One of the highlights of my latest trip to Chicago was Nico Osteria, the restaurant in the Tara Bernerd-designed Thompson Hotel in the city’s Gold Coast area. Set in a series of spacious rooms finished in dark wood, terracotta tiles and metal fixtures and furnishings, and with an open-plan kitchen, the atmosphere is sleek yet comfortable and inviting. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner – the midday focus is the Autostrada sandwiches (served “freeway style” on freshly baked focaccia and with artichoke and burrata or porchetta) – and there is also the buzzy Salone Nico bar that’s popular with locals.
Booking is essential and our group arrived promptly for our 8pm reservation, skipping drinks and diving straight into a series of seafood antipasti: kanpachi with crispy potato, smoked banyuls and frisée ($18) and a delicate plate of Suzuki bass with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, green apple and celery ($20). Blue marlin, rainbow trout and madai snapper also beckoned, but we opted to save room for a selection of mains that showcased chef Erling Wu-Bower’s (formerly of Avec) skills. We settled on pasta garganelli with enormous Gulf shrimp, arugula pesto and zesty orange ($20), and a salt-crusted branzino ($48 per lb) garnished with roasted peppers and designed for sharing. The veal ossobucco ($45) and a steaming bowl of merluzzo al’acqua pazza – a tomato and fennel stew studded with mussels and breadcrumbs ($30) – were also delicious.
Desserts are the handiwork of Amanda Rockman – formerly of Chicago’s very popular Balena – and while new twists on traditional tiramisu and tortes ($11) piqued our interest, it was her inventive gelatos and sorbets ($3 per scoop) that stole the show. Maple, cinnamon-doughnut and cardamom-cream flavours juxtaposed with fresh apricot and grapefruit sorbets made for a refreshingly sweet ending.