Back in 1980, the aesthetics of restaurant cool were still being defined. Corrugated surfaces, industrial-size pipes and minimalist decor were all brand newA. Nicola, a Silver Lake restaurant born that year, was an early exponent of the look. Seven years later (with some changes and some expansion), the place still feels easy and, in a modest way, up to date.
To celebrate their years in business--no small feat--they've updated the menu, terming it "American Regional plus ethnic specialties." Keeping their sure-fire appetizers such as calamari and ceviche (as well as their terrific Caesar salad), they've greatly expanded the number of first-course choices. The menu changes regularly, as much to reflect owner Larry Nicola's penchant for trying new things as to focus on seasonal produce.
If the look of the restaurant is cool, (and the feeling that sticks with me--it may be the bluish lighting--is of being at a summer camp underwater-theme prom) it is not one whit chilly. The food and the emotional tenor of the place are generous and warm, reflecting the affable owner-host. Nicola makes people feel good.
At one dinner several weeks ago, with a couple of American regional friends in tow, the food made us feel even better than that. "Semi-ecstatic," said the Kansas City native. (Understand that for a reserved Midwesterner, he meant great.)
So many appetizers sounded so tantalizing that we gave a number a whirl. Starting off with a heap of world-class calamari (which appeared with a brisk fresh salsa), we moved on to a perfectly balanced, garlicky soft-shelled crab. Scallop ceviche was delicate, the flavor clear and lime-like, and pretty, with it's fanned out avocado. (Platters look great here; decorated yes, but there is none of that mincing, precious stuff.)
Our Baltimore-born companion called the crab cakes "first-rate." Each of us agreed we were having the very best meal we'd had in months. The silky Salvadoran chicken tamale measured right up. (The next time we were there and tried three more appetizers, only the Nicola oysters were as good. And they, breaded like tempura and mixed with spinach, scallions and walnuts, were a lesson in the subtleties of crunch. The duck lasagna was bland, a one-note basil affair, and the cigarros del mar , mozzarella and roast duck wrapped in won-ton skins and deep fried, had no taste--or anything mar --at all.)
I couldn't count how many times we must have said "wait till you taste this dish," but I do remember that when our Kansas kid tasted the "Bowl of Gold" (yup, that's what they call this dish of black-eyed peas, toasted okra, ham hocks, collard greens and veal broth), he said, "Good as barbecue." This spectacular Nicola version stands right up to a grand cassoulet. The breast of moist, crisp-skinned grilled duck on a bed of leeks and chanterelles, served with a very good saffron rice, was scrumptious, too. I couldn't wait to come again.
Lightning did not strike twice. True, the Caesar was garlic-gorgeous and the oysters were fine, but everything else fell far short of night one. The spinach salad contained tasty goat cheese and bacon, but was dressed with an odd combination of grapefruit and anisette. Grilled mahi-mahi was nicely cooked, but the accompanying mango salsa was too sweet and just wrong. Baked sturgeon with tomato concasse was lifeless.
Still, the service was that fine combination of professional and pleasant, and the Martini Lounge (the Nicola bar on the other side of the pale blue brick wall, where you can have lunch during the day, appetizers at night and stay late for after-dinner drinks) is a friendly place to hang out. And desserts, made elsewhere, are worth the calories: Try the celadon-colored Key lime and the thick chocolate-pecan pies.
I'd say that cool Nicola's is still hot.
L.A. Nicola, 4326 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (213) 660-7217. Open for lunch Monday-Friday; for dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two (food only): $40-$70.