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At Paul Kahan's Nico Osteria, two worlds collide with a bang 

Can rusticity thrive inside a refined Gold Coast hotel? You betcha.

You can easily get lost in the squid-ink bucatini—in a good way.

You can easily get lost in the squid-ink bucatini—in a good way.

Jeffrey Marini

Moments after the guy at the bar opened his mouth, I feared my infatuation with Nico might shatter. Whatever happened next would have an irreversible effect on the meal to come. No amount of revelatory ragu or beatific branzino would be able to undo the potential damage.

Let's back up. By all accounts, it would appear that a chef like Paul Kahan can do no wrong. Kahan can implement a $2 taco at Big Star as elegantly as a $120 eight-course tasting menu at Blackbird. At Avec and at the Publican, Kahan perfected the casualization of high-end dining. Publican Quality Meats, his delicatessen, serves one of Chicago's finest burgers. Kahan and his One Off Hospitality Group don't so much succeed at trends as transcend them.

So he's got that going for him. Then there's the whole most-outstanding-chef-in-the-nation thing.

Kahan's new Gold Coast restaurant—his first foray east of the river—is helmed by chef Erling Wu-Bower (Avec) and is simultaneously rustic Italian and refined Italian. And why shouldn't it be? Kahan can take that rustic/refined formula anywhere, it seems—from Big Star to Blackbird to everything in between. And he will kill it.

Except . . . can rusticity survive in such close proximity to Prada and Hermès, on the ground floor of the Thompson Hotel? It's a tenuous proposition. And the balancing act was tested on my second visit, as I sat at the bar waiting for my table.

The bar is gorgeous, by the way. Brass lamps. Soaring ceiling. Wall of vegetation. A tufted gold-velvet couch that two tall people could lie on foot to foot.

It was quiet at the bar that night, unlike most. It was Monday, and it was snowing. A shaggy-haired blond gentleman took a seat. He got the bartender's attention right away—in a very thick southern accent.

"You like that apron you're wearing?" the southerner asked.

I might have heard the bartender's jaw tightening.

"It's chef's favorite manufacturer of aprons," he replied in a clipped tone.

I mentally begged the bartender: Please don't do it; please don't condescend. I spent 23 years of my life in Georgia and tend to be fiercely protective of southerners.

The southerner continued on, affably. He works in the painting business. Comes to Chicago often on business. He's always looking for good aprons.

"Is the apron rugged?" he asked.

"Chef prefers them because they have a little pocket for the iPhone," the bartender replied, not warmly.

If a restaurant group that prides itself on accessibility can't kindly accommodate the likes of this guy, the whole premise fails.

"I'm always looking for good places to eat in Chicago," the southerner ventured. And then: "I love Chef Kahan."

The bartender lit up.

"I found Avec on Yelp a few years ago," he continued. "Someone over there told me about Publican Quality Meats. Last time I was here I tried their burger."

The revelation was a game changer. Within minutes, the southerner and a couple who'd just taken the seats next to him (they appeared to have outfitted themselves at Prada on the way over) were bonding with the bartender and each other over their mutual love of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons (Nico is fortunate enough to stock three).

Crisis averted.

A little later, as I sat at the voyeuristic kitchen counter in the dining room, sopping up the mussels' vermouth-and-almond-butter broth with a salt-dusted wedge of ciabatta ("even the salt here is exceptional," my dining companion gushed), the positive vibes got a little out of hand. Taking note of the splendor of the dining room's amber glow against the backdrop of the furious snowfall, I paused on a table framed by the picture window. There sat the Bayless family. Rick appeared to be especially proud of the work of Kahan, whom he once mentored at Topolobampo.

Then the squid-ink bucatini arrived, at which point I abandoned all interest in my physical surroundings and got lost in the food.

Kahan and his One Off Hospitality Group don't so much succeed at trends as transcend them.

The bucatini was just right—chewy and buoyant. The accompanying sardines were slightly sweet and oily. The toasted bread crumbs that absorbed the oil held their crunch, and the delicate sprinkling of mint and red chiles provided just enough spiky contrast. All flavor and texture profiles were achieved in a single bite. I much preferred it to the smoked whitefish triangolini pasta course of my previous visit, which wasn't bad—the pasta sheets were perfect—but was a little boring by comparison, despite the uni that dissolved into the sauce.

