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At NICO Oysters + Seafood, stick to the the fruits de mer

Raw Appeal

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Last January, roughly six months after leaving his near decade-long post at Fish, Chef Nico Romo announced he would be launching his own venture in the spring. Spring turned to summer and the "Coming soon!" sign continued to tease — if not torment — anyone driving down Coleman Boulevard in Mt. Pleasant. In early November, however, the wait was finally over and NICO Oysters + Seafood opened at last.

As the name implies, the restaurant shines when it comes to raw seafood. NICO offers up to 12 daily varieties of oysters, as well as caviar, periwinkles, and even a Scotch Oyster ($14) which involves a glass of Bowmore 12, a single oyster du jour, and four-part instructions. Here ostreidae are clearly as much a passion as a product, and there is a small chapbook detailing the procurement process, with oyster farmers ranging from Beaufort to New Brunswick, Canada represented.

Location Details NICO
201 Coleman Blvd
Mt. Pleasant
Charleston, SC
(843) 352-7969
Dinner (Daily), Lunch (Fri.-Sun.)
French and Seafood

Focusing on the 'wood fired' menu, I started with the shrimp and periwinkle ($11), which finds six local shrimp surrounded by a garlic butter sauce thick with pureed parsley and tiny sea snails. Accompanied by three slices of baguette, the dish is rich and decadent, yet balanced by the fresh herb. I love this offering enough to give it the other half of my friendship necklace.

The meuniere mussels ($14), on the other hand, were forgettable. Also served with three slices of baguette, the mussels themselves were large and plump, yet defeated by the bland, boring broth in which they languished. Perhaps too much subtlety. Sure, there are times when we love the nuanced sensuality of 1940s film noir, but also times when we want to see something explode. Some garlic or lemon juice — not to mention a shell bowl — would be so very welcome.

Next up were the fried oysters ($14), which were similarly humdrum. Under-seasoned and overly browned, they weren't particularly helped out by the slightly bitter, lime-infused "NICO" aioli. Stick with the raw version instead.

Fire roasted fish - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Fire roasted fish

My dining companions had heard epic things about the pommes frites ($6), but in reality they arrived soggy. Accompanied by a camembert fondue, a warm bowl of melty cheese sauce arguably tastes good on pretty much anything, yet the net product wasn't nearly as spectacular as hoped.

In contrast, the side of champignon ($6.50) was worth every cent, providing a mix of sliced mushrooms beautifully braised with red wine and shallots.

NICO's renovated space is stylish and welcoming, albeit extremely dark. There's covered outdoor seating, and inside finds brick walls, wood tables, and large farmhouse chandeliers. A small bar area wraps around the partially open kitchen and the vibe is at once convivial and chic. The decision to open the ceiling above the main dining area is a bit puzzling, as the crisply painted exposed beams reveal a vast frontier of bumpy white spray foam insulation. I suppose one could convince themselves it looks like a freshly fallen blizzard, the sight of it gave me the heebie jeebies. Just don't look up.

Le grand plateaux includes oysters, clams, shrimp, crab, and lobster - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Le grand plateaux includes oysters, clams, shrimp, crab, and lobster

The very first thing our waitress recommended was the Chicken A L'americaine ($25,) gushing enthusiastically that it's "exactly like something your French grandmother would make." Chicken at a seafood and raw bar? Let's do it.

It's hard to know where to begin when considering this dish, except to say that if I had a French grandmother and she made this, let alone dubbed it American chicken, I would be left to conclude that she didn't hold me in very high regard. The small bird is partially deboned and butterflied, then topped with a layer of breadcrumbs. Sitting in a bland mustard sauce riddled with long pieces of pungent raw onion, the poultry itself was strangely smooshy and gray in color. Its small stature rendered much of the thigh and wing meat inaccessible in the sea of bones. Maybe confit it instead?

In an attempt to understand this approach, I found a recipe by the same name online, and it translated to involve a package of French onion soup mix tossed with breadcrumbs. By golly, this IS like something my grandmother (who late in life became a touch obsessed with drumsticks rolled in Shake 'N Bake) would have made. Hers wasn't any good though, and sadly, neither was this.

Similarly, the Pasta "Fruits De Mer" ($25) was equally touted — "it's like a fancy macaroni and cheese!" — but ultimately disheartening. Here, overcooked campanelle pasta is tossed with bechamel, peas, and bell peppers. Adorned with copious shrimp and scallops, it's then finished with melted Gruyere cheese. Although at first glance the scallop portion seems generous, it quickly becomes apparent that they've been thinly sliced, rendering the aura of bounty a mere illusion. In both taste and texture, the dish is reminiscent of old school tuna noodle casserole, yet less satisfying.

Service is friendly, but clumsy, with an "every man for himself" vibe: Cheese-laden foods arrive cold, while only one out of four waters is refilled. Likely just a growing pain, this is easily fixed.

Meanwhile, having developed a theory that cream and cheese are maybe not the best companions for seafood, the fire roasted fish (MP/$28 in my case) beckoned. The swordfish arrived tender and flavorful, exquisitely cooked, and perfectly seasoned. Accompanied by sliced bell peppers and fennel, as well as a sweet red wine butter sauce, it's a well-balanced dish prepared as only the youngest-ever U.S. member of The French Culinary Academy and Master Chefs of France can.

The wait is finally over, and NICO Oysters + Seafood is a welcome addition to the Mt. Pleasant dining scene. Although there are some flops amongst the triumphs, if raw seafood and scotch are your pleasure, it should not be missed.

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