First, an apology. I once again have to rely on the photos of others to do the visual work for me. But this time, it’s not my fault. My wife and I were late in arriving and it was raining, which prohibited any good outside shots of the new restaurant, Nisi Estiatorio.
However, if pictures are your thing, I highly recommend a visit to Nisi’s site, which features a beautiful rolling photo gallery of interior, exterior and food shots. I refer to it often, and you should too.
While I don’t want to get too bogged down in the online world, the website does provide a good lead-in to the restaurant’s impressive design sense. Neither too stuffy, nor over-the-top gaudy (always a risk with New Jersey “fine dining”), the dining room is invitingly simple and open. It’s rare that my wife and I notice the decor, but it is to Nisi’s credit that we both complimented the physical design as sophisticated and not overly-showy.
But enough with the prologue… let’s talk about the eats!
In case you haven’t figured it out already, Nisi is a Greek restaurant (although most press uses the new, catch-all phrase, “Mediterranean”). They serve a combination of the recognizable stuff (spanakopita, baklava), some more traditional but rarely seen dishes, and several modern twists and inventions.
After a cleansing amous bouche (a small piece of fish lightly dressed in oil and citrus and veggies), my wife and I looked for an appetizer to share. As soon as I saw the Keftedes (Mini meatballs of house ground lamb, beef, trahana, yogurt, garlic and apricot dip) on the menu, I knew my vegetarian wife would have to look elsewhere for an appetizer. Thanks to a gracious, in-depth menu review with Executive Chef John Piliouras, she chose Manouri Sesame (Crispy sesame crusted manouri cheese, raisin, pine nut spoon sweet).
The meatballs were fantastic – rich, but not too rich, with a nice meaty flavor. The ground lamb had me reminiscing about a Middle Eastern dish called Kibbi that my great aunt makes frequently. I maybe would have wanted a little more garlic and apricot flavors in the yogurt dip (it seemed like plain yogurt to me), but I was otherwise quite satisfied. The manouri was also good, though more of a surprise in the flavor department. We were both impressed by the subtle sweetness of the dish and interesting texture of the cheese in particular. It almost tasted like a dessert, but not quite.
While waiting for our main courses (both fish plates, a specialty), we were provided a small sampling of two other signatures dishes. The first – Garides me Orzo a la Ouzo (wild shrimp in a spicy ouzo tomato sauce with orzo pasta) – was something we, as big pasta and tomato fans, should have loved. And my wife did love it. While the shrimp was cooked well, and the sauce was savory, I, however, found it to be a bit plain. Maybe a little more spice could have made the difference.
The second tasting – Ktenia Kataifi (Sea scallop wrapped in pastourma and kataifi, kalamata vinegar reduction) – was by far the most enjoyable dish I had at Nisi. The scallop was big, fresh and perfectly cooked. The flavor of the pastourma (a Greek bacon of sorts) was interesting but not overwhelming, and wrapping it in kataifi (shredded, crispy phyllo usually used with baklava) gave it a really interesting texture. And of course, with the wife not eating meat, I was free to gobble down every last bite.
By the time we got to the entrees, our stomachs were almost full. We didn’t come anywhere close to finishing either of these dishes, but we got enough of a taste to judge. For my dish, I went off the menu for the Arctic Char special. Similar to salmon in many regards, this less oily fish was served perfectly cooked with crispy skin left on, sitting atop stew-like concoction of cannelloni beans, vegetables, and a light broth. I enjoyed the dish very much, although I feel like I’ve had a variation on it several times before. I’m always a fan of beans, and the fish was certainly hearty enough and flavorful enough to get a big thumbs up from me.
In some way, however, I feel like I missed the boat. Nisi’s bread and butter is prepared whole fish. You can even pick out the exact fish you want to eat from the fresh fish display (almost alter-like in appearance) that sits prominently in the dining room. My wife did not take them up on the opportunity to choose the actual fish, but she did order one: the Lavraki (Mediterranean white sea bass; mild in flavor). I will make the review as simple as the preparation: delicious. With only a little oil, lemon and light spices, the fish was perfectly flavorful and, if a white fish can be called this – succulent.
Even though, by this point, we already had a doggie bag wrapped up, we were charmed into getting dessert. My wife wouldn’t leave without the Baklava (layers of toasted almonds, white chocolate, amaretto syrup) and they threw in another specialty for good measure. Unfortunately, the baklava was a major disappointment. In deviating from the traditional presentation (golden brown diamonds filled with sticky and sweet), something was lost. Not only was it difficult to get through the too-many layers of phyllo, but the filling was bland and forgettable.
On the other hand, our sample of Krema Kataifi (layers of shredded phyllo, orange pastry cream, dark chocolate and raspberries) was much more successful. In this cylindrical take on a cream pie, the phyllo served as an interesting crust, with the cream, dark chocolate and rasberry nicely balancing out on top. Although it seemed to be more of an American dessert, it proved more satisfying than the traditionally Greek baklava.
If you made it down this far, congratulations! I will take mercy on you, fearless reader, and present my final notes in a more digestible form:
- The service was spectacular. You’d be lucky to get our server, William, who provided several wine recommendations, as well as menu explanations.
- The food is well-price for what it is. However, it is not by any means the “neighborhood joint” that you would frequent on a weekly basis (unless you’re also the type to frequent the Porsche dealership across the street).
- Again, I was grateful for the opportunity to sample a more diverse selection of food and to talk with Chef Piliouras, who has taken some chances with the menu and helped put together a fine establishment.
In summary: check out the website, make a reservation and have yourself a night at Nisi. It’s worth it.