Always an institution, Nicola’s has entered a new era of exuberant creativity under the leadership of chef Jack Hemmer. You can still get the old Italian classics, like the gnocchi or goat cheese salad, and they’ll be as good as ever, but the rest of the menu has blossomed into a freewheeling tour of modern American cuisine with an almost absurd eye for detail.
On a plate of short rib, for example, beside roasted vegetables, I noticed a bright green piece of romanesco, jumping out like a jewel on the plate. For the sake of its lovely color and hint of crunch, the kitchen steamed it separately from the other vegetables. This effort was for one bite in a dish that already had a dozen components. Any establishment paying this level of attention to detail—from the jewel-like candied slice of blood orange on the mascarpone cheesecake to the staff’s knowledge of how Ripasso wine is made—is going to put out special meals.
Traditional to avant-garde, everything is good at Nicola’s, but a particular nod must be given to Hemmer’s salads, which are feats of extraordinary inventiveness and skill. Between the perfectly nested ribbons of beets in the pickled beet salad or the balance of bitterness, funkiness, and creaminess in the endive and Gorgonzola salad, rarely have humble insalate been so intricately delicious. Food this complex could easily become muddled or precious, but there is, throughout, a focus on how each element comes together and how the dish as a whole will taste. If it has been a few years, you owe Nicola’s another visit. Order an old favorite, by all means, but make sure you try something new, too.
Best Damn Dish: Pickled Beet Salad at Nicola’s
With its tart apples, goat cheese mousse, and crunchy granola, chef Jack Hemmer’s pickled beet salad is a masterpiece of balance, both in its flavors and its composition.
1420 Sycamore St., Pendleton, (513) 721-6200, nicolasotr.com