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December 17, 2013

Alice Eats: Family-Style Sunday at nika

Food-nika83 Church Street, Burlington, 660-9533

I was first introduced to family-style dining when I visited Pennsylvania Dutch country as a kid. Sharing a table with overweight Southern tourists tearing into my dumplings and shoofly pie wasn't my idea of acceptable dining, even at age 8.

Recently, I've had to get over my heebie-jeebies for the term. Luckily, in Vermont, it means only that you have to share with your own party, and from Misery Loves Co.'s meat-and-three suppers to roasted chicken Sundays at Guild & Company, I'm loving the trend.

Earlier this fall, nika introduced its own version of the concept with three courses of well-thought-out Mediterranean fare for $20 a person. And it's not just snack-size portions, either.

It's all part of a new set of deals available at the Church Street restaurant: On Mondays, restaurant and bar employees get 20 percent off their meals, along with $5 wine and $4 draught beer. Tuesday, every pizza on the menu is $10, including upscale specialties such as a pie topped with lemon-dill swordfish, fried capers and olives. On Wednesday, Flights & Bites night means $10 for a flight of three wines and $15 for six small plates — $20 for both.

IMG_6989They're all a great value, but I was particularly attracted by spending a snowy Sunday night ensconced in the warm, brick-and-cork-covered underground restaurant.

We were quickly presented with slices of potent sourdough bread and a small plate of fruity olive oil. But before I could finish my first slice, our server brought the first course: four good-sized beef skewers.

A normal person would have taken half home for lunch the next day. But I am not normal. The sweet, peppery charred onion jam; the light marinade — I just couldn't resist that steak on a stick, even if parts of it were disappointingly tough.

IMG_6991Strangely, my favorite part of the dish was the tangy arugula underneath the meat. The kitchen at nika definitely has a way with a salad.

At the restaurant's soft opening, my favorite dish was an arugula salad with sultanas, espelette pepper, carrot vinaigrette and grilled halloumi. The spices and mix of exotic flavors knocked my socks off.

Though executive chef Dennis Vieira wasn't in the kitchen on Sunday, a similar touch with salads evidenced itself with the next course, a deceptively simple mix of baby greens, pickled turnips and blue cheese.

The liquid on the turnips had a light wash of aromatic spice along with the pickling acid. It lent the same to the whole salad, along with the light vinaigrette that dressed the greens. The creamy-but-pungent wallop of the cheese was just another interesting, fun-to-eat note.

IMG_6994We were startled at the size of the entrée. Really, all that chicken just for us?

But we were thrilled. The skin was crisp and the meat tender and full of chickeny flavor. But it was almost an afterthought next to the sides.

There was the sweet grin of roasted delicata squash sitting with the chicken. On on side, a supple combination of leeks and carnival squash sang with butter and thyme.

The mashed potatoes were the highlight, though. The smooth-but-viscous purée benefited from a dose of dairy fat, of course. But it was just a touch of truffle oil that made them so delightful that my mouth is watering even now. And I usually don't like mashed potatoes.

And that is how, for just $5 more than the average Alice Eats cut-off, my party of two left nika on Sunday night in a glorious haze of overstuffed joy.

Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to [email protected].

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