I'm glad Jared Van Camp and his partners in the Element Collective didn't decide to take inspiration from 102 Edith Grove, the Chelsea three-flat shared by Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Keith Richards in 1963, the same year the Rolling Stones' debut single was released. Reports say it was a festering dump where rampant expectoration, micturition, and canned soybean sausages were tolerated and encouraged. Instead, Van Camp and company's local follow-up to the Victorian sports bar Old Town Social (Quality Social opened in San Diego in the interim) is named for Villa Nellcôte, the 19th-century Côte d'Azur mansion where the Stones later recorded Exile on Main Street in the basement; upstairs under the chandeliers, an estate chef laid out opulent feasts only to endure rejection from Richards, who favored fried eggs and heroin.
To capture that louche mingling of high and low, the cavernous Nellcote is clad in wrought iron and marble, and it drips with crystal light, but the ceiling is still supported by unfinished concrete pillars to remind you that, sure, today you can afford to eat on Randolph Street, but don't forget you came up from the basement. It's ostentatious, but compared to Jerry Kleiner's Marche, which it replaced, Nellcote is a paragon of restraint and good taste.
There's no corresponding restraint on the menu, but plenty of good tastes, many of them the result of Van Camp's ambitious grain-to-table program—a logical extension of Old Town Social's house-made charcuterie operation—which has the kitchen milling its own flour for bread, pasta, and pizza.
I try to screen out others' impressions of restaurants before I get to them, but I couldn't help hearing unfavorable things about some of these pastas in its early days. Whatever the problem was in the two months Nellcote has been open, Van Camp has brought it under control. His southern-Italian-style spaghetti, lightly dressed with tomato and bread crumbs and salted with cured tuna loin shavings, is thick and ruddy, with a pronounced nutty flavor, and it sets a new standard for restaurant pasta arts. Similarly, the black squid ink strozzapreti—gnarly cavatelli-like twists tossed with sweet lobster and chile and served cold—and the radiatore—dark brown corkscrews with duck, mushrooms, and pork cracklings—are among the most scarfable peasant-style pastas I've encountered. (On the other hand, silky-thin tendrils of champagne-and-crème-fraiche-sauced taglioni, topped with plump oysters, is the luxuriant antipode to those, and every bit as good.)
Van Camp's pizza crusts are singular too. Whether you choose to order these topped with simple tomato, garlic, and olive oil; mortadella, pistachio, and red onion; or truffle and Keef-approved sunny-side up eggs, the crust is what's most important here: crispy and unusually inelastic. It doesn't taste like it was stretched from a bland ball of white goo, but rather from the plant from which it was processed. It's the grass-fed beef of pizza crusts, and there's nothing else like it in town.
The stark rusticity of those and some of the pastas may strike some eaters as unfamiliar, but they hint at a terrific potential for Van Camp's wheat grinder. A trio of breads with cultured butter—crusty, chewy mini baguette; fluffy, if dry, brioche; and olive oil-drenched focaccia—offer a bargain-priced snapshot of it ($3) and lead off the large selection of sharable plates, mixing the luxe, the low, and the seasonal: halibut on scrambled eggs with caviar, saffron risotto with favas and gold leaf, whipped potatoes (a la "Chef of the Century" Joel Robuchon) topped with shaved black truffle.
There are some real knockouts on this menu, in particular a smoky grilled lamb loin—practically pastrami—paired with braised neck meat and gnocchi; meaty escargots, bobbing in a crock of mushrooms, smoked paprika, and smooth, creamy polenta; and fat, chunky sweetbreads—almost cakelike in texture, garnished with the fruits of spring: English peas, favas, and fennel.
A few plates seem like missteps only in comparison. A funky crayfish with a soft-boiled egg and morel mushrooms might have been rescued with just a squirt of lemon. And salads like artichoke hearts and precisely triangular romaine leaves seem bland only relative to the extravagance of the other dishes.
For all the breadth of this agreeably priced menu there is a surprisingly short selection of desserts, but these are distinguished by house-made ice creams and sorbets, and what's turning out to be something of a signature dessert: a lightly soaked baba al rhum dressed with the filthy-sounding "bachelor's jam," which is really a booze-soaked preserve of a season's worth of fruit.
As you might imagine, Nellcote is a crowded, loud party, its high-tops, booths, and communal tables packed with see-and-be-scenesters swilling from a short, overly sweet cocktail list, but also a remarkably deep beer selection—with some 14 Belgians and a few ciders on tap—and a captivating wine list with an agreeable sommelier in Jason Wagner to help you navigate it.
I didn't ask if there were any drug dealers on staff, but near the end of the long-running house party at the original Villa Nellcôte, Keith Richards tried to kick them all to the curb. Today the villa's owned by a Russian oligarch, so Van Camp and company's interpretation is as close as you're gonna get to that gilded age of rock and roll. Fortunately, we're living in a gilded age of restaurants, and Nellcote is a party all its own.