Nix – First Bite
Me, I don’t do meatless Mondays. In fact, I don’t do meatless any day. I’m a carnivore through and through. If it’s not meat, I crave poultry or fish… or eggs. If I don’t have one of the above, I feel like I haven’t really eaten.
I’m fully aware how cool not eating those things is nowadays, but that doesn’t make the notion any more compelling. Don’t get me wrong: I love to try new restaurants and check out the latest talent, and I know vegan spots, like Dirt Candy, OO+Co. and Avant Garden are now sought-after reservations, but that doesn’t make the idea of eating meat-free more exciting. It’s still fascinating (at least to me) to walk into a vegetarian eatery, like Nix, on a Friday night and find every table and bar seat taken, with a noticeably fashionable crowd no less. But there’s nothing “granola” or hippy about John Fraser’s newest venture, Nix.
You might even say Nix was happening last Friday night. Candle lights were flickering off the white-washed brick walls in the dining room. Well-heeled women and men were clustered around a sleek, white marble-topped bar, and scattered around wood tables, trimmed with leather banquettes. The windows onto the kitchen were covered by closed blinds as if something mysterious and sexy was going on behind them.
And what’s coming out of the kitchen tastes strangely sexy, like Carrots bathing in Moroccan butter, and a flurry of Mezze, paired with tandoor bread or vegetable Crudite, which seems to be all the rage these days. This finger food can be accompanied by your choice of velvety dips, including a outstanding Hummus (and I like to fancy myself a hummus expert), capped with zaatar spices and an addictive puree of spiced eggplant, spackled with toasted pine nuts. There’s Cottage Cheese, folded with broccoli leaf pesto, and even a dip of Avocado, exotically flavored with Mint & Curry. While the flavors are all familiar and comforting, Fraser’s made each his own with a subtle, but distinctly sophisticated twist.
John Fraser got his start and formal training at kitchens, like French Laundry and Taillevent, before making a name for himself (and earning a Michelin star) at Dovetail with ambitious tasting menus, populated with luxe dishes, like short rib ragu spiked with foie gras butter and butter-poached lobster with truffles. It’s at Dovetail he made his foray into the world of Meatless Mondays with a vegetable tasting menu and special vegetarian menu. Most people don’t know it, but Fraser’s first New York cooking gig was actually in a tiny kitchen with nothing more than an electric burner at West Village Greek, Snack Taverna.
It feels like he’s come full circle at Nix, refining Greek staples, like those Mezze, or even better, a Spinach & Dandelion Pie — nostalgic of Spanakopita and just as gratifying — smartly laced with tangy feta and lemony sorrel. You’ll notice not only Mediterranean influences, but also Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and often a fusion of cuisines. There’s Wok-Roasted Cucumbers basking in jerk spices as well as spicy Wok Fried Farro with tofu, seaweed and a poached egg yolk to bind it all together and offset a bit of the fire.
One of the best things I put in my mouth was a special of bread (I’m a carb freak!), baked in Nix’s tandoor oven, stuffed with curried cauliflower, and served with a zippy Kale-Pistachio Chimichurri. But nothing matches the naughty glory of Fraser’s Potato Fry Bread, a pimped-out riff on a traditional, Eastern European street food that you typically couldn’t order anywhere that took reservations, or credit cards, for that matter. At Nix, you can sip a great glass of wine while nibbling on this puffy calzone-like wonder, stuffed with potatoes, deep-fried, then paved with cheddar, scallions, sour cream and broccoli florets; taking comfort food to a whole new level.
Healthy it’s not and neither is the Cauliflower Tempura with steamed buns (a dash of Chinese) and house pickles. If you’re looking for something a little lighter, try the Shredded Apple & Cabbage salad with Seaweed & Shiso Sesame Dressing, Kale with shavings of Horseradish & Golden Beets, or subtly flavored ribbons of Jicama with Fresno Chili, Blood Orange, and Jicama (a tad too subtle for my taste).
But understated plates are thankfully few & far between here. In fact, much of the vegetable-bent cooking is flavor-packed and refined; anything but your average hippie fare. Fraser deliciously turns out the essence of spring on a plate with his Pea Green Dumplings; verdant, pillowy nubs, consorting with meaty Maitake mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns and White Asparagus. Dish after dish, he demonstrates how seriously he’s taking the notion of vegetarian, employing both the tandoor and the wok on a multitude of occasions, adding depth and heartiness to vegetables and grains. (And of course, a little cheese and butter doesn’t hurt either!)
For dessert, we nibbled on warm, Nun Puff’s (a lot like a beignet) with Goat’s Milk Caramel for dipping and a fine amaro-laced Chocolate Mousse Cake, paired with Passionfruit Jelly. If you don’t have much room for dessert, opt for the Fuji Apple Sorbet with unexpected briny punch of candied olives and lime.
This isn’t just another vegetarian spot, that’s for certain. It’s a much more deliberate wager that this is the way dining is headed, which is why both Steve Ells of Chipotle fame, and James Truman, former, Conde Nast editorial director partnered with Fraser to launch Nix in Union Square, conveniently close to the Greenmarket. Who knows? Maybe they have a hip, fast casual veggie chain in the works.
When I was single, I would have called it a night if a date brought me to a vegetarian restaurant any night of the week, never mind a Friday, but there’s something undeniably romantic and exciting about Nix and its veggie-inspired nibbles.
72 University Place
New York, NY 10003