crafted cocktails of the new era I put what Michael Simon is doing at Acadia a pace ahead, but what’s happening at Nellcôte is damn good.
What Van Camp, Element Collective and the staff at Nellcôte looks, feels and tastes absolutely right. There’s a lot of careful attention paid to all aspects of the restaurant, but when it comes down to it, the most important one is the food and that is head and shoulders above all else. You can walk out of Nellcôte having spent around $100 (don’t forget to tip) on a date and had plenty to drink and eat and be satisfied on many levels. Van Camp is doing really interesting, good food, with no pretension at a price point that is far more accommodating to the average diner than most new places popping up in Chicago. And, he’s sourcing food locally, he’s taking steps to do more things in house (like he has done at Old Town Social with the charcuterie program, winning several awards to boot), and he’s pushing people’s tastes with interesting creations. Nellcôte is a definite must visit restaurant for your next meal.
Below is an interview I did with Nellcôte Executive Chef Jared Van Camp via e-mail.
Jared Van Camp: The idea began with this concept of a paradigm shift in luxury embodied in a modern day restaurant setting. My restaurant partner, Christopher Dexter, mentioned to me that The New York Times had announced the re-release of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., and coincidentally, I was reading A Season in Hell with The Rolling Stones by Robert Greenfield. The book tells the story of the album’s creation, the grueling sessions that produced the legendary riffs and rhythms as well as the villa’s never-ending party. From then on, our restaurant collective became captivated with the story’s luxurious grit meets glam setting and the characters involved. That was the drop off point for us, and it was not long after that we recognized Villa Nellcôte was the embodiment of everything we imagined for our new establishment.
Describe the opulence of the space (and for that matter the cost of putting it together) compared with the relatively inexpensive menu. I have to say that I was shocked at how low things were priced considering the space.
Jared Van Camp: Going back to this paradigm shift of luxury – regardless of the economy, people still want the same extravagant and unique experience, however, they don’t want to pay an ungodly price. Nellcôte offers just that. When you walk in, you’re somewhat awestruck at the venue’s sophisticated aura, yet the menu and pricing is approachable, and the service is friendly and casual to a certain extent. It’s old money meets a more laid back luxurious setting.
What has been the impact that the Rolling Stones in general and Exile on Main St. (and the story of the album’s recording) specifically made on you?
Jared Van Camp: Music plays a huge part in everything we do as a restaurant collective, and most importantly in the heart of the house, the kitchen. Not a day goes by where my partners and I aren’t talking about a new release or concert coming to town. Music is always top of mind. In fact, before anything else, the first purchase I made for the kitchen in Nellcôte was a stereo. I’ve staged in kitchens where music was not allowed, and that’s fine, but it’s definitely not the kind of environment I’d like to work in.
What prompted the decision to mill your own flour? Talk about some of the other special features at your fingertips in the kitchen (pizza oven, extruder, etc).
Jared Van Camp: I generally live by an “everything made in-house” credo, and when dissecting the holes in our local food scene I came up with a few main problems that greatly affect this standard, one of them being the production of locally refined wheat flour. Despite being surrounded by wheat fields, up until now, Chicago has been unable to use locally sourced wheat flour. I went to extreme lengths to fill this singular void in the Chicago food scene by milling our own superfine double zero flour with local heritage wheat sourced from regional farmers. Nellcôte is the first restaurant in the US to mill its own flour in house daily down to ’00′ fineness.
Describe the process of menu/dish creation for Nellcôte from the early beginning to the restaurant’s opening and into the future (the trial and error process and refining of the menu).
Jared Van Camp: It was my intent to craft an “obsessively house made” and locally focused menu—an impertinent take on refined dining, if you will. Taking influence from my travels to France, Italy and Spain, I source all of the ingredients and products exclusively from the Midwest. The trial and error is definitely the high point of creating the menus in all my restaurants. It’s exhilarating, and the part I love most about my job as executive chef.
What can a guest expect when coming to Nellcote in terms of food, ambiance and service?
Jared Van Camp: A guest can expect to scratch their head when they first enter Nellcôte – You’re immediately greeted with this glamour meets grit atmosphere; refined & sophisticated, yet unpretentious. It’s a bit unexpected, yet completely refreshing and approachable. The service style is a little looser, and the music is a little louder.
