Last month, as one of my New Year's Resolutions, I vowed to get out more. So when I sat down to sketch out my 2013 to-do list, one of the first things I penciled in was Restaurant Week for the month of February. I've had some really great experiences with Restaurant Week in the past, even if it always ends up costing more than I think it will, and the service can be a little dicey when the staff knows they won't be receiving their usual tips.
I have gotten to have dining experiences that would have otherwise been well outside of my budget, such as Le Colonial and Mercat a la Planxa, and even discovered one of my all-time favorite restaurants, La Madia. Last year, we didn't make it to Restaurant Week because we had just finished moving, and we were reeling from all the money we had spent to do so. I wanted to rectify that oversight by taking full advantage of Restaurant Week in 2013.
I started planning for Restaurant as soon as the participants and menus were announced on the Choose Chicago website. I am an unapologetic planner, and I put all of my talents to bear in crafting an itinerary that worked with our schedule, was compatible with the reservations that were available, and included the most restaurants I was interested in checking out. I finally settled on a line-up of four, three of which I would try with Justin, even if it meant spending as much on dining out in one week as I usually budget for groceries for an entire month.
My schedule for this year was highly influenced by my new neighborhood at work. Being surrounded by trendy restaurants that I read about constantly in the local press but never get to try is a mild form of torture for me (I know, I know, this is a first-world problem), so I was determined to work in as many West Loop restaurants as possible. In the end, three of the four places I went were all on West Randolph Street.
We kicked off our 2013 Restaurant Week experience with Nellcôte, which I walk past constantly, and about which I have heard much from my boss, who is a fan. One of my favorite local food writers proclaimed it one of his favorite restaurants of the past year, and I have to admit, I was curious about the fact that they mill their own flour in-house to create their pizzas and pastas. I appreciated their attention to detail, but I had to wonder if homemade flour could really make a noticeable difference in the quality of the food.
We ended up having a nice enough experience at Nellcôte; the food was outstanding and the setting was glamorous. It just didn't feel very "us." I felt acutely out of place the entire time we were there, and that discomfort overshadowed my perception of the meal. Good as the food was, I can't really see myself ever going back there, but I'm glad to have tried it, and to be able to say I have been there.
Ambiance - The luxurious space at Nellcôte is half of the reason I wanted to try it. Every time I walked past it, I saw their elegantly upholstered chairs, sparkling chandeliers, and wanted to go inside. It was aspirational, in a sense -- I wanted to be the kind of person who ate at such an establishment. However, once we were inside, I felt like a fish out of water. As the restaurant filled up with beautiful women having girls' nights with their similarly stunning friends, ferocious cougars lined up at the bar hoping to snag their prey for the evening, and older couples who exuded an aura of wealth, I started to feel less and less like I belonged there. It was a blatant reminder that I'm not in with the "in crowd," and that I probably shouldn't bother going where the "in crowd" goes.
Service - Though our waiter was pleasant enough and the pacing of the dishes arriving from the kitchen was on point, I think that the service contributed to my overall sense of alienation at Nellcôte. I got the distinct feeling that we weren't interacting with our server in a way in which he was accustomed. It was almost as if he kept waiting for us to ask more questions, so he could show off his knowledge of the menu. He seemed surprised that we already knew what we wanted to eat.
And he kept using pretentious restaurant jargon, such as "Okay, I'm going to go ahead and course that out for you real nicely." Seriously? Don't the dishes sort of naturally fall into courses, considering it's a three-course menu? He just seemed to be taking everything a bit too seriously, but not in a "dedicated to his job" kind of way, and in more of a pretentious, "I know more than you," kind of way. He just really rubbed me the wrong way.
Food - As it turns out, the custom ground flour does make a difference, but not, perhaps, in a universally positive way. I loved the homemade baguette in the bread basket, which had a textbook-perfect crust with a tender interior, and I also felt that it improved the brioche as well. However, I thought that the same characteristics that made for delicious baguettes and brioche made the flour less successful in their foccacia bread and in their pizza crust. I expect both of those bread products to have a toothsome, chewy quality, and while they had a nice, crisp crust, the interior was too tender and lacking in chewy resistance.
The salads, on the other hand were impeccable. The Brussels sprouts in my salad were slightly overcooked for my liking (as they were in the chicken dish that I had as an entree), but the flavors of the salad were exceptionally well-balanced and provided lots of interesting contrasts. The chicken, incidentally, was great as well, with a smokey-but-not-charred exterior acquired from spending time on a wood-burning grill, and crispy skin. I traded half of it to Justin for half of his pizza, which had flavorful, high-quality toppings, even if I found the crust lacking.
My only real disappointment was dessert, which felt like an afterthought. It came in the form of a sweet but bland panna cotta, which isn't really my favorite dessert in the first place, garnished a relish of raw tropical fruits and cilantro. I hate cilantro in any form, but it certainly doesn't have any place in dessert, if you ask me.