April 18, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

In a Fix at Nix

Pickle tempers the sweetness of glazed cauliflower that gets stuffed into a Chinese bun.
Pickle tempers the sweetness of glazed cauliflower that gets stuffed into a Chinese bun.

          “Don’t let me come here again,” my friend Carlos cried toward the end of dinner at Nix. “I’ve eaten too much.” Carlos is not his real name. I’m shielding his identity in case he changes his mind. But I understand his distress. My two dinners at Nix have both ended with stretched elastic and painful surrender.

On the table: A paper flower,  a rolypoly votive, two bottles of water that arrive without comment.

           Nix is not the innocent celebration of vegetables it pretends to be. Is there any other exercise in vegetablism so decked out in cream, salt, sugar and quick frying? Not that I know of.  John Fraser has pumped up his verduratific leanings way beyond the dainties in his $120 seven-course vegetable tasting dinner at Dovetail or the carrot Wellington you couldn’t resist at Narcissa.

My pal doesn’t seem annoyed about the 3 oz. martini. He simple orders a second.

           This is the fully mature Fraser boldly unleashing root-and-herb-defiance. No agreeable guy or dame tagging along with a vegetarian mate or date at Nix can possibly complain he or she didn’t get enough to eat. Gluttony sneaks up on you here.

Did Mario Buatta design the Yukon potato fry bread “highly decorated?”

           “Shall I clear this?” the server asks.  I watch him reach for the last two pieces of the wondrously overwrought fry bread. On the menu it reads, “Yukon potato fry bread, “highly decorated.” Is that cute or is that too cute? Imagine Mario Buatta tricking out a fry bread, highly decorated indeed. Think about tiny cubes of potato in a sour creamy strudel-like formation with radish thins as a decorative camouflage exploited as a veggy.

           Of course, I don’t want the busser to take those last pieces away. But even I, who don’t always know when I’ve had enough, know it tonight. “Okay, take it. Take it. And then, please, cancel the pineapple dessert.”

Starting with tandoor bread and two or three dips might have been the beginning of our undoing.

           It is almost a repeat of that first meal in March when we had to flag down a waitress to cancel our last five dishes. An innocent threesome, we each ordered two dishes and then decided to add two dishes as if we were four. I suspect we didn’t count the tandoor bread and three dips we started with. The photos document the trail. Some are blurred. My notes on the menu are blotted with pea juice.

The almost-hard-boiled eggs in habanero cream under a layer of potato crisps continues to haunt me.

           Two-thirds of the way through the waves of dishes surfing in, we were all seized with an odd discomfort. A painful fullness. That came after the rich-as-Croesus egg salad in a puddle of habanero mayo cream topped with a potato chip crunch. My friends each ate half a half of an exquisitely, almost-hard-boiled egg. That left two whole halves for me and without shame, I ate them.

Tofu-skin pockets with butternut squash and tomatillo-pepita salsa is a brave also-ran.

           It was also after the tofu-skin pockets with butternut squash and tomatillo-pepita salsa. And after the pea green dumplings sprawling lumpenly in a buttery pool with maitakes and white asparagus.

           “I don’t think I can eat another bite,” I said. My friends agreed they were also feeling stuffed.  “Is it too late to cancel everything we haven’t eaten yet?” we ask the server. She smiles indulgently. The young women here in their perky black flowered pinafores are agreeable cheerleaders. “You might each want to order three dishes,” she had said. But she was not unreasonable. She agreed to arrest the march of shiitakes, the wok-fried farro with tofu and a poached egg, and, and, and whatever else we still had on order.

Potato balls and I’m not sure what – a new dish on the seasonally revolving menu.

           I’m not saying forget Nix. I’m not suggesting you cross it off your list or stop trying to figure out who in your Rolodex knows James Truman, who seems to be in charge of the farmhouse look here and could conceivably allocate a table for you before Memorial Day. Truman helped open Narcissa, too. He’s the one in charge of how the neon sign outside looks, the rustic sconces and the frocks the women wear -- the smart black cocktail dress on the floor-walkers, the unique print sheath on the sommelier, the country pinafore aprons on the servers. Of course, you covet one for cookouts this summer in the Hamptons.

Artistic producer James Truman decreed rustic country pinafores for servers. Photo: Sidney Bensimon.

           You will certainly want to try Nix. I’m just recommending prudence.

           Let me point out from experience that you don’t need the tandoor bread with all five spreads – two or three will do. The red pepper and walnut is my favorite; avocado, mint and curry, a lively second. The spiced eggplant is nothing exceptional. Watch out if the server touts the night’s special stuffed cauliflower dish (not making clear it’s more tandoor bread stuffed with rich melted cheese.) If you fall for that too, adding the must-have potato fry bread could kill you.

“I thought she said “stuffed with cauliflower, so what’s this rich ooze of cheese? More bread.

           I’m glad the cauliflower tempura arrives before my ignition switches off. Pickle tempers the sweetness of glazed florets you’re meant to stuff into Chinese steamed buns. A more disciplined friend only eats half of her bun, so I fold what remains over more cauliflower and finish it.

Baby carrots en papillote with Moroccan butter didn’t sound like much. I was mistaken.

           I didn’t expect anything memorable from baby carrots en papillote with Moroccan butter ordered by one of my companions. I was wrong about that. And I’m glad I didn’t give up before I had a chance to taste shiitake “cacio e pepe” with salsify and heirloom polenta. Very rich, but you might have guessed that.

Ribbons of jicama spiked with fresno chile and blood orange is my least favorite dish.

           I wish I could guide you to the best of the rest. In two visits I believe we cancelled some of the same dishes twice. Wide ribbons of jicama with fresno chile and blood orange is my least favorite option. I could easily have skipped the avocado carpaccio, too.

Of all the ways to say fried dough, here’s another: Nun’s puffs. With goat’s milk caramel dip.

           After cancelling five dishes that first evening and a longish pause to digest – the kitchen was slow that night -- we decide to try dessert. I don’t want candied olives in my Fuji apple sorbet, so I let my friend Lauren choose nun’s puffs. They turn out to be yet another way to fry dough and cover it with confectioner’s sugar to dip into a sticky, sweet sauce. In this case, goat’s milk caramel dip. On my next visit none of us even wanted to look at the braised pineapple we’d ordered ahead.

Who ordered this? Avocado carpaccio hides under an aggravated fluff of grated cheese.

           If you just came to town or were born yesterday, you might not know that Truman was once the editorial director of Condé Nast. He’s accustomed to minding an empire. Could Nix hatch into an empire? Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, is the primary investor. He has a national vision and might be seeking a new concept to break out after a few problems at Chipotle. Well, we’ll see.

           Nix gets its name from Nix v. Hedden, an 1893 Supreme Court decision that held under U.S. customs regulations, the tomato should be classified as a vegetable rather than a fruit. One summer when tomatoes were as fruity and fragrant as a great plum, blissfully unaware of Nix v. Haddon, I made tomato ice cream and tomato sorbet. My fussy friends were not impressed. I’m curious to taste what  Fraser can do with a tomato come summer.

72 University Place, between 10th and 11th streets. 212 498 9393. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 pm to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till 11:30 pm.  Closed Sunday. Lunch and brunch promised.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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