You’re a partner in Nellcôte and Old Town Social as well as the Executive Chef (in addition to the company’s location in San Diego) – How do you manage running multiple restaurants? What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses so far in your roles?
Jared Van Camp: I try not to sleep.
Strength: conveying the restaurants vision to multiple people. Being able to trust and surround myself with competent individuals, while learning from them as well.
Weakness: being too obsessed about it (ideas, dishes, ingredients, concepts…)– it can be a complete detriment to the creative process.
Talk about the person that inspired you the most in your life. How did they inspire you and what did they teach you (about life in general or as a chef in particular)?
Jared Van Camp: There is definitely a handful of people to be incredibly thankful for—My father (Jack Van Camp), Paul Kahan, Rick Tramonto, my high school football coach and all of the partners of my restaurant group, Element Collective, who I learn from on a daily basis and push me to give my best continuously.
What’s the vibe in the back of the house? Is it antithetical to the front of the house during a service or is there a lot of clamor?
Jared Van Camp: There is a lot of clamor, but with that being said, we know when it’s time for business. It can be quite loud, and we laugh constantly, but we all know when it’s show time. At the heart, I want my coworkers and chefs to have a good time and enjoy working with me in the kitchen. I have 2 rules: 1. Cooks should be able to drink free coffee. 2. Cooks should enjoy their job and have fun at work.
What made you want to work in this industry? What made you continue to work in this industry?
Jared Van Camp: I began as an art student. Long story short, I broke my neck in a car accident and was forced to suffer a brush with reality — which slapped me right in the face with a lump of monetary debt. I had to make a choice and go after a career that was going to produce a greater paycheck than art had to offer me. So, I decided to cook. I enrolled in a culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina and the next day I had a job. At the time, it was a very natural decision and felt right. Not to mention, I’m a huge fan of eating, so cooking seemed a natural progression.
If a band you love makes a rare stop in town on a work night do you make plans to see them or no? And what are some bands you would do that for if you did?
Jared Van Camp: This is always a battle. I was faced with this exact situation not too long ago. A favorite of mine, Alabama Shakes, came to town during the second week we were open at Nellcôte, so of course I couldn’t leave the kitchen to go. These guys are really taking off on a national level, and that may have been my only chance to see them live in such a small, intimate venue. I’ll kick myself in the ass for years to come, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and realize what’s best for the kitchen.
A similar situation happened back in culinary school — Morphine was playing a show the night before my final. My roommate went to the concert while I stayed behind to study. I loved this band, and it killed me to miss out on the opportunity. Even worse, a week later, the lead singer of Morphine passed away. On the other hand, I took the final and graduated; my roommate didn’t.
Best concert experience ever? Worst?
Jared Van Camp: Having attended tons of concerts in my life, I can now say that the privilege of being backstage is one of the great perks and makes for the most amazing concert experiences.
All-time best: Seeing Luther Allison and Jimmy Rodgers with my dad, who was a photographer and writer for a music publication, before they both passed away. My dad was able to get me in to the shows with him before I was of age, and many times, I had the chance to sit in on interviews with him. It was incredible.
Worst: Pavement. One of my all-time favorite bands, but, notorious for putting on awful shows. The one I saw was one of these. Big disappointment. However, I’ve seen Stephen Malkmus several times since and they have been great performances.
What album would you take with you to a deserted island and why?
Jared Van Camp: My go-to vinyl album would have to be Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix.
If you could be one musician, who would it be and why?
Jared Van Camp: I’d want to be want to be more of a Gil Evans or Leonard Bernstein type — being more behind the band and directing.
Do you play any instruments?
Jared Van Camp: I used to attempt to play the guitar, piano and harmonica, but it’s been a few years since I picked up any instrument.
What is your personal favorite dish on the menu at Nellcôte? At Old Town Social?
Jared Van Camp: Margarita Pizza — Nellcôte
Sausage and Waffles – Old Town Social
What restaurants in the Chicago are your favorite to visit when you have a chance (low, middle or high end)?
Jared Van Camp: Big Star, The Bristol, Urban Belly, avec, Girl and the Goat, Lula, Spacca Napoli – to name a few.