It’s a random Tuesday night and I’m planning to catch up with a pair of friends in downtown Newark or the Ironbound area. But it’s a Devils night at the Prudential Center (they lost) and the US men’s national soccer team is playing over at Red Bulls arena in Harrison (they lost too). The area around the Rock is swarming with people and Ferry Street is a mess with traffic as the event related dinner surge hits the usual suspects. I think to myself, where can I get some reliable food that’s not going to be packed with hockey and soccer fans? What’s the opposite of a sports fan destination restaurant?
Nico Kitchen + Bar at NJPAC replaced the Theater Square Grill in February 2012. I think I’d been there once before, perhaps about two and a half years ago, and had dinner at the bar. I had a coupon. I really can’t recall any impressions either positive or negative about the experience other than having a chatty (in a good way) bartender. Years earlier I had a single dinner at Fascino, chef Ryan DePersio’s place in Montclair since 2003. That had been pretty good.
The stages at NJPAC were quiet Tuesday night, so we grabbed free parking right in front of the entrance to Nico (in that little driveway area) and entered to find things pretty quiet there too: one table with another group of three, and less than a half dozen patrons at the bar. We weren’t looking for any kind of a scene at all, so it worked for us, but I do wonder how they are able to remain open on non performance nights if that’s the usual turn-out.
Dinner was good with solid service from Augustine (yes, like the saint), and the room has a nice look. Some of the dishes in fact were better than good: we particularly liked the grilled octopus with gigande beans, the escarole salad, and the side of caponata. I saw a plate of the fried calamari go by to that other table and noticed it was accompanied by some good looking blistered shisito peppers which the kitchen then agreed to prepare for me on their own; those were darn tasty. The wild atlantic salmon was done really nicely, medium rare as requested, and even the grilled asparagus spears on the side were good.
On the other hand, the beet salad was meh, and the pasta with vegetables and mushrooms was suffering under way too much cream sauce. Come to think of it, even the salmon had a bit too much sauce going on (I think that one was a cauliflower puree).
Desert was a serving of Limoncello cheesecake with berries, which didn’t do much for me; just sweet and creamy. We had three different glasses of wine (a valpolicella, a chianti, and a pinot noir) and they were all unremarkable. And on reflection, I wonder if the bottles had just been open too long.
Anyway, not a bad dinner by any means, and if you pick right you can have some pretty good food.
N.B. The menu on the website is not up to date.