Chicago Restaurant Review: Nellcote

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Could any restaurant in the entire city of Chicago be cuter?

The answer is definitively NO, it could not.

We have had the best of intentions of getting ourselves out to the West Loop for oh, the last six months now to see what all the hype was about. On our holiday seester date, we finally made the reservation and headed over on a cold and gloomy Saturday morning.

I think if we had to sum up the whole experience in one sentence, it would be, “WHAT WERE WE WAITING FOR?”

These photos do not do the decor justice. How can a restaurant be both warm and cozy and totally over the top opulent at the same time? It hurts my brain to think about such deep thoughts, but that’s exactly what Nellcote does. Gorgeous chandeliers and wainscot ceilings contrast create this warm and glowy space that we just never wanted to leave.

You’re greeted with a choice of the Times or US Magazine (naturally, I went for celebrity gossip and Ali bettered herself as an informed citizen) and if you’re as lucky as us, you’re seated with an absolutely fabulous waiter that I’m bummed is not my friend in real life. Perhaps if we keep going back enough….

We happened to be in when they were showing The Holiday behind the bar, so that was a cozy little surprise.

When we were happily snuggled in to our table with mimosas and trashy magazines/serious newspapers, I told Ali, “I’d come back even if the food tastes like dirt!”

Happily, we were a far stretch from dirt.

We were immediately served a an adorable charcuterie plate with cheeses, jams and prosciutto. As we munched away, we perused the menu and then ended up ordering purely based on our waiter’s recommendations. How do you pick just one thing when everything sounds so delicious? #whitegirlproblems

The lobster benedict had huge chunks of lobster under a blanket of smoked paprika hollandaise. The eggs were poached perfectly and melted into the hash underneath.

The simple salad served with the quiche almost stole the show – blasphemy, I know, but the champagne vinaigrette was delicious. The quiche itself was light, fluffy and so creamy.

We opted out of ordering our waiter’s recommendation of the sausage and potatoes because it just sounded like too much food (I know, who were we kidding?) but to our surprise and delight, they brought an order to our table for us to try along with our entrees. We ate every last bite of both and both will forever be tacked on to our brunch orders at Nellcote.

We sat around watching The Holiday, chatting, reading and drinking mimosas for an extra hour or two and then reluctantly headed out into the cold. We stepped one foot outside and wondered why on earth we had ever left.

We will be back for you, Nellcote! If brunch was any indication, dinner would be to die for… I’m just envisioning those beautiful chandeliers lit up at night and the cocktails arriving from behind the bar.

Fun tip – Nellcote’s NYE party sounds like an absolute blast! http://www.eventstand.com/event/nellcotenye for tickets.

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Epic Burger

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly late to the Epic Burger game, but as I (never, ever) say, better late than never!  The other night, not in the mood to cook – gasp! – I walked down to the closest Epic Burger which unfortunately for me, is pretty damn close.  Their menu is pretty straight forward – pick your patty (all natural beef, turkey, portabella or grilled chicken) and pick your toppings.  I went for the beef, cheddar, whole grain bun combo and it was delicious.  With additional frills like grilled or raw onions, fried egg (choose your yolk’s runniness!) and crisp bacon, there’s a good chance I might have to stop in again.  I mean…if only to take in the full lanscape of options!

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Chicago Restaurant Review – RPM!

(I wanted to name this post RP-YUM but I’m pretty sure Ali would disown me.)

As Ali mentioned, we had one of the most incredible dinners last week and I have been seriously lagging in sharing the delicious details.

After reading the menu online basically all day, we were pretty excited come Friday night. We often text each other just to make the other one want whatever food we’re craving and it was a bit out of control before our visit. Proof:

I’d heard great things about RPM, of course, but I have to admit — despite the drool-worthy photos on the website, I was a bit of a skeptic. I thought that at least a part of the rave reviews HAD to be just Chicago celebrity hype. Let’s be clear, though, as an ardent fan of Team Rancic, this in no way deterred my desire to check it out. I’d suffer through some mediocre pasta for a Giuliana sighting at a beautiful restaurant with a fun scene, no problem.

Wellllll, I’m happy to report that I was totally and completely wrong.

As I suspected, we found the restaurant was beautifully decorated and the people watching killer, but the food stole the show.

House-made ricotta, so simple but definitely my personal favorite. Like a happy fluffy cheese cloud from heaven.

Prime beef meatballs… Smothered in Parmesan and served in the skillet they baked in, these tasted like Giulianas cute little Italian mother was firmly planted in just around the corner in the kitchen rolling these little balls of love by hand.

We chose the tuna carpaccio to break up all of the rich foods with something a bit lighter and were awfully happy with that decision. The freshest, smoothest tuna, so deeply colored it almost looked like salmon with little sprinkles of black garlic for the most interesting hint of flavor.