Alas, I'm starting in the middle. The menu is broken into four parts: crudo, fettunta (bruschetta, essentially), starters (cold and hot), pastas, and entrees. Perhaps unwisely, I skipped the crudo course both times. It was just too cold out.

The octopus and white bean fettunta was as expertly executed as a cold appetizer of Dungeness crab over fava bean puree with crudite and flatbread. The latter brought to mind an elevated riff on hummus. Both were appropriately rustic and refined—and both were good. But you can do even better.

Among the better: the souffle-like sunchoke sformato, which disappointingly disappeared from the menu on my second visit. My dining companion described it as "a cloud in my mouth." The sformato was warm and airy and ethereal, surrounded by paper-thin shaved vegetables and generous chunks of lobster dressed in a tart vinaigrette. A cloud circled by lobster is heaven as far as I'm concerned.

From the looks of it, the lobster spaghetti (a whole lobster split open, its cavity filled with pasta) is a step up from heaven—and, at $45, priced accordingly. I could only justify window shopping that dish. Call it the Prada of pasta courses.

I caved, though, and ordered the Hermès of entrees. Nico offers several options for whole fish by the pound. I went with the salt-crusted branzino. At one and a half pounds, it was more than enough for two. (At $63, it was also more than enough for two.) The soft flesh was luscious and decadent. It tasted as mesmerizing as that gold velvet couch looked. A side of baby turnips roasted with their tender greens rose to the specialness of the branzino (and the couch), thanks to a generous dose of fragrant pickled mustard seeds.

On both visits, the service left as great an impression as the food. The learned but unpretentious servers were superhelpful in navigating the predominantly Italian and subordinately Greek wine list. I'm grateful to have been steered to the Karydas Xinomavro, its tannins happily mingling with a trout entree garnished with charred slices of butternut squash, crunchy pistachio gremolata, and juicy grapefruit segments.

Though Nico's menu is seafood focused, there is meat to be had. There's also meat to be had with seafood, as in the pig-meets-sea Neapolitan ragu. A slab of roasted pork belly rests in a porky red sauce punctuated by brunoised fennel. A swordfish meatball—actually a mix of swordfish belly and pork belly—sits atop the slab. And propped to its side is a sartu di riso (essentially a rectangular-shaped arancini, or fried risotto ball). The dish is served in a cast-iron skillet, and honestly it's somewhat clunky looking, with its two slabs and single orb. But what it lacks in physical grace it makes up for in deliciousness. It's more delicate tasting than it sounds (or looks), and that dense, fatty meatball is a thing of beauty.

Had I opted on either visit for the crudo instead of one of the more generously sized appetizers, I might have had room for one of pastry chef Amanda Rockman's heartier desserts. Instead I went with the grapefruit meringata on one visit and the hot buttered rum and maple affogato on the other. In the case of the former, the feather-light and rock-candy-hard disks of white chocolate meringue were coupled with cinnamon-soaked grapefruit strewn with baby basil leaves. How can something so weightless have so much flavor? I could've eaten two.

The affogato (gelato or sorbet over which liquid—typically coffee or liquor—is poured) struck just as high a note. The hot buttered rum paired with maple ice cream was rich without being filling. And warming. I would suggest partaking of that combo any time you might have to exit an exceedingly cozy restaurant and enter a blizzard.

I'd recommend any of the boozy affogato over two of the cocktails I sampled. The Snowbird, one of the "aperitif cocktails," was far too sweet and icy for this season. Among the three "full-strength" cocktails is the Nico, a mix of gin, Amaro Braulio, Cocchi Americano, and mineral water that tastes, contrary to the promise of the header, like a watered-down negroni.

While waiting at the bar for my table, however, I was thrilled with the Chestnut: roasted-chestnut-infused bourbon with chestnut honey and lemon juice. It tasted like much more than the sum of those parts.

Turns out there is more to the drink than one might initially suspect. As the bartender excitedly explained to the southerner (who'd also just ordered the Chestnut), chef prefers that the bourbon be infused not just with roasted chestnuts but with dozens of fruits, herbs, and spices.

What a pleasant surprise.

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