I have a love/hate relationship with wine bars.
On the one hand, I love a good one. Give me a glass of something silky and bold, a plate of nibbles, and a comfy seat where I don't have to read lips to hold a conversation, and I'm as happy as a paparazzo outside the LA courthouse.
But these days, the term "wine bar" is bandied about so frequently, it's lost its meaning. Too often it's just a marketing ploy to encourage folks to frequent the bar of a restaurant that doesn't have a liquor license.
So when Nua opened as a restaurant and wine bar, I was suspicious. And rightfully so: though the wine list is long and esoteric, it's more restaurant than wine bar (and they've since dropped the term from their website). But I've forgiven them for hopping on the bandwagon because the food is utterly superb.
Chef Anna Bautista takes her cues from the Mediterranean, hopscotching from Provence to Andalucia to Italy, and the laidback charm those places are famous for has rubbed off on the four-month-old restaurant. On two of our visits, we made a reservation at the last minute -- I'm talking 4:30 pm on Saturday for a 7:30 table that night -- and on the third we changed the time. (Twice. What can I say? I'm indecisive.) Every time they were accommodating, and even sat us early.
Nua is clearly cultivating a neighborhood vibe, and when the weather permits, they fling open the front windows accordion-style to better channel the energy of their North Beach surroundings. The comfortable interior is what I'd call retro-modern, with color-blocked orange and cream leather banquettes, and shades of cool blue, orange, and honey-brown throughout. The staff is friendly, they split plates and glasses of wine without being asked if they know you plan to share, and they're knowledgeable about the wine list. On each visit, we enjoyed unfamiliar wines, like a Spanish Crianza from Bierzo to a white wine from Greece. My only quibble with the wine service is that the pours were on the small side our first two visits, but by the third they'd normalized.
The food, however, is outstanding, and it's why Nua has become my new favorite restaurant. Each meal began with a small plate of foccacia bread and a pool of golden-green olive oil. The menu is loosely divided into small and large plates so you can go the appetizer-entree route, or graze on a series of small plates (though the waitstaff doesn't explicitly advertise that option).
We ordered the sardines escabeche ($10) twice. Two meaty slabs of fish were arranged on a landscape of crisp Blue Lake green beans, miniature cauliflower florets, sweet pickled shallots, and currants. The sardines tasted light and fresh, and the dish teetered pleasantly between crisp and soft, tart and sweet, surf and earth.
We also ordered the side of roasted cauliflower with capers, pine nuts, and parsley ($5) each time. If you aren't a cauliflower fan, a bowl of this will change your mind. Roasting caramelizes and crisps up the tiny white florets, and the zesty dressing of olive oil, capers, and parsley makes them positively addictive.
Initially I balked at ordering the endive salad with white peaches, blue cheese, and hazelnuts ($9); it just sounded humdrum. But one bite changed my mind. The peaches were Platonic examples of their species -- sweet, juicy, floral, and full-flavored. There was just enough champagne-tarragon vinaigrette to match the bracing blue cheese and bitter endive.
The piquillo peppers ($9) we ordered on visit two were stuffed with a whipped salt cod and potato brandade, flash-fried, and served with a sauce of garlic, shallots, and parsley as well as some frilly frisee fronds. They were good, but they didn't get my tail wagging as much as other things did.
The Parisian herbed gnocchi ($14) melted in my mouth, and the baby artichokes and mushrooms created an earthy stew around them. The best part about the gambas al ajillo ($11) weren't the plump shrimp, but the fiery broth they were bathed in. When the prawns were gone, I used the foccacia fingers to soak up the robust juices.
Housemade merquez sausage offset with a cucumber, fennel, and tomato salad ($13) tempted us on the first visit, and I loved the contrast of hot and cold layered within the dish. But the veal and pork albondigas ($8) may have edged it out as my favorite meat dish. The meatballs were soft but held their shape, and the flavor was so clean and subtle that I could almost taste the milk fed to the little calf. The almond bread sauce was a revelation -- no tomato to strongarm the delicate morsels.
Like the small plates, entrees are lighter than they are heavy, and bursting with flavor. A recent seafood risotto with corn ($20) tasted of summer, while the quail
was accented with a plucky plum sauce and crisp green beans. Though portions were generous, neither left us feeling like we'd overeaten.
The blueberry fromage blanc tart ($7.50) was a light, fresh way to end the meal, but it was the butterscotch pot de creme ($7.50) we found ourselves oohing and aahing over time after time. Unlike its beloved Zuni cousin, this is a plain pot de creme, flecked with vanilla and covered in a layer of rich, supple butterscotch sauce. The creaminess of the custard is the perfect canvas for sweet butterscotch, though they ought to think carefully about the cookies served alongside. The almond cookie complimented the butterscotch beautifully, but the rich chocolate brownie battled the sweeter pot de creme all the way.
At Nua, the food isn't flagrantly experimental, but it is flawless. The wine list is full of surprises, the staff is easy-going, and the atmosphere is pleasant. No matter what you call it, that's my favorite kind of place.
Note: This review was based on 3 anonymous visits.
550 Green Street at Columbus
Open 7 nights a week