This might surprise you, but I can count the number of times Ali and I have ordered dessert in the last 5 years on one hand, and that’s because the number is one. We’re not mad at it, we’d just rather have another glass of wine or more fried olives. The Affogato float came highly recommended by a trusted source, however, so we went for it. A grown up float with an intense bottled coffee poured over creamy vanilla gelato, this was the absolute perfect ending to a fantastic dinner.

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  • Fried olives
  • Chicken liver on toast
  • Lobster caprese
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Pork chop as big as my head for the manly man at the table
  • Spaghetti carbonara

RPM, we will be back! Sneaking in early on a weekday to the bar area to try a few small plates without the months-long wait for reservations may be our new tactic, but I’d honestly sit on the curb in the  alley outside the kitchen if someone would just be so kind as to hand me a cup of that ricotta and a spoon.

San Francisco + Napa: Bouchon Bakery

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I have no earthly idea where to start in describing the last 3 weeks of my life. I’ve never been away from home for that long and while I was definitely happy to see my own bed and pillow Monday night, my little 3-week adventure was one that I’ll never forget.

So instead of trying to write one big post for London and then one for San Francisco, I think I’ll just blog about some of the particularly memorable experiences – you know, like cheese. (See: Halloumi :))

We happened to be in SF/Napa for TWO Bears games and while JB was a trooper about missing the Monday night game with all of the Giants-going-to-the-World-Series madness, missing this past Sunday’s game was not optional. This meant spending an incredible Napa morning in a dark bar, so as a trade off, we headed out super early for a run through Yountville which culminated in a stop at Bouchon Bakery.

I had heard rave reviews of Thomas Keller’s Parisian bakery in NYC, so nothing could have made me happier than seeing that cute little yellow house off the side of the road, line out the door and great smells a half mile away. I did a bit of reading and Yountville was actually their first location, with locations in NYC, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills added later.

I quickly negated our three-mile run (and then some) with the coffee of my dreams and after agonizing for ten minutes over the pastry case, settled on two scones: chocolate cherry and bacon cheddar. They were perfection — buttery, crumbly, just sweet enough.

If you have the chance to go to a Bouchon bakery, please go! Run! Or walk, but go, and have a pastry for me.

Bridge House Tavern

We’ve certainly confessed our love for Bridge House Tavern before.  What’s not to like about river-front brunch and $5 mimosas, you silly thing?  This past weekend I was in full mustenjoylastmomentsofsummer mode and dragged my tired behind to Bridge House early on Saturday morning.

Knowing that I was coming, obviously, the head chef must have made an executive decision to include an entire section of the menu dedicated to me, and called it the “Hangover Helper” section.  It included such delicate delicacies as Chicken and Waffles (which includes, for the record, not just chicken and waffles as the vague title implies, but also bacon, eggs and house made sausage gravy), Corned Beef Hash and my order, Huevos Rancheros.

Stuffed with chorizo and spilling out delicious corn and black bean morsels from it’s crispy tostada hat, this creation was to die for.  3 mimosas, 17 architecture tour envious stares and an eventful water taxi ride later, and I was back in action.

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-Alison

Quartino’s New Second Story Outdoor Patio

> Photo via Eater Chicago

Thanks to this handy tip from Eater Chicago, I was raring to check out Quartino’s new second-level patio. Quartino is a long time DEUX on our list. (How do we not use that pun more often?) It’s the perfect spot for happy hour with the girls or a loud group dinner. Wine by the carafe? Cheese by the mountain? Olives by the bucket? Exceptionally reasonable prices? Yes, please!


Ali and I twisted arms, bribed and threatened with bodily harm last week so the girls would drag themselves out on a Tuesday (read: proclaimed, “new outdoor patio at Quartino!” to an extremely receptive and enthusiastic reception)  to experience it for ourselves, and while it was much smaller and far more narrow than the above picture lets on, it was absolutely lovely. In the future, I’d stick to a smaller group of two or three, but the five of us spent a great evening catching up over chilled white wine, grilled octopus and gorgonzola dolce, blissfully perched above the madness of State and Ontario.

FYI: It’s first come first serve, and we had to specify that we wanted to sit upstairs.

Cheers to another al fresco dining option, Chicago!

Crisp

Yesterday, I desperately wanted to check out Frog & Snail.

Hangovers, diets and friends in town all hijacked my dreams and no one would go with me to Frog & Snail. Stay tuned, I will prevail!

However, I still turned out the big winner of the day because I finally, finally, tried Crisp. I’ve wanted to go forever and just haven’t, for whatever reason, and the super casual vibe was perfect for a lazy Sunday night. This is not a new restaurant – located in Chicago’s East Lakeview neighborhood, it opened in 2008, which makes it practically a hundred in Chicago restaurant terms. A number of friends have enthusiastically recommended it and there’s some 987 reviews on Yelp contributing to a solid 4 out of 5 star rating.

