The cards for free wine flights from NIOS Restaurant at the Muse Hotel had been sitting on my desk since the NYC Wine & Food Festival just waiting to be used. After not spending any one-on-one time with my good friend Katie for a while I suggested we use the wine flights and check out some of Chef Massimo De Francesca's culinary creations. I made a reservation for 2 in the bar at 9:00pm for Friday night.
Expecting only to have share some appetizers and the wine flights I came to NIOS hungry but not expecting to take on a three-course meal. We were offered the Pre-Theatre Prix Fixe Menu and while we were debating sharing some of the appetizers from cleverly named "Act I" of the menu Katie and I decided too many things sounded delicious so we went for the $42 Prix Fixe. Katie chose the Smoked Duck for her starter and I selected the Calamari.
The calamari was inventively coated with cornmeal as opposed to breadcrumbs served with a subtle yuzu aioli. Perfectly fried to be golden but not brown, tender on the inside, the tentacles were particularly delectable. My appetizer was crunchy counterbalanced by the silky aioli and served at the perfect temperature.
Katie's smoked duck came served with frisée, figs, wild mushrooms and thinly sliced manchego cheese. I was lucky enough to be able to taste some of the duck from her plate-- of course you would expect me to try the duck! Delicately cured by smoking, the duck breast had that creamy layer of preservative fat. The finely cut duck looked like turkey bacon but had much more complex flavors than anything out of a Jennie-O package! I can just imagine what all the elements on her plate would have tasted like together.
"Act 2" came with scenes of Roasted Chicken and a steaming bowl of Garganelli Bolognese. My roast chicken was finished to a tender caramel realization- served sliced. The dish was served with a tangy pepper and sliced grilled zucchini salad. My favorite part of this plate was the succulent creamed corn the chicken was served atop. I made sure to finish every kernel. A true revelation, this corn was sweet, popping-fresh and simply irresistible. 10 hours later I was still thinking about it.
Katie's entrée came out topped with diced fresh mozzarella and basil. I cannot speak to the flavor of her meal, as it was the one item of hers I did not let my fork dip into! The pasta looked thick and satisfying.
At this point all but two of the six glasses of red and white wines from our flights were finished off and it was time for dessert. My weakness for flourless chocolate cakes/soufflés stepped in and discouraged my palate from selecting any of the other tempting offerings in the final "Act" of the evening. I was happy to see Pumpkin Mousse, the wonderful taste NIOS shared at the Grand Tasting of the NYCWFF. I encouraged Katie to order it for herself but we were disappointed when we were told they were out. Katie went with the trio of sorbets in Mango, Lemon, and Raspberry.
The Flourless Chocolate Cake was served molten with delicate dollops of whipped cream and a halved ripe red strawberry snowily sprinkled with powdered sugar. Rich and decadent-- just the way flourless chocolate cake is meant to be.
Katie's cold trio of sorbetti was served in a boat shaped dish. Each flavor unique and sweet. Favorites were the lemon and raspberry.
When all the cake and wine was gone and we were getting ready to leave I asked our waiter to have the manager, Peter Berntsen, come to the table so I could thank him for the wine flights that he gave to my mother and me at the Festival. When I told him how pleased I was to see the pumpkin mousse made it on to the menu he suggested that the sous chef had probably made more mousse during dinner and if so that he would bring us out a taste. Turns out the sous chef had indeed made more mousse during dinner and it was just as luscious as I remembered it being in October. A seasonal cocktail NIOS has been serving is made with warmed in-house-made cider with a topping of the mousse. I told Peter I was disappointed Chef Massimo had already left for the evening (we asked if he might come out to the table when dessert arrived). Chef Massimo had headed over to Silver Leaf Tavern which he and Peter also run together. I will have to check it out sometime.
The experience at NIOS was more than I could have hoped for. Chef Massimo is serving truly sophisticated American cuisine made with a close attention to detail and flavor profiles, and inventive pairings. With a mind on the season and only serving aseasonal items still as fresh as can be (like the corn) Chef Massimo is painting plates using a palate of fresh bright elements.
Unfortunately due to the seductive lounge atmosphere I did not want to crack the mood with flashes from my camera-- alas no photos here. If you find yourself in Manhattan and around Times Square and hungry I would definitely recommend stopping in to NIOS for signature cocktails, small plates, or the prix fixe. I will be back. I still need to try Chef Massimo's (who is Canadian and Italian in background) suite of poutine.