The inconsistencies started when I was asked if I wanted to check my coat. It wasn’t really a question—when I said I’d rather keep it, the hostess pursed her lips and shook her head. “They’re filming a TV show here tonight,” she said. “We need the place to look nice.” Ouch. I handed over the offending coat.
Minutes later, a friend of mine had the same exchange. Only her coat must be prettier than mine; she was told she couldn’t keep it because they do tableside flaming, which might set her coat on fire. Needless to say, she handed hers over, too.
It was just the beginning of what would prove a fairly erratic experience. For every good move that Nia’s kitchen makes (a lovely trio of Mediterranean sausages, including a tender, housemade loukanika), there seems to be an equally bad one (like roasting the elephant garlic to order so that it comes 25 minutes later, still undercooked). Piquillo peppers stuffed with crab imparted a smart interplay of spicy and sweet, but those same peppers stuffed with chewy braised oxtail (pictured) didn’t have nearly the same charm. The Nia house salad was the perfect amalgam of ingredients—sweet dates, spicy peppers, creamy goat cheese—but the marinated forest mushrooms were, in fact, not marinated at all, leaving them fibrous and dry. And while the kitchen does seem to have a way with lamb—it puts out tender and savory lamb-feta meatballs and a braised lamb shoulder so tender it barely needs chewing—it is disastrous with chicken. Both the chicken saltimbocca and the “Yia Yia” chicken had all the life cooked out of them.
So it should come as no surprise that some of the best dishes in the restaurant are the ones the kitchen doesn’t actually cook. Pata Negra, the famed Spanish ham, is on the menu, and it is frighteningly good; to make it even better, our excellent server encouraged us to pair it with the montelarreina, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese.
As it turns out, we should have taken that as a sign to listen to the server more closely. At the end of the meal, she recommended the Amarena cherry tiramisu, which popped with a brilliant, tart sweetness. But one night we swayed from her recommendations, ordering a saffron rice pudding that we could only bring ourselves to pick at.
“How was it?” the server eventually asked us.
“I didn’t care for it very much,” my friend said.
At which point the server flashed a slightly sympathetic. “Yeah,” she said. Having spent many more nights in the restaurant than we had, she seemed to know exactly what we were talking about.
803 W Randolph St
|Cross street:||between Green and Halsted Sts|
|Opening hours:||Lunch, dinner|
|Transport:||El stop: Green, Pink to Clinton. Bus: 8, 20.|
|Price:||Average small plate: $10|
|Do you own this business?|