Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh
Let’s play a little choose-your-own-adventure.
A. Are you serious about your drinks and want to chat with the bartenders while snacking on shared plates? B. Do you want to be in the middle of the hottest new restaurant, or willing to put up with chaos to tackle the dinner menu? C. Are you an early riser who wants to sneak in breakfast before work or have a leisurely morning meeting?
If you answered A, just show up and snag seats at Salone Nico, the bar adjacent to Nico Osteria (or at the even quieter bar upstairs). If you answered B, head to Open Table to make a reservation for dinner. And if you answered C, you’re in luck, because Nico serves the best new breakfast in town.
Gold Coast newcomer Nico Osteria, an Italian seafood restaurant from Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality that's located in the Thompson Hotel, may offer a variety of experiences, but you'll get excellent food and drinks at all of them.
On a recent night, we showed up early for our 9:30 reservation so we could have a drink at the bar first. It’s something you should do, too, since the food is ideally paired with wine (there's an excellent list of Italian wines from Bret Heiar), but you won’t want to miss out entirely on Matty Eggleston’s cocktails. The list is divided into three aperitif and three full-strength cocktails, my favorite of which is the Nico, a Negroni-esque drink that's strong with a bitter backbone and made with gin, amaro, Cocchi Americano and mineral water.
The other cocktails, like the chestnut bourbon concoction and the Villa, with vermouth, cherry brandy and myrtle liqueur, are perfectly pleasant and easy to drink. We grabbed seats at the quiet upstairs bar, but you can also sit in Salone Nico, which is beautiful and warm and has a wall of greens. If you decide to camp out here, you can order crudo, antipasti, sandwiches and other more casual bites.
Moving into the L-shaped dining room was jarring: The space was appealing, with an open kitchen, tiled floor and wooden tables, but chaos reigns. Nico is a hotel restaurant, so while the clientele is primarily glittery and well dressed (I felt ridiculous in my snow boots, even though it was slushy out), you’ll also see nine-year-olds having dinner with their parents. The dining room is crowded and tables are right on top of each other (“this is communal dining with the illusion that it’s not” my date said), so unless you manage to snag one of the four-top booths that line the perimeter of the restaurant, prepare to hear everything the next table is saying.
The lack of space makes things tough for servers, too. We heard several plates shatter and the server clearing my pasta dish swept my knife and fork onto the floor with a clatter. When our server took my wine order, she ignored my date. When he finally ordered wine, she poured from across the table and dribbled wine down his glass. Add in a long gap in service toward the beginning of the meal, and our presence started to feel like an inconvenience.
But the kitchen, helmed by Erling Wu-Bower, formerly of Avec, made up for what was happening on the dining-room floor. Our server introduced the cuisine as “rustic Italian,” and the menu is primarily comprised of seafood dishes that seem simple in conception but are elegant in flavor. We began with a spiny lobster crudo, with sweet flesh and fiery flecks of preserved chilies and meyer lemon, then moved onto a lovely escarole and gem lettuce salad dotted with orange and pistachios, with buttermilk and anchovy dressing. The big, meaty oven-roasted king crab legs are drizzled with hazelnut pesto. There are eight pastas on the menu, most of which are seafood-based. The tagliolini comes in a clam sauce, which has some nice heat from the chilies, but the pasta needs a little more bite—it was just a bit too limp. We closed the savory portion of the meal with a comforting dish—Neapolitan-style ragu, a slab of braised pork belly, a swordfish and pork meatball, and a risotto ball bathing in tomato sauce. It’s rich and filling, so you’ll want to leave extra room for it.
Amanda Rockman, formerly of Balena, handles desserts, and she’s making tarts and tiramisu, along with ten flavors of gelato and fun spins on affogatos (typically gelato topped with espresso). The maple and pistachio gelatos were creamy and rich in flavor, but I was crazy about the chinotto and fior di latte affogato. It’s essentially a float, with scoops of sweet, slightly floral gelato in bitter orange soda.
Pastry also opens the breakfast menu, which is available every day from 7:30–10:30am in a dining room virtually unrecognizable from where I had dinner. On a recent Monday morning it was nearly empty and service was prompt—a leisurely way to begin the day.
Since I almost always go savory for breakfast, I like when restaurants offer sweet side dishes. You won’t find better pastries than the slice of simple chestnut coffee cake, or flaky, buttery kouign amann, which are served with little jars of black currant jam, vanilla honey and fior di latte. “I want to bathe in this honey,” my friend announced.
The rest of the morning menu is fleshed out with the salads from the dinner menu and sandwiches from the lunch and bar menus, as well as an eggs section, which yielded dishes like Roman gnocchi, airy semolina dumplings that we ordered with poached eggs and an herby pork sausage (you can pick your eggs and meat), and the Dungeness crab, which has shreds of sweet meat piled on toasted ciabatta with poached eggs.
The breakfast menu is similar to the dinner menu in spirit, so going in the morning will help you understand what Nico is trying to do. Regardless of when you dine here, though, it'll be an adventure.