Monday, March 24, 2014

Nico Osteria

Dinner at Nico probably costs about the same as dinner across the street at Gibson’s, which ought to make one feel quite foolish for eating at the latter.  There were some exquisite bites at dinner last night, but I still left feeling the way I always feel when I eat near Rush & Division.  Nico fits right into a neighborhood where the people and the restaurants are just not my speed.
We started with a striped jack crudo.  Four paper-thin, miniature slices of fish totaling maybe an ounce in weight were topped with radishes, chiles and lemon oil, all of which complemented the fatty, mackerel-like flesh quite well.  It was fantastic, but $20 for what amounted to an amuse-bouche-sized serving of raw fish was tough to swallow.

I had the same problem with the lobster spaghetti, though this time I started to feel as if I was being genuinely conned.  We were told about the $45 price in advance (it’s listed as MP on the menu), but the server described it as a 1-1.5 pound lobster cooked with classic stuff and removed from the shell before stuffed back in, its roe then tossed with the pasta along with other stuff from the cooking.  This was no 1-1.5 pound lobster.  It looked like one of those langoustines you get at Mexican restaurants.  Half a pound, three-quarters at most.  Maybe 4 or 5 forkfuls of meat.  I’ll take part of the blame for being enough of a rube to order something like this, but they didn’t have to take advantage so blatantly.
If dishonesty was the problem with the lobster, it was the opposite that really baffled me with the fritto misto, which last night included razor clams, oysters, and some kind of white fish.  When the dish arrived I popped a fried oyster in my mouth, and the server came over at that moment to ask how everything was.  As I nodded with approval, he gave what would turn out to be the first of two very strange explanations of this dish.  “Yeah,” he said, “We got some pre-shucked oysters in by mistake, and thought, what the heck are we going to do with these?”  He explained that they contemplated sending them back to the purveyor, but then the chef said “What the heck, let’s just throw them into the fritto misto.”  That’s the $25 fritto misto, in case you’re wondering.

It got worse.  We kept eating the fritto misto, which was all pretty good if a bit too greasy, and he came by again to inquire about how we liked it.  I think I said something like “It’s quite good,” to which he replied, “Yeah, we use the same fantastic fish we use for the crudos in the fritto misto.  When they’re not fresh enough to serve as crudos anymore, they become fritto misto.”  Did he really say that?  As I’m typing it now, I have the same incredulous look on my face as I had in the restaurant, with what now tasted like a perhaps-just-a-little-rancid piece of fish in my mouth.  But yes, I’m sure about it.  That’s what he said.  For better or worse, we’d lost our appetite for fried fish at that point, and the rest was taken away by the runner.
Too full for pastry (or perhaps too queasy), we opted for a couple of small scoops of ice cream and sorbet to end the meal.  Both were disasters.  Blood orange sorbet was loaded with ice shards and tasted like nothing more than sugar-water.  Pistachio gelato had decent texture but no pistachio flavor at all.  There’s quite a bit of dessert pedigree in this kitchen, but I can’t believe that anyone deserving accolades ever tasted these concoctions.

Given the choice between Nico and Hugo’s Frog Bar or Carmine’s or whatever other hell holes exist around there, I guess I’d go back to Nico.  But more than anything last night reinforced that, respected newcomers or not, this neighborhood is to be avoided.

Nico Osteria
1015 N Rush St, Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 994-7100

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