Picking St. Nix
What a colossal difference a second visit to a restaurant can make. See, my modus operandi as a critic is generally as follows: I pick a place I want to review, then I dine there at least twice, usually with guests, so I can nibble off their plates unsuspected by the management. Sometimes, I may stop by more than two times if there are other items I wish to sample. But usually, you can get a pretty good bead on a place during the initial visit. Or so I thought, prior to my experience with the Nix Supper Club, which opened at the beginning of October.
Nix is a comfy, quaint sort of place, just 10 tables, in a setting that resembles someone's living room. The floor is carpeted and the walls are painted a pleasant shade of peach. There's a small bar to the right of the entrance, and further on, a tall hutch with folksy, hand-painted birds all over it. A series of old postcard images of Phoenix in the '40s and '50s is hung to one side. Tables are draped in linen, and the lighting is soft. The cumulative effect is homey without being smothering.
Nix was named after the sobriquet for Nikita Johnson, the 11-year-old daughter of co-owner Stephen Johnson. Johnson as well as his business partner, Geof Gorman, and chef John Ramagli all have relatively impressive résumés in the industry, and so I went for the first time expecting great things. Alas, I ended up sampling all of the menu's weak links, which left me in a frame of mind not unlike Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
It wasn't that what I had was horrible, but it didn't live up to the promise of that fancy title "supper club" or the C.V.'s of the proprietors. For starters, my companion, the mah-velous Madame X, and I had the duck spring rolls and the Maryland crab cakes. Problem was, the spring rolls could pass for those you'd get at Pei Wei, and the little bits of duck therein might as well have been mystery meat, so lacking were they in the flavor of quackery. The crab cakes were good, not "crap cakes," like so many served in this town. However, I found them slightly bland, though I know there are some people who prefer them this way.
The entrees were what really made me want to croon à la Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?" Madame X had the herb-marinated chicken, which tasted like, well, chicken. There was nothing special about it. My Cajun shrimp and grilled scallops really ticked me off: three shrimp and three scallops encircling a small mound of risotto. How oddly nouvelle for an eatery promising "contemporary American comfort food." At least give us more of the risotto, which was delicious, by the way. Unfortunately, there was so little of it on my plate that I was actually gazing longingly at Whataburger franchises during the ride home.
I did enjoy the bananas Foster for dessert, which comes in a martini glass with the sautéed bananas drenched over vanilla ice cream. I was also impressed with the wine list and its affordability. Nix does regular wine-tastings on the premises, and the owners pride themselves on not gouging their customers for the juice of the grape, an admirable sentiment.
Still, it would take another trip to Nix, this time with my assembled Algonquin Clown Table of Judge Jeffrey, his fur-lovin' (in this weather) gal pal Brenda, that diehard dipsomaniac Mikey, and his main squeeze, the comely Clarissa, before I changed my tune.
The appetizers seemed to come from a different restaurant on this occasion. The shrimp cocktail consisted of four fresh, jumbo-size shrimp. That made up for a lack of oomph on the part of the cocktail sauce, which seemed almost like straight tomato paste. I was particularly infatuated with the goat cheese, tomato and avocado tower, molded like a terrine, the chopped avocado on the bottom, the tomatoey portion on top, and a delicate spread of goat cheese in between. Surrounded by red and blue tortilla chips, this "tower" or dip was perfume-sweet, almost like eating rose-water ice cream, and nearly as ambrosial.
I really must cry foul on Nix's lobster bisque, though, as it was served lukewarm, not piping hot, as is best. Twenty-yard penalty on this one, sirs!
But it's with the entrees that Chef Ramagli fired on our taste buds with both barrels. I was in a state of extended alimentary euphoria over the lamb chops brought to me on a bed of black wild rice with a small container of pomegranate syrup on the side. By themselves, the chops were incredibly tender and succulent, but with the pomegranate syrup, each morsel of baby sheep's flesh made me feel absolutely evil with gustatory delight. Moreover, the slightly salty, somewhat crispy wild rice offered an excellent counterpoint.
Mikey was equally gaga over his pan-seared salmon and couscous, with julienne veggies and an orange-flavored hollandaise atop the fish. A bite or three had me concurring, especially about the couscous, made with slivers of black truffles and oyster mushrooms. Why, Mikey had to wrestle his plate back from my gluttonous grasp! Elegant Clarissa allowed me a hunk of her filet mignon, cast-iron seared with five spice, and I must say that I've rarely savored a filet mignon so memorable. It was tender as it should be, and especially delectable because of the preparation.
Judge Jeffrey seemed to swallow his New York strip whole without offering me the least little bite! Liberal he may be for a jurist, but he's one ravenous bastard at the dinner table. Brenda the temptress allowed me a portion of her creamy Yukon Gold potatoes, grown in the garden just behind Nix, I'm told, and here whipped with the addition of Boursin cheese. Magnificent stuff.
We had a dessert orgy at meal's end, swapping several amongst us, including a cheesecake, a chocolate-Kahlúa mousse cake, a crème brûlée, and the aforementioned bananas Foster. The last two are actually made on the premises, so it's no surprise they're the best of the bunch. Overall, I would most certainly patronize Nix again, as the superlative items on the bill of fare outweighed the mediocre ones. And since this review will appear just prior to Xmas day, I can safely say that for one part of Phoenix, St. Nix has already arrived.
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