Few phrases quicken my pulse as reliably as "a new Paul Kahan restaurant." I've been counting the days since I heard that One Off Hospitality (Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander and Kahan, among others) was developing a rustic, seafood-focused Italian restaurant in the heart of the Gold Coast. And everything about Nico Osteria, which opened in early December, has justified that eager anticipation.
I love everything about this place. The simple, L-shaped dining room, more intimate than its 110-seat capacity would suggest, has the perfect light level, a muted glow that contrasts with the brilliantly lit open kitchen, a virtual stage on which a small army of chefs in bicycle caps deftly assemble dish after dish. Indeed, the best seats in the house are the counter stools that line the kitchen counter, especially those nearest the expediting station, where chef/patron interaction is at its zenith.
A strong beverage program is a must for a street-level restaurant in this neighborhood, and Nico obliges with a smart, well-edited wine list and a selection of Midwest craft beers (they easily could have gone Italian for Italian's sake, but no). Cocktails are a particular strength, specifically the bracing, Negroni-like Nico cocktail and the citrusy Snowbird, a winter's getaway in a Collins glass.
But the heart of the restaurant's appeal is the culinary team of chef Erling Wu-Bower and pastry chef Amanda Rockman, as formidable a one-two punch as you'll find in the city right now.
Wu-Bower, who awed fans with his work at Avec and Publican Quality Meats, has established himself as a chef to be reckoned with. Remember how to spell (and properly hyphenate) this name; soon it may be as crucial to your Chicago foodie cred as knowing that Achatz rhymes with brackets.
Seafood is tricky in Chicago. If it's not perch or pike, walleye or whitefish, the main ingredient comes from far away, leaving less room for error in sourcing and handling. Wu-Bower would have you believe that his work here consists of importing flawless product and staying out of its way, but this is misplaced modesty. Granted, the Maine mussels are a triumph of selective harvesting, but the vermouth and almond-butter broth coddling the mussels, and the 800-degree fire the mussels are subjected to, make the dish. The excellent grilled bread doesn't hurt either.
Other antipasti (my favorite section of the Nico menu) include a novel quail al'tonnato — grilled quail in a creamy tuna sauce. The classic tonnato recipe calls for veal, and the tuna-laced sauce is a substantial presence on the plate; here it's more of a modest accent, bolstered with a bit of anchovy and contrasted by a blood-orange vinaigrette. Pancetta-wrapped sweetbreads with royal trumpet mushrooms is a dish I could enjoy every day.
The one antipasti I didn't care for was the sunchoke sformato (think savory flan) with lobster and radicchio, an argument in search of resolution. I liked the creamy sformato and its soufflelike texture, and I liked the vinaigrette-kissed, sturdy chunks of lobster; I just don't think they liked each other.
The crudo would be the envy of any sushi bar in town. Hawaiian madai arrive accented with a light salsa verde, good olive oil and cubes of crunchy kohlrabi; coarse-chopped spiny lobster is sprinkled with black lava salt, which contributes as much texture as it does flavor.
The fettunta — bruschetta under an alias (fettunta refers to the grilled, garlic-rubbed bread; toppings make fettunta into bruschetta) — take interesting forms. The baccala mantecato combines creamy salt cod with sweet Dungeness crab meat, topped with scattered celery; and stracciatella combines milky cheese, cooked broccolini, currants, pine nuts and bacon into a nifty creamy/crunchy, sweet/salty dance. Grilled octopus with white beans and shallot-treviso "jam" perfectly embodies Nico's sophisticated-rustic approach: familiar and simple to the eye, deep and complex on the tongue.
The kitchen offers two whole-roasted fish each night. The salt-crusted branzino is far and away the better seller, possibly because it's a more familiar fish (though if you've been eating Chilean sea bass masquerading as branzino, which is distressingly easy to do, you're going to love the real thing). But I'd steer you to the turbot, which is firm, buttery and absolutely delicious, and a fish that doesn't appear on many Chicago menus.
Fast becoming a signature entree is the Neapolitan ragu, a hearty Sunday gravy (veal stock and tomato) supporting hefty pork-and-swordfish meatballs (big and dense yet light on the tongue), slabs of pork belly (contributing extra richness) and crisp sartu di riso (essentially a flat arancini).
Few restaurants deserve the "save room for dessert" disclaimer as well as Nico. Rockman, who crafted impressive work at L2O, Balena and the Bristol, is just as good, if not better, as pastry chef here. Rockman, whom I nicknamed Amanda Rockstar a year and a half ago, continues to validate my giddiness with one inventive sweet after another.
Rockman has a playful time with affogato; the word means "drowned," and the classic interpretation pairs vanilla gelato and espresso. Rockman offers this but adds several variations, including Chinotto (bitter orange) soda and fior de latte gelato, and a wonderful version in which prosecco is poured over scoops of apricot sorbet and burnt-honey gelato.
Her baba rum cake is essentially classical, though the presence of dates, cocoa nibs and Amaro granite make the dish her own, and her chocolate budino has pudding on the outside and warm chocolate cake within, a sort of molten-chocolate cake in reverse.
My favorite dessert, and the one to consider if you've overindulged in Nico's bread and pasta options, is the grapefruit meringata. Simple at first glance, the dish presents grapefruit segments with flat shards of meringue, though the grapefruit has been infused with cinnamon and rose water, and there is white-chocolate chantilly cream incorporated into the meringue.
Nico takes its name from the German-born actress/model/singer/songwriter who sang with the Velvet Underground, worked with Andy Warhol and appeared in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." She was an artist who did many things extraordinarily well, and for that reason she seems like a fitting namesake.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.Nico Osteria
1015 N. Rush St.,