IN­TER­EST­ING, HIP AND DE­LI­CIOUS

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - ALANA HUD­SON Alana Hud­son has cooked at restau­rants in­clud­ing Vong, Le Bernardin, and Avalon.

Com­ing from the park­ing lot down­town on Vine, near James North, we ap­proached the win­dows of Nique, and I saw that the restau­rant was al­ready fill­ing up.

Re­lieved I had made a reser­va­tion, I walked in, greeted by walls cov­ered with pop art: a mix of comic strip and vin­tage style col­lage.

Also in view: the open kitchen lined by a white counter, if you are the type who likes to see the magic be­hind the cur­tain.

A small hand­ful of guys were hus­tling there, in black T-shirts and white base­ball hats.

We chose to sit in the main din­ing room, where an­other bar for drinks was set up to­ward the rear.

The mu­sic had a dance groove; it was al­most like be­ing out­side of a club where the melodies were in­dis­tin­guish­able but you felt the pound­ing bass ex­cept here, it was played at a rea­son­able vol­ume. Enough to keep my calf puls­ing here and there, but mostly just hov­er­ing at the edge of my con­scious­ness.

The mu­sic slanted to the crowd of mostly young 30-some­things. A cou­ple of thick beards, a man­purse or two, you get the idea.

The comic art on the wall op­po­site ad­vised us to “Stand by,” and it did take a lit­tle time to get started. But our server, who de­liv­ered the drink and food menus on small clip­boards, proved to be per­son­able and knowl­edge­able.

Look­ing at them, I could tell that Nique was ded­i­cated to a good drink se­lec­tion with a menu run­ning five pages, while the one for food was a sin­gle page.

There were some f amil­iar names but with vari­a­tions I hadn’t yet seen at the LCBO. Oast House’s ch­est­nut brown ale on tap; Col­lec­tive Arts’ Stash Straight Up Ale in cans. Made me want to come back just for drinks at some point.

In ad­di­tion, there was wine (in­clud­ing lo­cal se­lec­tions from Tawse, 13th Street and Tin Roof, among oth­ers).

Of course, we had to test the bar­tender by or­der­ing cock­tails. Our server told us that they were de­vel­oped by the owner, in con­junc­tion with the bar­tender.

The list was a trip around the world, with names such as Thai Cat, James Boule­vard, The Egyp­tian, and Down in Mex­ico.

I opted for James Boule­vard: Bulleit bour­bon, grounded by espresso-steeped ver­mouth. Strong, dark, and just a touch smoky.

My com­pan­ion was in­trigued by the Mata­hari. Who isn’t? The se­cret be­hind this drink was the hint of rose­wa­ter and lime juice that light­ened up the scotch con­sid­er­ably. It was es­sen­tially a high end scotch and soda, sweet­ened just a touch.

As we sipped, I looked around at the beau­ti­ful wood-rich decor, from the ta­bles to the small hang­ing trel­lis over the bar. It would have felt rus­tic if not for the fas­ci­nat­ing light fix­tures: some of them, hang­ing over large ta­bles, seemed to be made from large cans, and semi­translu­cent cov­er­ings over Edi­son-style bulbs shone above oth­ers.

Hang­ing from the trel­lis over the bar were bulbs with bot­toms painted sil­ver, which to me said it all: this place is pre­cise with­out be­ing pre­cious, stylish yet fun.

Don’t let the one-page food menu fool you, ei­ther. There were plenty of in­ter­est­ing se­lec­tions. Cross-cul­tural fu­sion. Hum­mus with roasted cau­li­flower and poblano. Sushi na­chos. Crispy snap­per with noo­dle salad, fresh herbs and nam prik.

I had to try the sushi na­chos. Won­tons took the place of corn chips, topped with what seemed more as tartare than sushi: chopped up fish mixed with sesa- me, curly slices of scal­lion and mayo, topped off by sea­weed dust.

What­ever you want to call it, it was de­li­cious. I was hooked and had to stop my­self from hog­ging them from my com­pan­ion, who was look­ing a lit­tle dis­grun­tled at my un­abashed en­thu­si­asm, think­ing she might not re­ceive her fair share.

Af­ter that we wanted the win­ter greens salad but they were out, so we got the Cae­sar in­stead. A de­con­structed take on the clas­sic, with grilled halves of ro­maine tossed in a warm gar­lic vinai­grette (in­fused with ba­con, we found out later). A touch sweet but bal­anced by the salti­ness of the shaved Parme­san and chopped slices of ba­con. The grill marks on the let­tuce gave the salad the rare qual­ity of deep flavour while re­main­ing re­fresh­inglt crisp and cool.

There was a brief pause as a ta­ble of women next to us sang Happy Birth­day to the birth­day girl as our en­trées made their way. Soon enough, the Chi­nese chicken was placed be­fore me. Like all of the other dishes, this went far beyond the menu de­scrip­tion.

Es­sen­tially, it was a roulade of chicken flavoured with or­ange and dusted with Chi­nese spices on the out­side. Slices of chicken sat on top of fried rice with cashew but­ter and chopped cashews as a gar­nish. All of the el­e­ments were tasty on their own, but the cashew but­ter was too pasty to blend with the rice. It could have been thinned out, to marry the flavours of the dish to­gether bet­ter.

The ribs, on the other hand, were slam­min’. One large Flint­stone-es­que piece of ten­der short rib with fries and one of the best coleslaws I have tasted in a while. Per­fectly sea­soned and bal­anced, it was thinly cut to give it a del­i­cate bite that kept its crunch.

Last on the list was the miso egg­plant. Served with mush­rooms, (tem­pura enoki, and pick­led han­shimeji), tofu and scal­lion, the egg­plant was cooked to just the right done­ness: soft but not mushy. The dashi (miso broth) was very nice, though the pickle from the mush­rooms be­gan to over­whelm it to­ward the end.

Fi­nally, we came to dessert. Of the three choices of­fered, we set­tled on two: a peanut but­ter candy bar and a churro.

The bar was rich, dense with but­ter, and though the peanut but­ter flavour was soft­ened, we could not fin­ish it. The in­cred­i­ble cof­fee ice cream on the side did man­age to cut the rich­ness some­what. The churro hit the spot; drip­ping with dolce de leche, it was su­per fresh, soft and warm. To­tal com­fort food.

Lean­ing back at the end of the meal, I was quite pleased, happy to have an­other in­ter­est­ing, hip and de­li­cious des­ti­na­tion to add to my grow­ing list of faves.

ALANA HUD­SON, SPE­CIAL TO THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR

The sushi na­chos were ad­dic­tive. I was hooked and had to stop my­self from hog­ging them from my com­pan­ion.

JOHN RENNISON, THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR

Nique: pre­cise with­out be­ing pre­cious, stylish yet fun.

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