A good restaurant is, in many ways, a stage. The chefs, the wait staff, even the decor contribute to a great performance. So I’d like to think of my recent visits to Nios@917 as a being on hand for dress rehearsal — because, while many of the restaurant’s parts are polished, the entire production seems to lack direction.
One standout player is the restaurant’s decor. Nios fittingly occupies the site of an old theater, which has been transformed into a clubby, comfortable space with places for many moods. Near the front windows looking out onto Baxter Avenue, couches and cocktail tables invite loungers. The main dining area, a study in browns, brick and textured faux-cork, is dominated by a bar and tall shelves full of wine bottles. The kitchen is dramatically placed where the stage once was, allowing diners a view of chef Dave Nelson and his staff. Outside, a concrete patio with umbrella-topped tables lets diners enjoy both the air and a view of the Louisville Monument Co.
During my visits, service was polite and generally skillfull, although there were a few rough edges. The youthful staff could do better, I thought, in offering help with the Nios menu.
And the menu, star of any restaurant revue (or review, for that matter), is where the Nios directors need to exercise more control. The restaurant aims to be part of the "small plates" dining trend, a movement based on offering diners an array of dishes with smaller portions but broader selections. With roots in tapas houses, sushi bars and dim sum parlors, small plates have become big on the West Coast and in Europe — but Nios seems to be hesitant about totally committing to the concept.
The menu wanders the culinary world, from Asia through Europe and on to Latin America. It offers an impressive 21 small plates, along with five salads and seven main courses. On one visit, I tried to construct a meal from small plates; on a second, I went for a more traditional course structure. I found Nios’ small plates to be much bigger than I expected, and was given no idea from my server about exactly how much food I was in for. Not that I regretted having larger-than-expected portions on some dishes (though it was hard to save room for what followed). A standout was polenta toasts partnered with garlicky white beans on a spinach and orange salad ($11). The crusty cornmeal of the polenta wedges became assertive with flavor, well married with pepper and leeks. The combined textures of beans, greens and cornmeal pleasingly worked with the flavors, and the dish, arranged on a square plate, was very attractive.
Nios’ trio of satays ($14) presented paired skewers of beef, shrimp and chicken with rice and a peanut dipping sauce — more than enough for two people to share. The beef, marinated with star anise and other spices, was exceptionally tender and tasty. The shrimp were slightly undercooked, but I felt the chicken and shrimp served as a better platform to enjoy the sriracha-spiced vinegar and peanut sauce. The sauce seemed to compete with the spiced steak skewers, though it wasn’t a bother — they were just fine on their own.
Sauce was a problem with Nios’ tuna spring rolls ($8). The two large spring rolls were very sharable, nicely constructed with chunks of fish and shreds of cabbage contained in tender dough and drizzled with sesame oil. But the fresh, delicate flavors of the roll were completely overwhelmed by an orange-mustard sauce, its sweetness covering instead of converging with the rest of the plate. The Nios lobster and scallop ceviche ($12) was an excellent, if standard, presentation of the classic Latin American "citrus-cooked" seafood, with tart lime juice and a little fiery pepper enhancing the sweet, white flesh.
To my confusion, on another visit a highlight was a main dish of crispy garlic chicken ($18) similar in portion to "small" items like the satay. It was also a great example of how simply prepared dishes can be sublime. A boneless breast of chicken (with attached wing drumette) appeared with a few spears of asparagus and two dumplings. A simple sauce of chicken juices, garlic and tarragon enhanced the succulent meat and the tender asparagus. The only off-note was the too-gummy dumplings, which weren’t even improved by the wonderful garlic sauce.
I was looking forward to sampling Nios’ olive and bread salad ($7), which sounded great but disappointed me. A large square bowl of pitted green and black olives competed with cubes of bread and a few greens. The bread, too fresh and soft, was soaked in vinaigrette (crusty Blue Dog bread might be a better option). The cubes only added a layer of oily mushiness to the mound of olives dominating the dish. A few bites were plenty for me — I would have preferred fewer olives and perhaps (in season) some ripe tomatoes for a little contrast and color.
However, my salad plate of grilled leek with white beans ($8) was picked clean. This cool, zesty mix of frisee and beans with a garlicky dressing was a real pleasure on a warm evening. The pale, small "al dente" beans combined with the greens’ bitter crunch and the sweetly charred flavors of the grilled leek. The salad had such a nice balance and portion size that it left me wanting more — which I took as a good sign.
The risotto paella ($20) worked quite well. The rice, rich with liquid and hints of saffron, served as a base for a medley of separately prepared seafood and sausage. I felt this outdid some traditional one-pan paellas because the scallops, shrimp, mussels, squid and chorizo flavors harmonized with the rice in different ways with each bite. Sweet grilled scallops, spicy chorizo, a delicate, tender strip of squid — each offered its own reward along with the risotto.
For dessert, I sampled both profiteroles with apple butter and a Frangelico brownie with peanut butter mousse (both $6). Profiteroles, miniature cream puffs, are supposed to be a combination of airiness and chewiness, but the Nios version was, to be frank, dull — I never detected any hint of apple butter in the too-mushy puffs. But the brownie was a decadent treat — dense, moist chocolate topped with an airy yet unmistakably peanut-buttery mousse.
I applaud a chef trying out lots of ideas. However, I’d like to see Nelson unleash his creativity on even more, smaller stages, perhaps transforming the entire menu into small bites, be they cold, hot, salad or "main." If he can bring out the flavor and bring down the portions, Nios’ show could have a long and successful run.
If You Go
Nios@917, 917 Baxter Avenue, 456-7080. Open Monday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to midnight, and Friday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.