INTERESTING, HIP AND DELICIOUS
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.
The sushi nachos were addictive. I was hooked and had to stop myself from hogging them from my companion.
Nique: precise without being precious, stylish yet fun.