While some chefs are now cutting themselves slack when it comes to locavorism, chef Jared Van Camp is moving in the completely opposite direction.
“If there’s something we can buy, we will choose to make it. If we can do it ourselves, we will. We are obsessively ‘handmade.’”
So says Van Camp, who now even mills his own flour — yes, mills his own flour — from locally sourced Illinois wheat at Nellcôte, the new West Loop Mediterranean “it spot.” This probably makes Van Camp the country’s only chef with a flour mill in his kitchen.
Van Camp — who raked in awards for his hand-crafted charcuterie programs at Nellcôte’s sister establishment, Old Town Social — uses the whole-grain flour in the restaurant’s hand-crafted pastas, house-made pizza dough and fresh-baked breads.
And he says he takes a “very Italian approach” to his cooking, citing an actual Neapolitan law that states specific pizzas from Naples must be made from local ingredients to be considered authentic.
“We use the idea of that [regulation],” says Van Camp, who would rather mill his own flour and use locally sourced cheese than bring in top-quality Italian counterparts.
“That, in my mind is more Italian than importing them from Italy.”
(Van Camp acknowledges he’s stuck using imported canned tomatoes during Chicago’s winter months, because he’s yet to solve the Midwestern dilemma of procuring locally grown tomatoes in January. But then one imagines he might be working on a radical solution to the problem.)
Van Camp employs his local ingredients in dishes that “are inspired by the area in and around [the town of] Villefranche-sur-Mer where Villa Nellcôte is.”
Villa Nellcôte — from which the restaurant takes its name and its “glamour with a touch of grit” vibe — is the opulent Côte d’Azur mansion where the Rolling Stones, in their wilder years, infamously recorded parts of their classic album, “Exile on Main Street.”
“There’s a real overlap of types of food in that area,” Van Camp says. (The Nellcôte folks like to tell the tale of a debauched Keith Richards hopping over to Italy for breakfast in a speedboat because he preferred the eggs across the Mediterranean.)
“There’s also pizza and pasta in any restaurant you go into there,” he adds. “We can do French food and pizza and pasta.”
In keeping with the “the whole juxtaposition of ‘grit meets glamour,’” Van Camp goes to extremes. He offers everything from rustic spaghetti (with chunky tomatoes and Calabrian chiles) to “refined, composed plates.”
Like a Rolling Stone, diners are encouraged to order whatever strikes them in whatever order they please. Other than separating pizza and pastas from other offerings, the menu has no definitive categories.
“If people are going to expect a traditional dining experience, they are going to be let down,” Van Camp says.
I can’t say whether we were expecting a traditional dining experience or not. But my BFFs Amy and Zel had fun working our way around Nellcôte’s seasonal menu.
First to land on our table was shaved asparagus ($5). Tasting plucked-from-the-garden fresh, the starter-sized portion was complemented with black walnuts, Gouda, Meyer lemon and trumpet royale mushrooms.
A flip of the menu took us to Van Camp’s “fork-and-knife pizzas.” Perhaps I was biased, knowing that the flour was house-milled, but the puffy-crisp crust revealed a wholesome nuttiness. We ordered ours topped with Fontina, black truffles and a runny organic sunny-side up egg ($12). I decided the decadent ‘za would make a perfect midnight snack (possibly eaten over the kitchen sink at Villa Nellcôte circa 1971), according to the notes I scrawled on my menu.
A flip back and we were on to pastas. The aforementioned al dente spaghetti ($8) was topped with a thick, garlicky tomato sauce, salty bits of dried Spanish tuna, mildly detectable chiles and toasted breadcrumbs.
The simple dish was trumped by Van Camp’s stinging nettle tagliatelle ($11). Although the pasta sounds daring, the nettles didn’t sting one bit, as these spring greens stole the show when tossed with morel mushrooms, fresh thyme and tangy Pecorino.
The BFFs were primed for some meat. More complex than our previous dishes, grilled lamb loin ($12) was served in an oniony jus and featured several components, including braised neck, gnocchi, olive marmalade and more. Flavorful — albeit a tiny bit tough — dry-aged Illinois beef ribeye ($15) came with a smoky truffle jus, vinegary beets and sweet-and-sour onions.
Always ones with room for dessert, the BFFs and I scanned Nellcôte’s brief list of “very, very classic desserts.” House-made coconut and chocolate ice creams ($4) were perfectly pleasing. But cool and creamy lemon semifreddo ($6) with sweet candied pistachio praline and pistachio emulsion — as Mick and Keith would say — really got my “rocks off.”
833 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60607