One magnificent meal later, I am a Crisp believer, and after reflecting on that meal of righteousness basically all morning, I become a Crisp evangelist. Go immediately, bring your friends,  visitors, your family, get takeout… just go partake in the glory of those sweet and spicy Korean wings. (That said, do not take a first date as it is impossible to look even remotely good eating this meal.)

Our meal:

JB dunked everything into the Buddha Sauce, I went for Allison’s Atomic. Crisp is BYOB, but you’ll be parked at a community picnic table, so unless it’s a tall boy or something, I wouldn’t bother. If you’re in the mood for alcohol free and sickly sweet, go for Diet Cream Soda!

We split the Original Bad Boy Buddha Bowl, which is a cute name for the traditional Korean bibimbap with 8 different chilled veggies and a fried egg over hot, seasoned rice. The combo of hot and cold works so well, I promise, and the whole mess is that much better with added hot sauce of your choice. This thing is huge – probably 12″ around, and thankfully, they’re displayed when you order so you know what you’re getting into and aren’t tempted to order one per person. That being said, this would be a great choice for a vegetarian, or sans-egg for vegans.

And the star of the show: the wings. I went for 6 – which is really more like 12 as most bars and restaurants cut the wing into two pieces – with the Seoul Sassy sauce.

In the words of the great Rachael Zoe – I die.

(Those would be unlikely words to cross Rachael Zoe’s lips in this particular instance, as I imagine it’s unlikely she often digs into a tray of fried chicken, but we’ll call that her loss.)

Super meaty, very light breading, extra crispy and perfectly moist. The Seoul Sassy sauce was delicious – the website warns not to call it teriyaki but um, it tastes exactly like a very good teriyaki marinade with garlic, soy, sugar, sesame and ginger. Sorry, Crisp!  That’s a compliment in my book.

JB went for the Crisp BBQ Sauce, and in my constant quest for over the top flavor, this is definitely the sauce for my next trip back. And the one after that, and after that… It is reminiscent of a traditional barbeque but with a deep, smoky heat and spices that make the sauce definitively South Korea, not South Carolina.

After what will probably go down as the least attractive half hour of my life spent demolishing all six (fine, twelve) wings, fighting for my fair share of the coveted egg yolk in the Buddha Bowl, and looking around desperately for something else to squirt Allison’s Atomic sauce onto, my handsome and gracious date rolled me and my greasy fingers out of Crisp and home to curl up into a very bloated and happy state, already dreaming up my next trip back.

 

Chicago’s Food Truck Frenzy

 

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Chicago has an amazing food and restaurant scene – we are undoubtedly a world-class city in terms of our culinary offerings for residents and visitors. However, Chicago does make a habit of passing some baffling legislation in this area. Remember the foie gras ban? (Apparently California is going through this now. Sorry, guys!)

When I went to Austin last year to visit a good friend, I realized how much was missing from my life: food trucks! I ate breakfast tacos, kebabs, brisket tacos, cake pops, shrimp tacos… and then I went back for the genius culinary creation that is FRIED AVOCADO tacos. Chicago has long had standing ordinances making it pretty much impossible for food trucks to exist. In recent years, savvy entrepreneurs have gotten around some of this by preparing the food off-site and selling it from the trucks. Some seriously awesome eats have come from these wheels – Southern Mac & Cheese, Haute Sausage and Flirty Cupcakes are all staples in my book.

Wednesday, however, was a huge leap forward in terms of getting us up to par – though still pretty heavily regulated, Chicago passed an ordinance that allows food trucks to prepare on board. This means taco trucks are just around the corner, guys! Fried avocado tacos! You have no idea. I’ve been jipped all these years and I am hell bent on making up for it as soon as humanly possible.

Though they’ve won the battle, the food trucks have yet to win the war. Being able to cook on board is a huge coup, but there’s a few frustrating provisions that came along with this, most notably that a truck can’t be parked within 200 feet of an operating restaurant. There are provisions for dedicated truck stands in some key neighborhoods: Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Near North, Near West, West Town and the Loop.  But outside of that, if you’re hoping to get your paws on some late night grub, that’s going to mean walking a bit in areas heavily populated with restaurants. The restaurants argue that they’re paying taxes, so they shouldn’t have food trucks leeching off of their foot traffic. But duh, it’s a totally different experience. If I’m dressed up to go out to dinner on Hubbard Street and there’s a falafel truck hanging out outside, I’m not about to ditch my plans for a nice evening complete with an air conditioning, seating, service and bathrooms for a quick pita. It’s a totally different experience, and its disappointing that Chicago restaurants aren’t more supportive of the community as a whole.

