Posted On: 06/01/2012
Nico, 6525 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.727.0200, nicostl.com
Through all the ups and downs of The Loop, there was always the Tivoli, Vintage Vinyl, Blueberry Hill and Brandt’s Café. Last summer, Brandt’s shuttered its doors with owner Adam Brandt citing The Loop’s decline as the reason – a comment that rankled some people more than the cafe’s actual closure. Enter Tom Schmidt, the owner of Franco. In February, Schmidt opened Nico – his new concept – in the space, transforming Brandt’s diverse Asian-Latin-Italian-whatever cafe into a western Mediterranean-inspired bistro. While the French-inspired Franco is named after Schmidt’s nephew, Nico is Franco’s little brother. Can’t you just imagine the lunch room bargaining? “I have a restaurant named after me. I’ll trade you my chicken paillard for your Twinkie.”
Schmidt kept the same layout as Brandt’s but lightened the mood with Steelcase-gray replacing the blood-red colored walls, adding natural pine wood tables and Ikea-like pine shelving and racks to the bar. It’s a bit drab in the bright light of day, but come dusk, the colors soften with hanging Edison globes providing a cozy amber hue. As is the trend, tables are set with striped dish towels for a causal, farmhouse feel.
Looking out through the floor-to-ceiling windows, you feel separate, almost calm, from the hustle-bustle of The Loop. This is still the best place in The Loop to people watch, and the tight-spaced sidewalk tables are still prime property, despite the constant jostling from passersby.
The wine menu, much like the food, settles around France, Italy and Spain. Fourteen reds, including a French rosé, four sparklers and 11 whites make up the well-constructed list; 12 are available by the glass. Local beers from Civil Life, 2nd Shift, Urban Chestnut, 4 Hands and Schlafly are on draft. Cocktail names pay hommage to famous St. Louisans memorilized in The Loop’s Walk of Fame: William S. Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Phyllis Diller, to name a few.
House-made focaccia – warm, soft and touched with sea salt – arrived with a fragrant olive oil for dipping. An appetizer, Tortilla Española, with its layers of sliced potatoes baked in egg and topped with a spicy pipérade of red, orange and yellow peppers, was rustic and comfy. Pork belly for the carpaccio appetizer is cured on site and sliced at a thickness somewhere between bacon and paper-thin, the nine slices served under frisée, green beans and croutons tossed with Banyuls (a French dessert wine) and grain mustard dressing. For all that went into it, the dish’s description outshined its execution: not bad, just not spectacular.
Entrees are cutely labled Main Events and change often. For the second time in reviewing restaurants this year, I had chicken paillard: a pounded chicken breast quickly cooked. Nico’s version is breaded, pan-fried to a crispy, deep brown and doused with a caper-olive oil sauce. Between the slight peppery kick of the breading and the saltiness of the capers, I’d call this satisfying Mediterranean comfort food – even more so with triangle slabs of basil polenta and Broccolini rounding things out. Along the same lines was the pappardelle: Rich, meaty Napoletano ragù made from chunks of tomato simmered with lots of tender pork (pancetta, pork shoulder and pork belly) clinging to long, wide noodles made fresh in the kitchen. Even a very fresh pan-roasted Arctic char that wasn’t available on the second visit got the Mediterranean treatment when served atop a mound of gnocchi, chanterelle mushrooms and English peas slathered with a delicate tarragon cream sauce.
Morroccan flavors also figure prominately into the menu. The braised lamb with house-made harissa looked good, but we opted for the Chicken Bastilla: a traditional Morroccan chicken pie consisting of savory saffron rice, diced chicken and a crunchy-sweet mélange of almonds, caramelized onions and golden raisins wrapped in a light phyllo shell for a riot of textures and flavors. A squirt of hot pepper sauce provided the spicy contrast to the gentle sweetness of the dish, but I had two quibbles. First, not that I’m a proponent of hubcap size servings, but for $14, the portion was quite small. Second, my dining partner had ordered a spinach salad, overlooking that the dish came with a small side of just such salad. An attentive server would’ve pointed out the redundancy. Otherwise, service during our visits was informed, friendly and capable. Speaking of that salad, the greens were tender and fresh, but the shiitake dressing (now changed to a champagne-orange vinaigrette) was far too gentle for the accompanying marinated yogurt cheese and roasted tomatoes and so light that even a hint of mushroom was hard to discern.
In a time of burger fatigue, Nico’s spicy merguez lamb sausage burger is a standout, like something you’d nosh on from a street vender while traipsing around Tangier. Redolent with piquant Moroccan spices, the burger arrived medium-rare and topped with baby spinach and a fried egg, adding delicious creaminess to the lean sausage. There’s a lot going on with this burger and the thick, herbed focaccia bread was just a bit much. An Italian, ciabatta or sourdough roll would interfere less with the meat’s spicy kick. The accompanying house-made root vegetable chips were a surprise treat.
Afterward, there was Kaldi’s coffee to enjoy with some sweets. Madeleines – small, airy, spongy – came with a strawberry compote that even Proust would recall with warm fondness. Beignets were eggy and light, as they should be, and made decadent with a couple scoops of salted caramel ice cream drizzled with sweet, sticky blackberry-balsamic glaze and sprinkled with crushed almonds.
The day after my first visit to Nico, Chris Williams, executive chef for both of Schmidt’s restaurants, packed his knives. It shouldn’t make much of a difference; the test of a good restaurant is consistency in the face of kitchen changes (Nico’s former sous chef, Darian Since, now leads the kithen.). Sure enough, subsequent visits proved my point.
And all that chatter about The Loop’s decline? It seemed like trumped-up conjecture when sitting outside Nico on a spring eve, absorbing the rhythms of a vibrant district while sipping a crisp French white.
Michael Renner has been known to fritter away an entire afternoon sipping wine and people-watching, all in the name of research.
Don’t Miss Dishes
Moroccan Chicken Bastilla, Chicken Paillard, Pappardelle
Relaxed, casual bistro feel that can get loud when crowed
$14 to $21
6525 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.727.0200, nicostl.com
Sun. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fri and Sat. – 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sat. and Sun. – brunch
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