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Nellcôte Chicago

Nellcôte Chicago


Nellcôte is not just another upscale restaurant along the Randolph Street Corridor in the West Loop, it’s a trip to the past and into the future. Tuesday, I had the chance to experience it for myself at their exclusive “Evening in Exile” tasting party. To say that the food was exquisite would be an understatement. At one point, I’m not embarrassed to say, I got up from the table and chased a waiter down for the pizza. Chef Jared Van Camp and his Element Collective team, (Chris Dexter, Chris Freeman, and John Warken) have transformed the old Marché eatery into a mirror of Villa Nellcôte, an ornate 16-room mansion on the waterfront of Ville franche-sur-Mer in the Côte d'Azur region of southern France. The evening’s theme originated from the Rolling Stones album “Exile on Main Street” which was recorded at the villa during the summer of 1971.

Although the façade is initially intimidating, complete with white Italian marble stairs, art nouveau wrought iron gates, extravagant woodwork, cartouche crown molding, crystal chandeliers, and bleached herringbone wood floors, the restaurant is meant to be approachable by all, with nothing on the menu more than $15.

I began my “Evening in Exile” with a self-guided tour of the space and situated myself on the upper-tier of the restaurant with a view of the whole dining room. Passed appetizers circulated the room and the first thing I was able to try was the olive oil poached salmon with a relish of pine nuts, Swiss chard, capers, and raisins. I loved the sweetness the raisins added to the dish, they really cut the richness of the olive oil poached salmon well. I’ll be the first to admit I had several of these “spoons” throughout the evening.

The next item I tried, the foie gras torchon on house-made brioche with maraschino cherries and pickled pistachios, was so good I had a hard time swallowing since I wanted the flavor to last forever. The burst of sweetness from the maraschino cherries, the buttery mouth-feel of the foie gras and the crunch of the house-made brioche formed an unforgettable trio of tastes and textures in my mouth. As my favorite item of the evening, I’ll be going back to Nellcôte perhaps just to order this to go.

Many restaurants offer “house-made” items, but Nellcôte takes it to another level when they say that something is “house-made”.  Nellcôte is the first restaurant in the U.S. to mill its own flour in house with local heritage wheat sourced from regional farmers in Illinois and Indiana. The wood burning oven imported from Italy, turned out several Neapolitan-style pies that I was able to try as well. I somehow managed to snag two slices of my favorite, clam with green onions and chili and crème fraîche. Usually I’m not the biggest crust eater, but I couldn’t get enough of the flavorful, house-milled whole wheat crust. According to the restaurant’s Facebook page, the flour will also be made available for retail sale for both restaurant and home cooks.

Some girls have expensive fashion taste, but I have expensive taste, taste. Normally the only time I ever have a chance to eat decadent caviar is out at a sushi restaurant. Yesterday I had a chance to try caviar in a non-sushi setting. A small spoon of American sturgeon caviar was presented with a glass of “scrambled eggs”, that was absolutely delightful. Being a fan of seafood in general I was also spoiled with a dish of hamachi crudo with a meyer lemon puree, watercress and radish. Have I mentioned yet that I love anything that comes on a spoon and you can eat in one bite?

The last thing I tasted was a white asparagus soup with a black truffle coulis. It was rich, slightly smoky and the perfect palate cleanser before the desserts started coming out of the kitchen. I was very excited to try the white asparagus soup as I had recently seen an episode of “Chopped” on the Food Network that featured this vegetable. Most people are familiar with green asparagus, but white asparagus is actually considered to be slightly milder in flavor and a bit more tender; it’s produced when dirt is kept mounded around the emerging stalk, depriving it of light. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to try the last passed appetizer which was a grilled scallop with an apple and hazelnut tartar, but it sure sounded delicious.

Just when I thought the evening was winding down, teeny, tiny caramel apples wrapped in caramelized white chocolate and rolled in toasted peanuts on sticks came flying out of the kitchen. They were only the size of a grape, so I didn’t feel bad when I may have had an extra…or two. In addition, I reluctantly tried the lemon macaroons, as I’m normally not a big cookie fan. The lemon wasn’t too overpowering, the meringue-like texture of the cookie nearly melted in my mouth, and the cream filling made me want to lick my fingers.

I was lucky enough to speak with the Chef de Cusine, Ray, after the event and found out that all the items I tried yesterday will be on the restaurants main menu. As the goal is to use locally sourced, fresh items, the menu will be constantly changing so there is a chance that all the items I tasted won’t be on the menu at the same time. But, with the freshly ground flour you can be sure to get the freshest pizza, pasta and bread at any time! Although a far jaunt from my neighborhood of Lincoln Park, I will definitely be back at Nellcôte sometime soon, the journey is worth it.


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