Alderman John Arena helpfully threw out arguably the best metaphor of all time on this topic, stating, “The brick and mortar restaurant lobby got ahold of (the plan) and it was stuffed with protectionism and baked in the oven of paranoia.”

Stuffed and baked as the plan may be, I’m personally pretty excited for this step towards righteousness… bring on the tacos.

Honey Chipotle BBQ Chicken Tacos

 

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Has anyone ever heard of Ms. P’s Electric Cock?  Hysterical and controversial name aside, I watched her cook the most delicious looking fried chicken on the Cooking Channel the other day, and have been craving chicken since.  Since I don’t think my frying skills could quite match hers, and since I hadn’t perfected her “fry that chicken!” chant, I decided to go the bbq route.  Barbeque is such a quintessential summer flavor and these tacos – with a bit of spicy chipotle heat, the creaminess of the avocado and the bite of the lime – could be the quintessential way to enjoy the classic sauce.

Honey Chipotle Barbeque Sauce

  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chipotle chiles in adobo
  • 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (to taste)
  • 1 pinch ground pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.  This sauce requires no cooking – just refrigerate until ready to use!

I used a slow cooker to slowly stew a few boneless skinless chicken thighs and breasts in the sauce and shredded the cooled chicken.  I mixed a light coleslaw of chopped cabbage and poppyseed salad dressing and chopped a bit of lime and avocado.  I toasted corn tortillas in a lightly oiled pan for a few minutes until they were warm, chewy and absolutely delicious.  My only regret was a slight grocery shopping mishap that haunted me every bite – no cilantro for topping!

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Chicago Riverfront Patio Roundup

I had so much fun writing the rooftop roundup, I thought I’d just continue on down the line with a riverfront patio roundup. The Chicago River cuts right through the city and only adds to the already breathtaking backdrop of skyscrapers and the lake. There aren’t very many restaurants or bars right on the lake – I’m thinking that has to do with zoning (research project for later!) – so if you’re a fan of waterfront dining, these riverfront establishments are the way to go… unless, of course, you’re in the mood for a Miami Vice at Castaways!

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Some of these patios are up all year long and are attached to brick and mortar establishments, and others are “pop-up” style – they’re usually put up by a restaurant group that doesn’t have riverfront property for a few months in the summer only!

Here’s some of my favorites, and any fun happy hour specials that I know of or could find advertised.


Riverfront Patio Roundup

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Smith & Wollensky

One of my favorite patios to grab a glass of wine and chat with a girlfriend after work. S&W is a Chicago staple and nothing signals the start of summer more than their famous big white tents going up on the patio. They have a fun summer menu that I’m dying to try – especially the Lobster Mango salad.

Specials: Buy one, get one free bar menu Monday through Friday, 3:30 to 6 PM in the Grill Bar

 

McCormick & Schmick

Okay, I’m cheating a little bit with this one, because it’s not technically riverfront. But it is really CLOSE to the river, and they have incredible happy hour specials, so I’m throwing it in! Walk down the river from your job in the loop and stop in to meet a group of friends on a Friday – after a $22 bottle of wine, you’ll forget you’re not right on the river anyway.

Specials: Check out the full list here

 

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Bridge House Tavern

In my humble opinion, Bridge House has hands-down the best atmosphere out of Chicago’s River Patios. Prop yourself up on the river-facing bar with a cocktail and watch the boats float by all evening.

Specials: Drink and food specials Monday – Thursday and $5 Mimosas/Bloody Marys on the weekends

 

South Branch

South Branch just opened last summer in the Loop. They could go toe-to-toe with Bridge House and it’d be a pretty close match in terms of atmosphere, but I think this patio’s best asset is their food. Coconut shrimp? Blackened red snapper? Yes, please!

 

Lizzie McNeill’s

I’ve mentioned before that River East is practically another planet in terms of Chicago neighborhoods – don’t get me wrong, it’s GORGEOUS, but its rare that I have the occasion to just end up there. But, in the instances I do, Lizzie McNeill’s is a great, casual option – you’re so close to the lake that you get a really unique view. A great way to spend a laid-back Sunday afternoon.

Specials: Some daily and monthly specials, check out the list here

 

O’Briens

A pop-up! This is an offshoot of O’Brien’s in Old Town. Tons of space, right under the Michigan Avenue bridge. It’s nothing fancy, but a relaxed, super summery atmosphere to grab a cocktail and appetizers after work or after shopping on Michigan.

 

Fulton’s

An absolutely gorgeous, upscale patio off of the new steakhouse that opened in River North. A great way to start off your Friday or Saturday night with dinner from the restaurant, watching the scene inside and the boats on the river. I hear they have a $1 Oyster happy hour special – you know I’ll be there before the end of the summer!