Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Lunch Mon–Fri, dinner daily, brunch Sat–Sun
Average Main Course: $15
Reservations: Practically mandatory
Dress: Anything from the Territory Ahead catalog is appropriate.
Chef: Darrin Since
It ain’t easy, stepping into the space occupied by a longtime St. Louis standby eatery. When Nico opened where the celebrated Brandt’s had done delicious business for many years, it was a daunting undertaking.
OK, not really—it sounds dramatic, though. Truth is, Nico slid in earlier this year and effortlessly initiated a menu of French, Spanish, and Moroccan food, debuting one of the more upscale and worthwhile eateries on the Loop.
The interior is surprisingly large, with soft gray walls and well-spaced tables, including several along the window; watching Loop denizens in their native habitat is always diverting. Unpainted wood on the walls, back bar, and tabletops lends the space a certain “lumber department at Lowe’s” atmosphere; still, it’s handsome and pleasant. Wood floors and the tall ceiling can make things noisy. But again, if you’re on the Loop, you don’t expect a lot of calm.
You also don’t expect food of Nico’s caliber. There is a confidence coming from this kitchen. Taste it in a bastilla, a Moroccan classic. In Marrakesh, you had bastilla with squab, the usual ingredient. Here, it’s chicken in the filling, along with saffron rice, raisins, caramelized onions, and a custardy egg, stuffed into a golden-flaked crust you’ll be forgiven for mistaking for phyllo. It’s actually thinner, more lacy and delicate, made from warka dough. Think of the dish as a Moorish meat pie. It’s a complex presentation. Nico’s version is superior, the inside well-constructed and robust. The bastilla alone should make local gourmets take notice of this eatery.
Another sign of the restaurant’s cool self-assurance is a burger of Merguez lamb sausage decorated with caramelized onions, spinach, and a basil-mint aioli that comes with a fried egg balanced on top. The combination of aioli and sausage, spicy with the addition of Tunisian hot sauce, makes for the city’s most unusual burger—and one of the better ones.
The risotto’s boring, brief menu description is deceiving. This is a first-class risotto, creamy, lumpy with pink shrimp, green beans, and a confetti of fine-chopped pancetta. There is just enough tomato to lend an acidic bite to its richness. Orecchiette is similarly undersold. Its basil-fragrant spinach pesto sauce is luscious. The “little ears” of pasta are slathered in the pesto, along with nibbles of asparagus, roasted tomatoes, and mushrooms, topped with flakes of Asiago. It’s a great dish to share.
The yellow-foot chanterelles should catch your attention. Musky, with a meaty, fibrous texture, they’re added to a cream sauce herby with tarragon, along with English peas and potato gnocchi, all playing backup for a shingle of roasted Arctic char. No other freshwater fish lives farther north, in cold, clear waters; char tastes like the offspring of salmon and trout. It’s as delicate as the latter, as rich as the former, but without any of salmon’s oiliness. This is a handsomely contrived dish, attractive and tasty right down to the last bite.
Nico’s “Starters” and “Snacks” seem interchangeable; all are tapas-like. A Spanish-inspired tortilla gets a Basque piperade dressing, slivered red peppers, and a mildly spicy sauce. Salt-cod croquettes also taste like an evening in Madrid, the creamy mashed potatoes and flaky cod rolled into balls and deep-fried, the crusty shell drizzled with a lemony aioli. Sliced, desiccated carrots, parsnips, and other roots make for chips that are sweet, the drying process bringing out the sugar of the vegetables. (Weird tip you’ll thank us for later: Pair the chips with a glass of the 2010 Scarpetta Friuli pinot grigio. Prego.)
A charcuterie plate is doubly good, the chilly meat slices both house-made and provided by Salume Beddu. As with too many restaurants, the three toasted fingers of bread are utterly insufficient to accompany the meat. Nico gets points, though, for the slices of yeasty focaccia, drizzled with olive oil, that arrive when diners are seated, which help the crucial meat–bread balance necessary for a good charcuterie. The highlight here is a pepper jam that brings out the saltiness of the meats.
Speaking of pepper, it prickles the palate in a salad of spinach, roasted tomatoes, and pine nuts dampened with a warm roasted-shiitake dressing. The bite of pepper in the greens is mellowed by wonderful nubbins of marinated yogurt cheese.
A couple of desserts were lackluster. The chocolate flan is flabby; beignets are mushy inside, as in undercooked. The best bet here is to go with a house-made ice cream.
Wine snobs dream of lists like Nico’s: small, but loaded with some of the most interesting—and affordable—vintages of France, Spain, and Italy. A 2010 Chateau de Fontenille sauvignon blanc, for instance, was made for the risotto. Same for the 2010 Louis Chevalier chardonnay and the char. But the wine list is like a speed-dating lineup: so many interesting wines, and only so much time to uncork them. There’s plummy, juicy Scaia Corvina. The ruby-dark tannins of 2009 Chateau Laplagnotte-Bellevue, with a finish longer than Newt Gingrich’s campaign. An unusual 2010 Lagaria chardonnay, with hints of apple and the limestone spring-water brightness of the Dolomites. This is a list to peruse and plan. Multiple visits to Nico aren’t just for the food; the wine pairings here are tempting.
Don’t overlook the chalkboard walls by the bar; they advertise cocktails, as well as draft brews. Cocktails get precious “local” names, like the Jack Buck, a conjuration of gin, Aperol, lemon juice, and ginger beer. (Advice: Bag the Buck, and just have a splendid aperitif with the bitter cherry sweetness of Aperol.)
Nico advertises itself as a “younger brother” of the very fine Franco, as both are nephews of owner Tom Schmidt. That shouldn’t last. Nico can and should very quickly earn its own reputation.
The Bottom Line: French, Spanish, and Mediterranean fare with creative flair in a relaxed, upscale setting.