Just 20 minutes into our second meal at nika, the table suggested a medieval-style feast. When our server arrived with a plate of grilled octopus, the table was so full that he paused and stammered, “I’ll just put them … um ….” My friend and I stopped eating to rearrange plates and glasses — grilled escarole salad, braised artichokes, curls of prosciutto, a rosé and a cucumber-lychee-mint spritzer — and make room.
A meal at nika can come with its spatial challenges. The menu, both drinks and food, is encyclopedic, and it’s hard to rein yourself in, at least on a first or second visit. The menu is inspired by a swath of sunny countries — Italy, France, Morocco — and many of the dishes, such as the tender, spicy octopus, duck confit and spice-rubbed lamb, sound irresistible.
For 21 years, this subterranean space was the home of Three Tomatoes Trattoria. While this mini-chain still encompasses a trio of restaurants — in Williston, Rutland and Lebanon, N.H. — owners Jim Reiman and Robert Meyers closed and dramatically transformed their Burlington location last winter.
Deciding to focus on a Mediterranean theme was ballsy. The word itself may confuse some people: With 21 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, what does that even mean? Was it just a fancy way to repackage the Three Tomatoes brand?
Maybe, but when you consider the chef, the word “Mediterranean” takes on real meaning. Dennis Vieira — who headed the Red Clover Inn in Mendon for three years before coming to nika — has spent a chunk of his professional life across the pond. Vieira grew up in what he calls a “very ethnic” Portuguese neighborhood outside Fall River, Mass. He pursued the culinary track in vocational high school because neither welding nor auto mechanics appealed, he says. Better yet, all of the school’s girls were in the program. “I thought, OK. I’m going to flirt my way through high school,” recalls Vieira, dead serious.
But cooking proved to be more than a flirtation. Vieira went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America and, after graduation, made his way to northern Tuscany and Paris, then back to Massachusetts, and eventually to Woodstock, Vt. There he cooked alongside Jason Merrill at the Jackson House Inn and with Ted Fondulas at Hemingway’s before taking the reins at the Red Clover Inn.
Vieira says he and the owners “changed everything” about Three Tomatoes. Though the restaurant has the same footprint, the white tile floor is the only vestige of its former décor. The space is now dimmer and sexier, with exposed-stone walls along one side of the dining room echoed by walls of rough cork throughout the space. A chandelier and pendant lights cast coppery illumination, which plays off the wood-fired oven in the open kitchen. Bottles of wine cover a back wall. It’s a place you want to retreat to on a wintery day — or a steamy summer one.
Especially dramatic is the alcove bar, with a slightly louche look (the television notwithstanding) and a lengthy drink list. At nika — which also bills itself as a wine bar — there are 30 wines by the glass. The intriguing choices include Aglianico, Falanghina, Godello, three sparklers and — hallelujah — two rosés. (The Sicilian Cantine Barbera, made from Nero d’Avola grapes, is a juicy, versatile friend to much of the food here.) Six draft lines pour some decent beer — think Fiddlehead Brewing Company IPA and Allagash White — and an eclectic range of bottled beers, from Lake Placid Craft Brewing Company Ubu Ale to Pabst Blue Ribbon and Peroni.
The cocktails seem most in step with the lounge-in-the-sun Mediterranean ethos, drawing as they do on herbs, local spirits and fresh-squeezed juices. A nutty, frothy Amaretto Sour seems a holdover from chillier weather, but drinks such as the huge, ruby-red Greek Margarita (blended with blood-orange juice) and the Santorini Sunrise (a refreshing blend of Campari, local vodka, grapefruit juice and fresh mint) seem designed for long spells of people watching at a table on Church Street.
They’re also good matches for many of the smaller plates, which make up most of the menu. On both of our visits, our table was quickly blanketed with salads, crudo, skewers and “boards,” i.e., plates of such items as silky prosciutto ($5); whipped ricotta ($5); salty, marinated olives ($3); and a dollop of garlicky hummus or chunky, smoky eggplant dip served on romaine leaves ($4 each). While the dips were tasty enough, they were outdone by the artichoke barigoule ($4) — two squishy, braised artichoke halves served in a fragrant, buttery broth. A basket of Red Hen Baking Company bread cost an additional $3.
While the boards allowed us to get our antipasto on, I favored the crudo and warm appetizers, most of which had layers of mysterious, warming spices; showers of salty, aged cheese; or just a kiss of char.
The grilled escarole salad ($8), for instance, elevated this bitter, underused green to stardom: Fired into submission, it was sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and doused in what tasted like high-quality olive oil, a hint of orange juice and herbs. I ended up gnawing on the charred escarole heart rather than leave anything behind.
The delicious grilled, Portuguese-style octopus, accompanied by sliced potatoes and spiced with piri piri peppers, is based on a recipe from Vieira’s grandmother. His personal touch is leaves of arugula as well as the addition of small black bits so concentrated they taste almost like bacon but are actually dehydrated olives. The dish exemplified how low-simmering heat can enliven food without overwhelming delicate New England palates.
Also praiseworthy were three dates stuffed with almond paste, wrapped in prosciutto and fired. For $6, it was an addictive mashup of sweetness, salt and fat, like a higher power of bacon-salted caramels. A trio of oversized meatballs ($7) was composed of velvety, falling-apart, house-ground pork slathered in a bright-red sauce. A skewer of charred shrimp ($10), sprinkled with chile oil, lime juice and parsley, was toasty and tart.
More complicated was the yellowtail crudo ($11), one of three raw-seafood plates on the menu. The kitchen layered crispy garlic, basil oil and fried chile peppers over the fish. The peppers were novel and resembled saffron, but the fish was cloaked in multiple layers of flavor — fewer would have been better.
A few other dishes were slightly problematic: We spit out bits of shell from our oysters-on-the-half; and, though the flavor of the asparagus soup ($6) ably captured the season, its consistency grew too thick as it cooled. While the chewy, thin pizza crusts were topped with novel proteins such as yellowfin tuna and pork belly, the variation we had — with house sausage, mozzarella and herbs ($15) — was decent but forgettable, especially compared with other, more imaginative plates.
Entrées at nika are slightly larger versions of the small plates; on our two visits, my friends and I tried just four of them. Nika’s steak frites consisted of tender, peppery petite tender steak — so juicy it was surely marinated before firing — topped with tangy salsa verde. Along with a generous handful of crispy shoestring fries, it was a deal for $18.
Another favorite was the pillowy ravioli ($17), stuffed with fava beans and ricotta salata and drizzled with slivered mushrooms, puckery pickled scallions and mint. The “crispy” duck confit ($16) wasn’t quite crispy, but had the deep flavors of a long cure. Served on a bed of bouncy white beans and bitter wilted greens, it was a solid supper.
Least successful was the branzino ($18 for a half-portion of one filet), a tender white fish not seen much in these parts. It had a nicely crisped skin, but the filet tasted so fishy that, if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was mackerel. A pool of bland broth didn’t do the dish any favors, either.
That was one of very few negatives on this otherwise winning menu. Another was the olive-oil pound cake ($7), which was intriguing but lacking in personality. Dessert salvation came on another plate: a feather-light, barely sweet, white-chocolate panna cotta ($6) topped with frizzled mint and jiggling in a puddle of grapefruit jus. Heaven.
Nika is beginning lunch service this week, with a roster of sandwiches, smoky skewers, salads and other small plates. I hope those outside tables are big enough for our next visit.
nika, 83 Church Street, Burlington, 660-9533. nikavt.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Fire Down Below."